A heavy nettle hero

If Professor Ray Harwood has his way, we'll all be wearing T-shirts and bikinis made from stinging nettles. Oliver Bennett finds out why
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The Independent Online

When Ray Harwood toils in his Leicestershire allotment, he takes particular care with his nettles. Despite risking multiple stingings and abrasions, he tends to them with his secateurs as though they are rare orchids.

"Everybody there laughs at me when I'm weeding my nettles," he says as he picks the burrs from his trousers, the result of a recent session. "They think it's just a weed. But they're worth their weight in gold."

Harwood believes that the future lies in the common stinging nettle, urtica dioica. As professor of the textile engineering and materials research group at Leicester's De Montfort University, he is involved in the first contemporary British project to develop nettles as a fabric. It's called Sting - Sustainable Technologies in Nettle Growing - and was started earlier this year with funding from the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and its agent, the Central Science Laboratory (CSL). If his work proves successful, we may all be wearing nettle T-shirts in ten years' time.

The name was coined by Harwood's colleague and soon-to-be wife Jane Wyatt. "I love a nice acronym," says Wyatt, who clearly has some publicity nous, unlike her fiancé who prefers a more sober approach. As Harwood repeatedly insists, his is a serious project that concerns a good deal more than "gimmicky fashion items".

Which is, of course, exactly how nettle fabric has been marketed so far. This year the Italian fashion house Corpe Nova introduced various nettle-related products, including jeans with nettle yarn that were a huge hit at Selfridges. Japanese fashion buyers have bought all the nettle yarn they can find. And even Harwood's own department has played its part in the stinger vogue; Wyatt's student Alex Dear produced (and subsequently modelled) a pink bikini made of nettle fabric. The design was first shown at the non-food crops showcase at the Royal Show in Stoneleigh, Warwickshire. "A slightly hairy fibre that's not terribly comfortable when it's next to your skin," was Dear's verdict, but her garment did make the point that you can wear pants that started life as common stingers.

Harwood doesn't want nettle fashion to be just a flash in the pan. "The point is that nettles have to be made into a commodity," he says. "Fashion gimmicks don't employ people." He also believes that nettles could represent work as well as textiles, and could help revive Britain's rural economy.

"I was sceptical about nettles at first," he says. But his interest grew in the mid-1990s when his team started the revive the use of flax and hemp. "No one's got hemp to the quality we've made," says Harwood, holding up a great bundle of the stuff, "but it's difficult to regulate its growth." Unlike nettles, which are already well established as a viable, and legal, cash crop. Nettle soup is a hedgerow treat, while Cornish Yarg cheese is one of several that come wrapped in dried nettles. A delicious nettle tortellini is available in Italy. And that's not counting nettle teas and cordials; wines and beers; shampoos and conditioners.

The stinger is becoming known as a bit of a wonder plant, and has been used to treat prostate disease, allergies and arthritis. There's even a national "Be Nice to Nettles" week. At this point I have to ask the billion dollar question: how do they get rid of the sting? Harwood replies with the air of someone for whom this particular enquiry grew tiresome years ago. "You cut them and dehydrate them, the pressure goes, so there's no sting." So, you can wear your nettle underpants without fear. Instead, Harwood wants to talk about the potential of nettle fabric as a commodity, and, most importantly, the size of the plant - an interest inspired by Interface Fabrics, a company that produces industrial chair coverings. "The taller the nettle, the stronger the fibre," says Harwood.

I try to imagine a field full of stingers waving in the breeze: bushy deep-green plants six or seven feet high, planted in rows a couple of feet apart and attractive to wildlife such as butterflies and voles. Apparently, there's already a willing army of farmers ready to turn their land over to the stinger. Harwood says that he has two lined up already, and at the Royal Show received enquiries from another 20 who were all looking for something different to grow. "Farmers are very inquisitive, but what they need is a consistent nettle - hardy, tall-growing, perennial," says Sting's research fellow, the plant scientist Russell Sharp.

So why do we need nettle cloth at all? The research is part of a long-term investigation by the European Union into alternative crops that farmers can grow to stop them overproducing food. "Nettles grow in most parts of Europe," says Harwood. "They hate drought so they will grow in rainy areas that aren't suitable for other crops, such as western Scotland." Harwood adds that the desire to explore the worth of nettles is also driven by the world's over-reliance on cotton. "At the moment we produce about 20 million tons of fibre a year and 18 million tons of it is cotton," he says. "It needs special hot conditions and comes from countries such as India, Pakistan, China and Sudan. Cotton is still the most worn fibre in the world and global demand is increasing, particularly in the developing countries." But cotton is not environmentally friendly (despite being a natural fibre). Its cultivation accounts for 20 per cent of the world's pesticides, and also uses chemicals that arise from oil production. "And as we know, oil is becoming more expensive," he adds.

Nettle wear is therefore a greener option, and has something of a history. Before the 1660s cotton wasn't used in great quantities. Flax and wool were the main textiles, and nettles were an alternative. "There's a lot of anecdotal evidence about wild nettles being used," says Wyatt. "For instance, Elizabeth I slept in a 'nettle bed', which we think means the textile covering rather than the stuffing." Napoleon's army is thought to have been clad in nettles, and the plant was frequently used to make tablecloths and sheets in Scotland, where the term "nettlecloth" became a catch-all term for any fine material.

However, the nettle's finest hour arrived during the First World War. "Britain and the US controlled the whole of the cotton industry," says Harwood. "We didn't supply the Germans, so there's some evidence that they used nettles for making things such as sandbags, straps, rucksacks and harnesses." The same thing happened during the Second World War, when cotton shortages saw nettles used to make parachutes.

Sting has already looked into the research conducted at the Botanic Institute in Hamburg by Herr Beidermann, the father of modern nettle cultivation, between the 1920s and the 1950s. His work was continued by a successor called Gisela Presling, who retired this year. Alas, she has not yet shared her nettle know-how.

Still, the Leicester research team are powering ahead. Although Harwood has German plants in his allotment, he's trying to successfully cultivate a British version that will trounce the competition. Truly, he and his team are grasping the nettle.

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