Grasping the nettle

A shirt made from stinging nettles? No, really: cloth made from the weed could provide a homegrown and environmentally-friendly alternative to cotton. Kate Ravilious reports

Most of us try to avoid stinging nettles, but soon we could be tempted to put them right next to our skin. Clothing made from stinging-nettle fibre is about to hit the catwalk and an Italian fashion house has started to produce a range of nettle jeans and jackets. Before long nettle knickers may be all the rage, and supermodels such as Kate Moss might be spotted sauntering down the street in a nettle-fibre dress.

Most of us try to avoid stinging nettles, but soon we could be tempted to put them right next to our skin. Clothing made from stinging-nettle fibre is about to hit the catwalk and an Italian fashion house has started to produce a range of nettle jeans and jackets. Before long nettle knickers may be all the rage, and supermodels such as Kate Moss might be spotted sauntering down the street in a nettle-fibre dress.

This new trend for stinging-nettle fibre has been driven by concern over the environmental damage caused by the production of fabrics such as cotton. In the hunt for new, ecologically friendly fabrics, stinging-nettle fibre has come up smelling of roses.

Clothing made from nettles is not a new idea; for the past 2,000 years people have worn fabrics made from these stinging plants. But nettles lost their popularity when cotton arrived in the 16th century, because cotton was easier to harvest and spin. Nettles made a brief comeback during the First World War, when Germany suffered a shortage of cotton and nettles were used to produce German army uniforms. Now, new advances in spinning technologies and cross-breeding to produce super-high-fibre plants mean that stinging nettles are set to become the latest fashion.

Although cotton is a firm favourite for many people, its production takes a heavy toll on the environment. The plant is greedy for water and requires regular dousing with pesticides and herbicides to protect it from insects and weeds. Nearly a quarter of all the pesticides used in the world are sprayed on to cotton plants. Run-off from these chemical sprays can pollute water supplies, while the droplets that linger in the air create localised air pollution. Cotton also requires an exotic climate to grow, so it has to travel long distances to reach the European market.

Environmental concerns have prompted the search for alternative textiles to cotton. In recent years, organisations such as the European Union and the Interactive European Network for Industrial Crops and their Applications (IENICA) have been funding scientists to develop environmentally friendly textiles that are economically viable. Hemp, flax and stinging nettles have all come under the spotlight.

Both hemp and flax produce coarser fibres than nettles, making a strong but rather rough fabric. Although they can't replacecotton, these plants have properties that make them a perfect alternative for other resource-guzzling materials. Hemp is the longest and strongest natural fibre, it is good at soaking up spills and it has natural anti-mildew and anti-microbial properties. These characteristics make it perfect for making sails, paper, carpets and even nappies. It is also a good substitute for fibreglass. Flax is a little more tricky to grow than hemp, but its strong fibres make an excellent replacement for asbestos. But only nettles appear to have the potential to produce a soft and silky fabric, providing a serious alternative to cotton.

"Nettle fibre is much thinner and more elastic than hemp fibre, resulting in a very fine fabric," says Peter Ruckenbauer from the Institute of Agrobiotechnology in Austria. He has spent the past few years cross-breeding different varieties of nettle to produce the perfect commercial nettle breed. "We have selected different types of nettle from across central Europe and crossed the high-fibre genotypes," he explains. The result is a sturdy nettle plant that grows easily and gives high yields of fibre.

There is no danger of being stung by nettle fabric, since the stinging hairs are not used in the fabric. The tingling sensation of a sting is caused by the tiny, poison-filled hairs on the outside of the plant, which break off when you brush past and inject their poison into you. But nettle yarn is spun from the long, stringy fibres inside the stem of the plant. Hence the importance of breeding high-fibre varieties of nettle for making nettle fabrics.

Until now one of the major difficulties in producing nettle fibre has been extracting the fibres from the stem. Each of the fibres is glued together by a natural chemical called pectin, more commonly known for its ability to help jam and marmalade to set. To extract the fibres the pectin needs to be dissolved in a process called "retting". Traditionally this was done by cutting the nettles down and leaving them in bundles in the field, to be rotted by the action of the rain and the wind. Sometimes people would speed the process up by soaking the nettle stems in water. But either way it was a slow and time-consuming process. For this reason, nettles, and crops such as flax, fell out of favour and other fabrics such as cotton became more popular.

Now a team of scientists has developed a more efficient way of retting nettle fibres, opening the way for nettle fabrics to be mass-produced. Melvyn Askew from the Central Science Laboratory in York has been part of the team working on producing the perfect nettle for spinning a velvety yarn.

Their big breakthrough has been to develop enzymes that like to destroy pectin. By adding these to the retting process, the useful nettle fibres can be extracted from the stem quickly and easily. For the past few years the scientists have been experimenting with different retting conditions, varying the temperature, acidity and concentration of enzyme. Now they think that they have the perfect recipe, and they are ready for nettle fabrics to hit the high street.

Askew is very enthusiastic about the environmental benefits of using nettle fibre. "Nettles manage well without much water and they need little protection from pests or weeds," he says. "In addition nettles like to soak up nitrates from the soil, meaning that they can be grown on over-fertilised fields and old rubbish dumps." Another major benefit is that nettles are well suited to the UK climate. "They can be grown and harvested locally, reducing transportation costs and providing jobs for people in the UK," says Askew.

From an ecological point of view, nettles are superb. Their undisturbed cover provides a haven for more than 40 species of insect and many small birds. Some species, such as the Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell larvae, are completely dependent upon nettles for a home. Meanwhile, aphids like to snuggle up among the nettle leaves during the winter, only to be gobbled up by ladybirds and blue-tits in the spring.

Currently, the biggest problem is finding farmers who are willing to fill their fields with nettles. Corpo Nove, an Italian fashion house, is all set to produce a range of nettle fabric clothes. After many trials they have perfected the fabric and produced fashionable jeans, jackets, skirts and shirts. Now they have a worldwide waiting list of retailers, but a lack of farmers to supply the raw material. "We are waiting for farmers in Europe to start growing nettles as an alternative crop so that we can produce our 100 per cent nettle-fibre clothes range," says Susan Clowes from Corpo Nove.

In the meantime, Askew has found some progressive farmers in the south-west of the UK, and the first few fields of nettles from the Austrian breeding project will be transplanted next year. Once the nettles are fully grown they can be harvested regularly throughout the summer, and can continue to grow in the same field for around 10 years.

By the end of next year, discerning shoppers might be able to buy a pair of nettle jeans, or treat themselves to a nettle jacket. Fashion followers may start to shun cotton, just as many now shun fur. In years to come, "100 per cent cotton" may be replaced by "100 per cent nettle" as the label we all desire - a very happy ending for a prickly weed.

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