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 fiber 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-fiber dress.

This new trend for stinging-nettle fiber 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 fiber 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-fiber plants mean that stinging nettles are set to become the latest fashion.

The nettle is a highly successful plant found all over the temperate areas of the world. It spreads by means of seeds and underground rhizomes that creep around just under the surface of the soil.

The jagged leaves held in pairs along the square stems are easily recognizable particularly after having experienced the sting. The plant itself is variable growing from 0.6 to 2 meters plus in height and can be found in a variety of habitats and soil types. It prefers rich soils and therefore does well around human settlements benefiting from the waste we produce - often indicating where old settlements have long since disappeared from the countryside.

nettle yarn made into nice clothing

The fibers of the stinging nettle have a special characteristic in the fact that they are hollow which means they can accumulate air inside thus creating a natural insulation. To create a cool fiber for Summer the yarn lengths are twisted closing the hollow core and reducing insulation. In Winter with a low twist the hollow fiber remains open maintaining a constant temperature

What is in the sting?

The stinging structure of the nettle is very similar to the hypodermic needle although it predates that man-made invention by millions of years! Each sting is actually a hollow hair stiffened by silica with a swollen base that contains the venom. The tip of this hair is very brittle and when brushed against, no matter how lightly, it breaks off exposing a sharp point that penetrates the skin and delivers its stinging payload.

It used to be thought that the main constituent of the sting was formic acid - the same chemical used by ants, giving that never forgotten burning sensation that demands to be scratched. Although formic acid is present in the sting, recent research has shown that the main chemicals are histamine, acetylcholine and 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin). A fourth ingredient has yet to be identified.

Remember when stung a natural remedy will often be found close at hand. The leaves of the dock contain chemicals that neutralize the sting and also cool the skin.

A real sting in the tail

The sting of our native nettle is nothing compared to some of its tropical cousins! One species in Timor causes a burning sensation and symptoms like lockjaw which can last for days or weeks. The effects of another species from Java last for months and have frequently caused the death of some of its unfortunate victims.

Clothing from nettles

Ouch! you may be thinking but the nettle has been used to produce a fine fiber that can be spun and woven into cloth. Cloth has been woven from the fibers in mature nettle stems for many centuries - frequently used for tablecloths and sheets in Scotland.

Being similar in texture to those materials produced by flax and hemp fibers the cloth also became widely used by the German army during the First World War when there was a shortage of cotton for the soldiers' uniforms.

The juice of the stems and leaves has been used to produce a permanent green dye, while a yellow dye can be obtained from boiling the roots. Both colours have been used extensively in Russia.

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