Stinging Nettles in the Great War

Here's a WWI German uniform that looks like it might have some nettles in it.

Here’s a WWI German uniform that looks like it could have been made from stinging nettles.

There’s probably a story out there about WWI soldiers who were saved from an attack because the enemy wandered through a patch of stinging nettles and gave themselves away. Or maybe there are stories about how nettles were used as compresses to treat sprains, strains, and insect bites during the war, or that nettle tea was used for treatment of urinary tract infections or hay fever.  Stinging nettles have a long history of these and other medical properties. But I didn’t find any WWI stories like that. The story I found was about using stinging nettles to make German military uniforms during WWI. Wow!

In an earlier post, I mentioned how Britain created a naval blockade during the war which prevented Germany from getting many of the imports they relied on. Also during that time, Britain (through its colonies) controlled about 90% of the cotton production in the world. This meant there was a real shortage of cotton fabric in Germany. Enter stinging nettles! They replaced cotton for use in army uniforms.

Stinging nettles have been used for thousands of years in making fabric so this wasn’t a new discovery. But since the early 1600s, cotton had pretty much replaced nettle fabric. Nettles are a lot like flax in that once you harvest the stalks, they need to go through a water retting process which is slow and labor intensive. After that stage, the stalks are dried and then the fibers need to be separated from the woody stem. Nettle clothing is starting to make a comeback though. New technologies have made the laborious processing stage easier and therefore more economically attractive. It’s also much more ecologically friendly than cotton which is a real water hog and uses tons of pesticides. And supposedly, it has many of the desirable properties that cotton has like softness.

Great grandma Augusta next to her linen tatting. My homespun flax and flax weaving in front. Nettle yarn and nettle weaving on back left. Augusta's linen cloth is underneath.

Great grandma Augusta next to her linen tatting in back. My homespun flax and flax weaving in front. Nettle yarn and nettle weaving on back left. Augusta’s linen cloth is underneath it all.

The article about nettle clothing (unfortunately no longer on the web so I can’t give the link) prompted me to dig out some balls of stinging nettle yarn I bought years ago at the annual Vermont Fiber Festival. I’ve been cleaning up my studios too and happened to find my little weavette loom so I warped it up and wove a little bit of nettle cloth (See photo). I found it trickier to work with than the flax (linen) I had spun a few years ago when I took a weekend workshop on flax growing and spinning in Pennsylvania. (That was fun!)

There’s a bit of history about flax spinning in my family. My great grandmother Augusta (the mother of my great uncle Harry who was in WWI and my grandmother Esther who saved all of Harry’s WWI letters) was a flax spinner. She brought her flax spinning wheel from Sweden when she emigrated to the U.S. which I now have. It’s a little trickier for spinning than my Ashford wheel because it a bigger wheel and spins faster. This is great for making very fine linen threads, but tough for a novice like me. When she lived in Sweden she would send her linen thread to a neighbor to weave into cloth. That cloth is shown as the backdrop in the previous photograph.

Augusta's Swedish flax spinning wheel.

Augusta’s Swedish flax spinning wheel.

I like when my interests converge. We have lots of patches of nettles on the farm that we use primarily to treat John’s hay fever in June. Scientists think its the antihistamines in nettle tea that helps relieve allergy suffering. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just works. After reading more about nettles, I think I’m going to try it for my arthritis this year too. And I now can’t wait to process and spin some of my own nettle fibers this summer.

Check out this video for more info on processing nettle fibers.


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