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Stinging Nettle
Urtica dioica

May 3, 2003 - I stopped along Highway 97 north of Klamath Falls, Oregon to see what the Poison Hemlock looked like after Winter/before Spring and noticed a stand of over-winter field-retted nettles close by. I'd seen a brief conversation on the Papermakers Yahoogroup about nettle and thought, "What the hey, I'll give it a whirl." I figured they looked cool and they were fibrous, so why not? So I pulled up an armful of the stems and dragged them home. Following is a chronicle of the progress.

June 6, 2003 - I have set up papermaking in Jean Sinclair and Robert France's shed and we have begun to play. Jean and I processed and cooked some of the Stinging Nettle.

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We dropped the nettle stalks in a bunch onto the patio and walked all over them first to - hopefully - make them easier to cut up. Toss of the coin on whether it really helped or not. Being winter retted, the stalks were actually fairly easy to bust up in the hands. What bolloxed us up was the bast!!

nettle001e.jpg (7875 bytes)We found out during our processing the stinging nettle has a hollow stalk with a thin, papery, delicate, beautiful bark and a gorgeous, stringy, clothlike and strong bast just under it. Beneath that was the woody part of the stalk and inside the pith area is practically nonexistent. My eyes lit up with all the possibilities of this plant!!! My word, all the different papers you can make from just one season's harvest! OohLaLa.

nettle001g.jpg (8969 bytes)Here's a closer look at a bast strip and the bark.

nettle001o.jpg (7900 bytes)The bast is really easy to strip from the field retted stalks. Just snap a piece of the stalk and/or twist it in your fingers and the bast will pop right out for you. It pulls off in delightfully long fibers - almost the length of the stalk!! It's strong enough to make into yarn.

A quick aside: I've heard it said that nettle cloth is as strong as hemp yet softer than cotton to wear! The farmers in the United Kingdom are currently being encouraged to plant entire fields of stinging nettle for the fiber markets.

nettle001m.jpg (8539 bytes)Here's a pile of bast with the odd pieces of stalk mixed in. It's amazing how much yield you get from a single stalk. This is my first real experience with bast, so I'm quite jazzed. When we were all done processing the stalks and separating out the bast, we snipped the bast easily with kitchen scissors into short sections to prepare it for the pot. We ended up not using the bast we stripped because our pots were overflowing with the stalk, bark and incidental bast that did break with the stalk.

nettle001c.jpg (9317 bytes)Some of the chips of stalk are not under the optimum one inch. We are still learning the importance of short fiber. Once we successfully begin beating the nettle, we shall see just what lengths of fiber we can get away with.

nettle001q.jpg (4673 bytes)Here Jean is filling our "measuring jug" to get the ration of one tablespoon of washing soda to one quart of water. We have the gallon jug marked off into quart increments.

We haven't had her well tested, so we don't know if her water is acidic like the spring down the road, or alkaline like the wells on the south end of town where I live. Jean lives as far north from town as I do south!! *big grin*

nettle001s.jpg (6218 bytes)This is our cooking setup: Robert's workbench, a propane bottle with a single burner on top of it, concrete bricks simply for the safety factor with that big old pot of water and fiber on top of it to make the whole shebang top heavy. We filled the pot about 2/3 full of broken up fiber then poured 2.5 gallons of washing soda water on top, brought it to a boil then turned it down as low as we could get away with. We let the fiber cook for about four hours. We added another quart of water at the to the pot two hour point because the fiber had swelled and was threatening to bulge over the top. At four hours we finger tested it by pulling out a woody piece and pulling it apart. It seemed to pull apart readily, so we poured it into an old sheet, tied a big knot and rinsed the bejeebers out of it. Then we rinsed some more. This batch of nettle yielded the most beautiful, rich brown dye.

nettle001u.jpg (5944 bytes)After rinsing, we hastened to The Cherub for its debut beating. Not knowing quite what we were doing, we filled it with water and watched the water for movement. Hm. Well maybe it'll move if we add fiber, stir and poke it to coax it. Hm. Maybe we need more fiber. Hm. Maybe we need less. Hm. After 20 minutes of fussing, stirring and pondering, we cleaned the fiber out, poured it back into the pot and set both pots out in the sun to water rett for the next week or so. It is possible the fiber is too long and/or it's not cooked enough. This nettle fiber is NOT blender friendly.

June 25, 2003 - Jean and I left the nettle fiber in the pots and kept them filled with water out in the sunshine hoping this would soften the fiber up a bit. When I arrived on the 25th and checked the fiber, it was obvious it needed more cooking. It wasn't as easily pulled apart as we'd thought last week. However, we're out of washing soda and out of propane, so we're gonna let this stuff rett in the pot for another week or two. I'll check on it again next week.

July 3, 2003 - Jean and I put three handsful of the nettle fiber into The Cherub and, following Mark's suggestions, we stirred and stirred and stirred *sigh* and stirred. We figured out we hadn't cooked the fiber long enough. We also figured out the bits were cut too long. It was Jean who made that observation. *grin* After about 20-30 minutes we added a couple handsful of cotton t-shirt cut into tiny squares to catch woody fiber that kept settling to the bottom. After another 20 minutes or so, the fiber finally began moving on its own - when the long woody pieces were reduced down to about 1/4 of an inch. We celebrated with a quick jig and then moved on to the processed  cattail fluff to pull some paper while The Cherub munched merrily away. We really needed to start pulling paper or we would lose heart. Jean caught on like a duck takes to water. That woman is amazing.

The first batch of nettle fiber processed for about four hours. Losing patience and succumbing to our eagerness to play with it, we poured that batch out and replaced it with another batch sans cotton rag and fiddled with it now and then over the next four hours. This batch was just as stubborn about getting moving on its own, but we persevered. By bedtime it was still not moving - mostly because we literally fiddled with it now and then - so we shut The Cherub down for the nite and went to sleep.

July 3, 2003 - We rinsed the first batch well after starting up The Cherub around 9.30am, finished with the current vat of cattail fluff pulp and replaced it with the nettle pulp. We added a tablespoon of pva Wood Glue to the vat for internal sizing and then pulled some nice, thick sheets (thin is not what we want for our artistic endeavors). The 3/4 beaten pulp was challenging to pull as the water just whooshed through and we don't have any formation aid (I really MUST harvest some of that loco weed!). It took a little bit of time for us to develop a method for pulling successful sheets. We couched the paper onto an old mattress cover and found we didn't even have to blot it (though we did) to get it to pull easily from the screen. We decided to leave the papers - as they were quite stuck - on the mattress cover and simply folded it over accordian style when our work surface was completely covered. We ran out of pulp and energy about 4.00pm, so we folded the last of the mattress cover over the top of the last batch of paper to keep it flat and to let it dry. Jean is scheduled to be out of town for a week or so, so we figure the sheets will be pristine by the time we get back to them. 

The nettle pulp already cooked and beaten is mostly stem with a moderate amount of bast. We saved out a bunch of just the bast and I'm hoping to cook and beat that next!! Meanwhile, we started The Cherub around 9.30a and paid it the attention it requires. We found our Cherub munches merrily when the vat is full to the brim with water. Again, we added a couple handsful of tiny t-shirt squares to the vat to snag and move any sunken, sluggish wood. After only 15 minutes, the fiber was moving nicely. We left The Cherub grinding until 4.15pm and lo! What a gorgeous pulp! It was smooth and luscious. I have no clue if the color of the pulp is true as the t-shirt fiber was an old U.S. Air Force army drab tan and the wet pulp resembled that color.

An aside: the last couple sheets of nettle Jean pulled were thinner than we wanted, so she couched a sheet, layed some fresh grass with the grass seed on its stalk in an attractive arrangement and then couched another sheet on top of that. We're both quite eager to see how that one comes out! Jean plans to paint with acrylic and pastels on her paper while I plan to print digital photography out on mine and highlight with pastels and chalk; as well as using the paper for sculpture. We shall see how these sheets meet our expectations, so stay tuned!

July 23, 2003 - We pulled the nettle out of the pots, rinsed thoroughly and began some in The Cherub. It was softened enough we were able to assist in swishing for the normal ten minutes and then just an occasional swish now and then. After about four hours, we drained the first load and put in another. We already had cattail and cornhusk pulp in the vat and, as it thinned, we added the nettle pulp. The nettle paper loves to be couched dripping wet with a "slap and yank" method. We continued to pull the paper fairly thick for our artistic purposes. Thin sheets will be for future experimentation. By the end of the day, we had almost two dozen sheets pulled. The screen and deckle were a mere 5x7 inch so we had to overlap pulls to achieve paper with larger dimensions. we walked on the paper wrapped up in the mattress cover to pull out as much water as possible and press the fibers together more and then let it dry in the summer sun. We wrapped everything up this weekend and went our separate ways to turn our papers into something the public can enjoy.

July 2004 - I harvested an armload of green stalks this time. I used gloves and long handled loppers and still got amply stung. I'm not a greatly coordinated person. but the discomfort only lasts a day, so I put it on disregard. Long sleeves, pants, solid shoes (like tennies, not sandles) and socks go a long way to avoiding unnecessary discomfort. I dropped my cuttings onto a very large towel so all I had to do was wrap it around the stalks to carry the bundle with a safe barrier from their sting. Keep this page posted, because I just dropped the stalks in my outside work area for later processing in the chipper/shredder.


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Copyright 1998-2008 Colleen D. Bergeron.
Last revised: November 14 2008