Fibre Focus: Nettle

Choosing a fibre from a design perspective can be challenging enough, but the fibre that a fabric is made from also has numerous environmental and social impacts. It can be difficult to work out the best option when selecting a fibre.

Introducing Fibre Focus, our fabric blog that breaks down the various impacts of a fibre from an environmental, social justice and design standpoint. It is important to also consider any potential impacts a fibre might have if it were to become more popular.

Nettle/Allo/Giant Himalayan Nettle:

Design advantages:
• Long fibres with high tensile strength
• Nettle fibre has a hollow centre which traps heat and regulates temperature
• The raw fibre is similar to hemp or linin, and can be blended with other fibres to produce various silk-like, cotton-like or wool-like yarn
• Nettle yarn has greater elasticity than linen yarn and so fabrics can have increased longevity
• Free from animal products, nettle fibre is vegan
• Antimicrobial, anti-fungal, and fire retardant
• Nettle’s roots produce a yellow natural dye, and its stems produce a chlorophyllin-rich natural dye

Design disadvantages:
• Nettles host a venom which causes a mild irritation – hence the name, stinging nettles
• Raw nettle fibre is dark in colour, and this means that more dyestuff may be required to change the colour of the natural fabric
• Nettle fibre is more coarse than cotton, and it is also comparatively difficult to harvest and spin in to yarn

Environmental impacts:
• Nettles are natural, biodegradable and renewable
• Nettles flourish without the need for chemical intervention. Therefore the majority of nettle fibre is organic, thus preserving air, water and soil quality
• Nettles produce yarn for fabric, 2 different natural dyes, and can be used as a nutritious food source. The ore applications a plant has, the better. This is because it is a respectful and economical use of resources
• Nettles grow in many nations worldwide – stemming the need for excessive finite fossil fuel consumption for import/export
• Nettle fibre is typically and traditionally hand processed. Hand processing uses 0 fuel and emits 0 carbon emissions
• Nettles are a good source of food and shelter for many insects (particularly moths and butterflies) and therefore support vital biodiversity
• Nettles can be used in farming to filter and absorb (phytoremediate) excess nitrogen and phosphorus, this can decrease eutrophication in water sources
• Nettles grow without large volumes of water
• Nettles have long roots which go deep into the soil – preventing soil erosion and landslides
• The raw fibre can be coarse, and some people choose to soften it using sodium hydroxide/caustic soda/lye – this chemical is corrosive and can be toxic to aquatic life in large concentrations. Although, circular and closed-loop production methods can manage this

Social impacts:
• Nettle farming, spinning, processing and weaving provides jobs, that generate income
• Nettles flourish in remote, rural areas and can be processed by hand locally. This stems the need for rural to urban migration, and promotes family business
• Nettles provide a protein rich leaf similar to spinach, and can be used for medicinal purposes from treating kidney infections to cardiovascular disorders
• Nettles do not need chemicals to grow, and this means that local communities can live in uncontaminated areas and drink clean water
• Another good thing about organic farming is that farmers do not need to buy expensive chemical and can generate more profits for their households
• Hand processing fibres and fabrics promotes hand craft and preserves tradition, and allows production to take place in the home
• Nettle’s long roots means that soil erosion can be avoided, potentially stopping destructive landslides
• Nettle fibre and fabric is free from animals and so can be enjoyed by vegan consumers

Positive potential impact:
• Decreased water consumption
• Avoidance of chemical presence in local air, water and soil
• Decreased use of finite fossil fuels (and therefore decreased carbon emissions) during transportation phase
• Preservation of traditional handicraft
• Hand processing has a carbon footprint of 0
• More job opportunities for rural communities, without the need for rural to urban migration
• Decreased risk of soil erosion and landslides – potential death and damage avoided
• Natural dyes reduce the need for synthetic chemical dyes
• Nettles can be used for phytoremediation and rhizofiltration

• Decreased eutrophication – therefore more diverse water sources
• Decreased presence on dangerous non-biodegradable textile waste in landfill
• Increased biodiversity

Negative potential impacts:
• Job loss for other fibre sectors
• Job loss in chemical pesticide/insecticide/fertiliser sector
• Increased use of dyestuff to attain the same shade as dyed cotton
• Increased presence of lye/sodium hydroxide in water sources, and a potential loss of biodiversity

So there you have it, a simple breakdown on nettle’s various impacts that you can keep in mind when next buying, sourcing or designing.

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