Home Feature Stinging Nettle: Underutilised Fiber Resource for Woven Textiles in U’khand

Stinging Nettle: Underutilised Fiber Resource for Woven Textiles in U’khand

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 By Kiran Badola, Textile designer

“Kandali” (Urtica dioica), commonly known as stinging nettle, is a green, leafy, dense, hardy and herbaceous plant, that often grows to about 2 metres (6.5 feet) in height.
It is a naturally prevalent perennial shrub in Chamoli of Garhwal Himalayas, and grows from an extensive labyrinth of rhizomes, that reproduces by vegetative propagation.
The moist and shady conditions are conducive for it to thrive in abundance, which is from sea-level to sub-alpine (11,500 feet). I have clear images in my mind, of my first brush with “Kandali/Bichhu Booti” during our summer break visits with Mummy, Papa and my brother Akshaya, to our paternal grandparents living in Kimni, a beautiful
hamlet in Tharali, district Chamoli. My interest in this plant has a lot of intrinsic meaning to me.
There was this plant with hairy and serrated leaves, growing aggressively in between the slate “pathal” (steps) and “pagdandi” (path) leading to the door-step, which is very characteristic of Uttarakhand. I must have been seven years of age then and an accidental rub against its leaves led to an unpleasant experience of pins and needles. Stinging and uncomfortable as it was, I was ignorant of what lay beneath it all.
Years went by and then I was introduced yet once again to this unwelcoming plant, but this time in the form of hand spun yarn, given to me by my father while studying at NIFT, New Delhi, in 1998. So, very thrilled, off I went to my loom and wove a swatch using this fine and strong Nettle in the weft.

Paternal Ancestral Home, Kimni.

The results were striking and I soon fell in love with it! Since I was weaving swatches for a theme named “Frozen Fossils”, Nettle would be part of an exhibition at the NIFT Textile Design and Development booth at TEX-STYLES in New Delhi at Pragati Maidan. The yarn possessed immense tensile strength and having used it in its natural state, has not been altered till date. It would do well as an object that has direct contact with the skin. The softer the yarn, the better prospects it has to qualify as a wearable product. I personally have a liking for animal and plant yarns in their natural colours.

An array of products can be made out of Nettle, by weaving on a Handloom, as its
stem/bast fibers are pliable. This yarn will do well as Yardage, Shoe-uppers and Shoe-strings, Upholstery, Pillows, Bed-linen, Table-linen, Drapes, Kitchen-linen, Shower curtains, Apparel for all ages and Lamp shades.

Photos and Woven Nettle Swatch by Kiran Badola

Nettle Photo by Dr Vijay Kant Purohit

Bast fibers have been used as textile material since Neolithic times. Bhichu Booti stems yield a fiber which rivals the best Hemp fiber in strength. It has been used for cordage, fishing-lines and sailcloth in the past. Fibers of Stinging Nettle are extracted in India for local use, by cutting the shoots, leaving them exposed to air for some time and then boiling them with ashes. Of all the Nettle species, Urtica dioicia yields the largest amount of fiber.
Cultivated plants yield up to 15% of fiber as opposed to 4-5% from the wild ones. The combed fiber is 1 metre long, once properly processed, it is soft, flexible and yellowish-white or
dirty-gray if water retted. When carefully carded and combed, the fiber becomes as fine as silk, a high percentage of cellulose is present in the fiber, with traces of lignin on the surface.
The average yield of fiber in the Uttarakhand hills is 760 Kg/Hectare.
A nettle infusion can be used to rinse hair, for soft and shiny results. The leaves are used as fodder for cattle that has medicinal value. Inhabitants make soup and steep tea out of leaves and roots. It helps alleviate insect bites, Gout/Arthritis, Eczema/Hives and Anemia. It is rich in Vitamin K, Calcium and Protein. A green dye has been extracted, to dye fabric.

Making Nettle Textile:
Harvest by cutting near the ground from August.
Remove leaves from stalks and use these leaves for mulch, enrich plant feed and compost.
Retting for a week in water, give water to crops and dry the nettle stalks in open fields or greenhouses.
Split the stalks by pressing and gently removing fiber strands along nodes, then remove the woody pith for paper-making.
Carding of fibers for a minute or two then twist the rolag with a spindle to make yarn.
Spun yarn is used to weave textiles.

Nettle Table Runner Woven by: Kiran Badola

Maheshwari Khati, owner at Jai Nanda Utthan Samiti, Bhimtal, Chamoli district, is a seasoned and indigenous Artisan/Craftsperson who even trains the local people. I stumbled upon her movie, while researching about Nettle Weaving in Uttarakhand, and to my surprise, was elated to see Shrimati Khati with whom I had worked with, during my final year of graduating project at NIFT New Delhi in 1998! My parents were there by my side, every step of the way.

Maheshwari Khati harvests nettles for fibers, extracts the fibers, washes them in the Alaknanda river stream, spins yarn and then weaves fabric. A great initiative has been undertaken by Uttarakhand Handloom and Handicraft Development Council (UHHDC).
Forwardly Understanding of Every Life lesson (FUEL) in collaboration with Uttarakhand Handloom and Handicraft Development Council (UHHDC) have brought forth ‘Homespun in Uttarakhand’ to present life lessons of seven master artisans, who bring craft forms to life. “An episodic series, ‘Homespun in Uttarakhand’ aims to narrate their personal stories and their passion celebrating the unrecognised & dying craft practices, which need preservation.”
Many collaborative projects with scientists, teachers, students, farmers, harvesters, processors, spinners, weavers, designers, journalists as well as buyers and the Ministry of Textiles will uplift the livelihood of craftspeople and provide 100% sustenance and empowerment to the backbone of the state of Uttarakhand, the Weavers.

References: YAK Yarn and Knitting; Doris Leslie Blau; North Cascades Institute; Nettles for Textiles; Sunrise Gardens.