I’m lucky enough to live reasonably close to the Earth Trust, an organisation that aims to offer people life changing experiences that reconnect them to the natural world. They have lots of free and reasonably-priced events for both children and adults, and welcome lots of school and other groups to their HQ alongside Wittenham Clumps (a lovely vantage point from which to get a good view of Didcot!). Over the weekend I went to a workshop they had organised entitled ‘Cordage and Fibres‘, which promised to show interested parties how to make rope and cord from nettle, hemp and flax. It also aimed to explain retting, scutching and heckling.

Harvesting nettles for fibres

Nettles, of course, grow everywhere in the UK. They’re one of our most prolific weeds, although they have many practical uses and have tended to prosper wherever humans go (they like the fertile soil in latrine pits…). Not all nettles sting, and both stinging and non-stinging nettles can be used as a source of fibre for cordage (string, essentially) and rope.

The first task of the day was to head outside and harvest some nettles for fibre, wearing nice thick gloves to avoid being stung! At this time of year the nettle patches aren’t looking wonderful, but as long as there’s some greeness left in the middle of the stem, they have some life (and fibre) left in them. We pulled them up, rubbed off any leaves and cut off the roots. When we each had a handful or two, we headed back inside.

The nodes (knobbly joints) on the stems are problematic for fibre extraction, and there are two ways of dealing with them – thumping them with a mallet or (as improbable as it sounds) running them through a mangle. This softens up the node without (you hope) rendering your nettle a mere pile of mush.

Once you have a suitable abashed nettle, you carefully pull it apart. The green goodness in the middle can be snapped, and the dryish brown outsides can be peeled away in sections. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, it’s the outsides you want. The green bits went on the floor. After some fiddling about, you get a handful of thin, bendy and slightly papery nettle sections. Turning them into cordage is a (conceptually) simply matter of twisting two separate fibres (or one long one, folded into two halves) in the same direction, and then rolling them together so that they twist into 2-ply.

Rolling plant fibres on a thigh

There are to main methods of doing this. You can simply hold and twist the strands with your fingers, or – if you have suitably non-smooth trousers, you can roll them together on your thigh, as demonstrated here by one of the workshop leaders.

2-ply nettle cordage

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have learned this at their mother’s knee. My first attempt left a bit to be desired. I reckon a little practice would see you with a decent piece of string – perhaps for threading jewellery? – but it’s not something you could whip up in a second if your dog lead breaks whilst you’re out on walkies!

Lime bast cordage

The same technique can be used to make more robust cordage using other sorts of plant fibre. This one is lime bast, the inner bark of a lime (Tilia species) tree. It’s made by cutting a branch from a lime tree, removing the bark with a knife, curling it up and soaking it in water for about 6 weeks, by which time the lime bast will be separating from the outer bark. It is easier to work wet, but that just involves letting it sit in a basin of water for a minute or two.

If you were skilled you might be able to turn nettles and lime bast into thread you could weave with, but for that you really need something more like flax (Linus species) or hemp (Cannabis sativa). For reasons having to do with the hallucinogenic potential of some Cannabis sativa varieties, the cultivation of hemp is illegal in the UK without a license. (From personal experience I know that the Home Office won’t issue a license for small-scale, non-commercial cultivation!)

Tall flax, ready for scutching into fibres

Flax is the plant fibre used to make linen, and used to be grown a lot, but has declined in the face of cotton and other textiles. Apparently boffins are working on developing flax varieties that crease less, which might encourage a resurgence in linen clothing for people who don’t like ironing but aren’t keen on looking scruffy either. Flax these days is still grown pretty much everywhere, and you may have seen fields of its pretty blue flowers, but these modern varieties are grown for linseed, not fibre. The principle difference being that modern flax varieties are dwarf, in the same way that modern wheat varieties are dwarf, and for the same reasons. Firstly that growing tall uses up energy the plant could instead use for seed production, and secondly that plants with tall stems and heavy seed heads fall over (‘lodge’) and are difficult to harvest. If you want to grow flax for fibre, therefore, you need a special tall variety. Flaxland is the supplier our hosts recommended.

There are various labour-intensive stages in processing harvested flax into fibre, the first of which is retting, basically letting it rot in a tank of water for several weeks. Timing is fairly crucial. This is a bacterial process; you can also let your flax lie out on the grass for a while, and let moulds do the same job, which gives you a slightly darker colour result.

Then you have to remove the seed heads, and break the stems open and remove all of the non-flexible material to expose the fibres – this is where scutching and heckling come in. Most of your plant material goes on the floor, but eventually you end up with a tuft of (hopefully long) fibres you can spin with a drop spindle. The process would be very similar with hemp.

I wasn’t feeling well over the weekend, so I didn’t stay for the afternoon session, where I could have had practical experience of preparing flax and/or hemp fibres, and even spinning – but apparently it’s harder to spin plant fibres than sheep’s wool (for example), so I don’t think I would have come home with enough for a t-shirt, anyway 😉

What I did come home with was an appreciation for how highly skilled and observant our ancestors must have been, to have discovered how to use plant fibres to meet their needs, including spinning linen fibres into threads thinner than machines can make these days! These weren’t primitive people, they were just like us, but with a lower level of technology. We have lost a lot of the knowledge they had about plants and how to use them, which is a real shame!

For the moment I don’t think I’ll be encouraging fibre plants to grow in the garden, but it’s a fascinating topic and definitely worth of further study. Have you tried working with plant fibres?