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How to gather and process nettles

for cordage making fibres


Similar to trees, nettles have an outer ‘bark’ layer, inside of which is a woody stem. It is the outer bark layer which contains the useful fibres; the inner woody stem is brittle, straw-like, and has no real use. The two need to be separated in order to make use of the fibres. This process will be explained below, but first the plants need to be harvested and stripped of their leaves and stings.

Harvest - Removing Leaves & Stings:
Mid to Late summer is the best time to harvest nettles, by this time they will have reached full height, and that means long fibres. The fibre will also be much stronger at this time compared to the more tender nettles of spring and early summer. It is also interesting to note that nettles which grow in sunny places tend to have more of a purple coloured stem, and these have stronger fibres.

Believe it or not, with just bare hands it is possible to harvest nettles and strip them of leaves and stings without being stung. However you’d have to be very thick-skinned to not get stung if you’re processing any great quantity, so it is advisable to wear gloves (e.g. gardening gloves). Nevertheless, the skill of being able to do this bare handed holds some value, perhaps you might casually be out sometime and just need a couple of nettles for something. Anyhow, the process is pretty much the same whether you’re wearing gloves or not:

The method:

1.      At the very top of the nettle, pinch the growing tip with one hand, lean the nettle over, then cut through the base of the stem using a knife with your other hand.

2.      Now, with one hand, grasp the very bottom of the stem between finger and thumb. Just above grasp the stem in the same way with your other hand. Note: If you are doing this bare handed, handling the stem boldly with confidence should prevent you from being stung.

3.      Pull the stem through your hand, this will rub off the leaves and stings along the way. Repeat a couple of times, if any leaves remain attached, pluck them off. This process will give perfectly clean sting-free stems.


A nettle being pulled through the hand from base to tip stripping all the stings and leaves along the way.


A bunch of sting-free, leaf-free stems ready for the next stage.


  We will now process each stem individually until the useful fibres are separated from each. Here's what we do:


  1 - Squash the hollow stem structure

Take a stem and squeeze it between your fingers as pictured to crush the hollow tube-like structure. You will need to work along the length crushing the  stem like this from one end to the other. The nodes (where leaves grew from) are quite tough and take some extra persuasion to flatten out.

    Crushing the stem between fingers
  An alternative method for this is to LIGHTLY beat the stem using a smooth round batten of light-weight wood. Using a log as an 'anvil' works well. You are aiming to squash the tube-like stem but not damage the fibres in the bark layer. This is quite an easy process and is not so hard on the hands, especially if you are processing a lot of stems.
2- Open out the stem flat

The stem which was round with a hollow centre is now opened out flat along its length. Prize it open with your finger nails as pictured.


3- Separating the bark layer

Hold the opened-out stem in your hands with the outer bark side facing down. About half way along give the stem a snap. The woody fibres will break and the outer bark layer will remain intact. At that point, you can now start to pull the outer bark away from the woody material as pictured.

Because the woody material has been snapped in two, each half is peeled away separately, one half and then the other, working from the mid point where you made the snap toward the ends of the stem. There is a very quick way to do this:

Loosely hold the bark stand between your thumb and first finger in the middle where you made the snap, then pull the bark stand between those fingers with your other hand. The stiff woody material will ride up over the top of your thumb and be separated with ease.

Repeat, going the other way to separate the other half of the woody material...


4- Splitting into finer strands

The wide strip of fibres can be torn into thinner strands which will be more suitable for making fine cordage.

You may even notice that the strip of fibres even looks to be made up of about three or four strands, they just need pulling apart. The split will run straight, it's an easy job.


    Strands of fibres from one Nettle.
Many nettles worth.
5- Dry

These fibres now need to be dried. Hang them up somewhere, separating the fibres out somewhat so that the air can circulate around them. If put in the sun on a hot day they can dry in just a few hours.

Your nettle fibre can now be twisted together to make cordage! When you are ready to do that, the only thing you need to do is re-hydrate the fibres by soaking them for a short while in water.

For a full article on the techniques of cordage making, click HERE



Fresh fibres before drying After drying. Much thinner.

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