Legends and folk tales are peppered with truths. My all-time favorite fairy tales is called the Wild Swans. It is a story of six princes who were turned into swans and their only salvation would be if their sister could knit them each a vest made of stinging nettles. There is a fantastic modern retelling of this tale that goes by the name, Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. The truth in this tale is that you really can process nettle into a textile. Stinging nettle is one of the oldest textile sources in human history! Today let’s turn it into cordage.
Cordage is a product that comes in various sizes from as small as thread to as large as rope. Its uses are just a various as its sizes. Can be used for lashings, fishing lines, bow strings and more. Knowing how to make cordage will come in handy for use on the farm, on a camping trip with the family, and survival situations.
This time of year is not the typical time to process nettle fibers. Most do this in summer because the plant gives up its fibers more easily. Processing dead standing plants, the fibers cling to the inner wood so you don’t get as many fibers for the effort. We were quite busy this summer (you know, giving birth) so here we are lol.
Step 1: Gather and Strip Nettle
Cut the stalks as close to the ground as possible. Strip the leaves off by sliding the stalk through a gloved hand. Even when dead, I won’t tempt their stinging wrath.
Step 2: Crush and Split Stalks
Crushing the stalks this time of year is easy enough you can just use your fingers. Otherwise a rock and a hard surface will get the job done as well. After crushing, split open the stalk by running your thumb down the middle of the stalk between the two halves.
Step 3: Peeling Fibers
Flatten your split stalk as much as you can and break the woody part away from the bark. peel off the woody portion that was just broken. Grab the exposed stringy fibers and peel down the stalk. I have found that if I peel from the top of the stalk down, the fibers come off in longer pieces. Be careful around the nodules that held leaves, the fibers want to break at these points.
Step 4: Removing Bark and Woody bits
The fibers may be a bit damp from outdoor weather, if so, be sure to let them dry before this next step. Once dry, rub the fibers back and forth between your hands just the way you would if you were trying to warm them up.
Step 5: Creating Cordage
The cordage can be as fine or as thick as you like. The hardest aspect of the entire process is keeping the cordage a uniform thickness. Grab a length of nettle and hold the fiber a bit offset from center to avoid both ends of the cordage running out at the same time. Using thumb and fore finger, twist the top strand of the cordage. I away from myself (forward/clockwise). Next, flip the top strand of cordage over
the bottom strand in the opposite direction of the twist. For me that would be toward myself (backwards/counter clockwise). use whatever direction feel most comfortable for you. Just remember, that the direction you flip the strands over one another need to be opposite from the direction you twist each individual strand.
Step 6: Adding Fibers for Length
Once you’ve reached the end of the fibers you’re working with it’s time to add more nettle. We don’t want any weak spots so to avoid this, we use the same method we started with. Take a length of nettle and lay it perpendicular to the cordage where the two strands begin to split. Just like when we started, let your new length sit off its center. Grab the bottom strand in your stationary hand, including the new material. Twist the top strand with the new material and flip over the bottom strand in the opposite direction of the twist and continue on just as before.
Make just enough for the project you have in mind, or until you’ve used up all your plant material. It’s a wonderfully meditative project, a lot like weaving is. It’s easy to find a rhythm and clear your mind. When we create intent, mindfulness, and purpose should always play a role. Have fun with it and stay tuned! The next project will be creating something useful with this very cordage!
If you would like a different visual, check out my Youtube video on it. https://youtu.be/4mKtQs6WHok