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Nettles and Hemp

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Wild Fibres natural fibres > plant fibres > nettle fibres

Nettle fibres & Hemp

Nettle fibres from European nettle, Ramie and Himalayan nettle

Several species of the nettle family (Urticaceae) produce bast fibres similar to flax, and many of those species have been used to produce fibre for making textiles and clothing for thousands of years. The three main fibre producing species are European nettle, Ramie and Himalayan nettle. European nettle is difficult to grow commercially. Ramie, on the other hand, produces a fine fibre that is produced commercially in China and Japan. Himalayan nettle is a large nettle grown mainly in the Himalayan region. In all these species, the fibre comes from the stem and, incidentally, there is no sting left in the extracted fibre.

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1) European nettle
2) Himalayan Nettle or Allo
3) Ramie (opens new page)
4) Hemp (this page)

1) European Nettle or Stinging Nettle

The common Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica, is a widely distributed plant that grows very easily on damp disturbed ground. It has been used as fodder for livestock and to make tea, beer, rennet and a plant dye.
 Common stinging nettle, Urtica dioica
It is related to flax and hemp and can be used to produce a fine linen cloth. The first known nettle textile find in Europe is from the late Bronze Age in Voldtofte in Denmark (Barber) and there is evidence of nettle cloth production from Scandinavia, Poland, Germany and Russia. It does not appear to have been as widely used for fibre and textile production as flax and hemp, except in northern, central and eastern Europe.
In Poland, nettle thread was used until the 17th century, when it was replaced by silk, and nettle cloth continued to be produced in Scandinavia, and in also Scotland until the 19th century where it was known as Scotch cloth. In the first World War, the shortage of cotton resulted in the Germans cultivating nettles to make clothing.
The Voldtofte textiles had been assumed to be pure flax, as had the Oseberg Ship textiles, until they were examined by a nettle expert and shown to be made from nettle fibre not flax (Barber).
Nettle fibres are white, silky, up to 50mm (2”) long, and produce a finer and silkier fabric than flax, so that it is possible that fine linens for the wealthy may have been woven from nettle rather than flax.
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3) Himalayan Nettle or Allo (Girardinia diversifolia)

Although called Himalayan nettle, this plant grows wild in Africa and several Asian countries. In Nepal, Himalayan nettle grows wild in fertile forest soils in altitudes ranging from 1200 to 3000 metres. It can be an annual or a short lived perennial plant up to 1.5 metres in height. All parts of the plants are covered in thorn-like stinging hairs that can cause painful rashes.

Himalayan nettle plants have been uses for centuries as a fibre source. The fibre comes from the stem, and it is very long and strong, similar to ramie. After cutting the stem, the bark is removed and peeled and fibre is extracted.

It has traditionally been made into cordage for string, ropes and fishing nets, but it is also spun into yarns and used  to weave durable jackets, mats, bags and blankets. Himalayan nettle fibre can be blended with ramie, cotton and wool.

NGOs have conducted income generating programmes, with training on better ways of processing, spinning and weaving Himalayan nettle. As a result, Himalayan nettle yarn and handicrafts are available for sale in the UK. Almost all items sold in the UK as being made from ‘nettle’ come from Himalayan nettle plants.


Historically, hemp was used for rope and canvas, and hemp is now found in everyday clothes due to its environmental credentials. Hemp production does not depend on pesticides or herbicides and uses less water than cotton. Hemp is very similar in texture to linen but its fibres are longer.
Hemp fibre
Hemp fibre comes from the stem of the plant, which makes it a bast fibre. The stems consist of a central woody core (called the shives or straw) surrounded by the bundles of fibres (the bast) which are covered by an outer skin. Hemp processing is very similar to flax processing. First the stems need to be retted, by soaking them in water for a few days or dew retting on the grass. Retting dissolves the ‘glue’ that keeps the bundles of fibres together. After that the fibres are pulled through hackling combs, which straighten the fibres and remove bits of shives, a process similar to combing long hair.

Hemp strick - natural fibres

Hemp fibre is usually sold in stricks, which are bunches of long hackled fibres neatly twisted together. It can also be sold in ‘tops’ which consist of shorter lengths of hemp (about 15 cm) which are overlapped to make a continuous ‘top’ and can be spun just like wool.
As the hemp plant is very tall, up to 5 metres, the fibre bundles are long, from 120 to 210 cm long or even longer. Flax fibres, which produce linen, are another bast fibre and, are 45 to 90 cm long, while cotton is very short in comparison, only 2 to 5 cm in length. The long fibre length makes hemp very durable, and gives it great drape allowing designers to create floaty outfits.
Hemp fabrics are very similar to linen and both have the same interesting texture. Like linen, hemp wrinkles easily adding character to the garment and giving it a carefree look. Hemp fabric is not stretchy and it can feel stiff at first, so it is often blended with cotton to make it softer. However, hemp does become softer with washing and use. Of course, hemp is breathable and biodegradable like all other natural fibres.

Unlike cotton, the whole of the hemp plant can be used; the fibre comes from the stem and the oil from the seeds. In the past hemp fibres were mainly used for making canvas, rope and sails. Now, however, you can find everyday clothes items made of hemp. Hemp can also be used for papermaking and animal bedding. New uses include composite panels for the automotive industry, as well as Hempcrete which is used for construction and insulation. Hemp seeds are used in the food industry, cosmetics and for production of biodiesel.
Hemp is considered an environmentally friendly crop. Hemp farming does not depend on pesticides as diseases rarely affect the yield of a hemp field, and it uses less water than cotton. Because of its height and dense foliage, hemp plants help to control weeds, thus avoiding the use of herbicides. Hemp can be grown in the same field for several years becoming very effective at minimizing the pool of weed seeds in the soil. The hemp crop has several other advantages, in addition to controlling tough weeds, it is also a great rotation crop. Its large root ball loosens the soil, helping to create a good soil structure. It can also help with water and soil purification, clearing impurities from sewage effluents for example. Hemp is an annual flowering herb which matures in 3 to 4 months, much faster than trees grown for paper pulp, as well as producing a greater yield per acre than flax.
Hemp (from Old English hænep) has been used since the Neolithic and it is possibly one of the earliest domesticated plants. The oldest archaeological record is of a hemp cord imprint found on pottery in China from the 5th millennium BC. Historically hemp was used to make ropes and sails, including those of Christopher Columbus’s ship. During World War II, hemp was used in uniforms and canvas. It was gradually replaced by tropical fibres, such as cotton and jute, which were cheaper to produce. However, due to the current need for alternative eco-friendly fibres, hemp is experiencing a comeback in fabric for everyday clothes.

Hemp string or twine - natural fibres

Hemp cloth & hemp twine - © Mike Roberts

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Hemp is used for the manufacture of rope and cord, and for clothing, and nutritional products. Hemp fibre can be used in 100% hemp products, especially for rope and cord, but is commonly blended with fabrics such as linen, cotton or silk, for clothing.

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Teresinha at Wild Fibres
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Gibb Street, Birmingham B9 4DT, UK

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Last updated on 24 May 2021
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