The Stinging Nettle:
Its Re-introduction for
Fibre Production

The nettle (Urtica dioica L., stinging nettle) is a perennial plant that contains unlignified, sclerenchymatic fibres in the bark. Collecting nettles as a source of fibre goes back a long way in history. During World War I and II nettles were used for producing textiles in addition to flax and hemp.

Between 1920 and 1950, in Hamburg, Germany, efforts were undertaken by Professor Bredemann of the University of Hamburg to select nettles with fibre contents of more than 15 % of  stem dry mass.  Bredemann published his results (Bredemann, 1959; see also some of his photographies), but could not avoid that all his knowledge was forgotton.

The re-discovery of the stinging nettle was absolutely exciting: in 1990 Professor Lieberei and me walked around the experimental fields of the Institute of Applied Botany in Hamburg. What we found were a lot of containers full of nettles, seemingly weeds which grew there for long time.

But because of several morphological differences between the nettles in the containers we offered our student Jens Dreyer to start to describe them (later supervised by our colleague Gisela Dreyling). Furthermore, in the garret of the Institute we found old photographies and samples of tissues made from nettle fibres. The stinging nettle as fibre plant was re-discovered... It was the hard work of our students to re-identify  some cultivars of Bredemanns stinging nettle to re-describe and to offer them for industrial use.

Again, it was the spin off company Institute for Plant Cultivation which developed the methods how the nettle could produced economically sustainable. Another spin off Nettleworld took over the idea and is recently the largest producer of cloth from stinging nettle in the world.

Since 1999, an EU-project (FAIR-CT98-9615) was started to study the possibilities for this plant to be cultivated as a raw material for the production of fibres and cellulose using modern methods of plant production and fibre processing. The project partners -textile companies from Germany, Austria and Italy, and research institutes - reproduced our developments of plant production (establishing of the crop, nutrition requirements, maintenance works, harvesting methods) and fibre processing (techniques of fibre extraction, methods of spinning the fibre, weaving fabrics and manufacture textiles). In spring of 1999, four clones with high fibre content were planted at two locations in Austria. The plant material was supplied by the Thüringer Landesanstalt für Landwirtschaft, Germany, and originated from the breeding work of G. Bredemann, Hamburg. The technology is spreading all over Europe now...

The propagation of stinging nettle is done vegetatively with cuttings. After six weeks of preculture in the greenhouse cuttings are transplanted to the field. Fibre nettles are cultivated in rows, being spaced apart 75 cm and 50 cm within rows. More than 500 hectares are planted recently only in our Wendland area, with more than 25,000 plants per hectare. Machinery has been adapted for planting, cultivation, harvesting and processing (more...).

 

Expertness

The author participated  in the interdisziplinary project by supervising Ph.-D. students and as consultant for the spin off companies.

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