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Nettle-A-Long, harvesting stinging nettle yarn  RSS feed

 
r ranson
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Anyone up for a Nettle-A-Long?

It's the right time of year to harvest stinging nettles for yarn purposes. I've been picking wild nettles with the intention of extracting the fibre and making cloth. Anyone else want to try it with me?

Nettles have a bast fibre that runs the length of the stem (phloem is what the botanists call it, I think). The fibre can be extracted something like linen, only much finer. It was one of the main sources of plant fibre in Europe for most of history, and before. Many garments that archaeologists thought were linen, they are now discovering are made from nettles.

Used in both the New World and Old, there are many ways of processing nettles into cloth. Let's gather together some of these methods and try them out. Even if you aren't interested in actually playing with stinging nettles, feel free to join in the conversation and help us brainstorm some ideas.
 
r ranson
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To get you guys started and inspired, check out this online magazine Textile materials from the stone age
 
Galadriel Freden
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A couple years ago I made some basic nettle cordage; it took very minimal processing, but was pretty labor intensive. I would be very interested in learning to make actual fiber from nettles, but I have too many irons in the fire right now to commit to it. Still, I hope you (and others) will post your progress here, as I would certainly like to read about it
 
r ranson
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I figure it's going to take me a few years to discover the technique I'm looking for, but if there is interest, I'll keep posting as I discover new things. If you can't join in this year, feel free to nettle-a-long another year. Hopefully we can make this thread a great resource for future nettle fibre enthusiasts.

I'm looking for a method that is very much like processing linen and creates a soft, strong cloth like linen can. Until I can find this method, here's where I'm going to start:




I really like her videos.

Let you know the result in a few days.
 
Bettina Bernard
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For procrastinators like me Birte's method of field retting might be the ticket: http://www.nettlecraft.com/Root_Retting_Recipie.php
It is just about the right time of year now! Has anybody tried it or is familiar with her book?
 
Jotham Bessey
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Well I have nettles! lots of them! There's a million things I need to learn. stinging nettle cordage is one of them.
 
r ranson
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I met some weavers that want to buy local handspun nettle yarn.  Handspun yarn I can do, but nettles are still pretty new to me.

So time to revive this thread.  It's early in the year to harvest nettles for fibre, but I do have a huge patch the neighbour wants eliminating ( a grumpy neighbour who thinks these are 'poison ivy') so I might make some dye from that.  I also have some dry nettle stems from when this thread started that I haven't tried anything with.  I might ret it with my flax this spring. 
 
r ranson
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Here's a bit from A Weaver's Garden by Rita Buchanan about preparing nettle fibre (paraphrased).

A perennial Weed that grows in moist places, along roadsides, and in vacant lots. stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) and the stingless nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica) are all sources of fibres.  First Nations used it to produce cordage.  In Europe, nettle fibre has been used since the Bronze Age to weave sails for boats and mesh fabrics for sifting flour and filtering honey.  It was also used for other household items like bed sheets, table linens, &c.  Buchanan quotes Thomas Campbell to say that "nettles are as good as flax for making cloth" and that it can be more durable than any other linen (referring to household linens not necessarily linen from flax).  Nettles were grown and processed on an industrial scale during the world wars of the 20th Century. 

Although Buchanan does not have personal experience processing nettles, she gives us three possible ways to extract the fibres.

1. "...cut green stems and peel off the outer layer of fibres and skin right away (within an hour or two of cutting), and then ret the strips of fibre."
2. "...cut and ret whole stems until the fibers strip off easily."
3. "The third method, used by North American Indians for wood nettles and stingless nettles, is to leave the dead stalks outdoors to decay until winter, then peel the fibres from the dry stems and flake off the remnants of outer skin."

After the fibres are extracted they are scraped, rinsed, combed and dried (perhaps not in that order).

(end paraphrasing)


I don't know if this is useful information or not, but it's a starting place.  The medieval Europe history of textiles is "to process as flax" which is very different than the ways described here.  Also, the First Nations on the West Coast of Canada had a very different method for processing nettles which involved retting pools which were made "round from bashing".  The conclusion I'm coming to is that there are so many different possible ways to process nettles that it's time I stopped researching it and started trying some of them until I find one that works well for me.
 
Sean Pratt
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great thread! i didnt know much about nettles for cordage before this. My girlfriend crochets constantly and im starting to relies how many things we could make 100% off our land if i just had a fiber crop of some sort. so far no luck with nettles. Kai me and Sara sowed some seeds in a local wet spot and i haven't seen any plants yet . but when we do have some nettles be sure we will be Nettle-A-Long with you!
 
Sharon Kallis
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I have been playing with nettles for fibre off and on for about 9 years now and continue to love and have deepening respect for this incredible plant.
Yes, the learning curve has been slower then I would like but i find i do pick up a bit more each year...
A few things i have learned:
After the retting process nettle stored for a year or more is easier to process off stalk( thr most time consuming part) then freshly harvested.
Nature retting- harvesting after rains or snows- is better done in colder drier places the n the damp coast climate where i live. This year was the first time harvesting in January provided good fibre and this year was way colder with snow which is odd for us. Coast Salish people tradtionally harvested here in October after first frost and that has worked well for me under usual seasonal conditions.
I have had good luck dew or water retting and find nettle retted with my flax will take slightly less time- flax in tub for 7 days with nettle pulled out day 5 as an example.
I have also learned i prefer to process my nettle when it is feeling slightly underretted, and then the fibres are longer and stronger when i card them compared to retting until they already feel silky- they break easier then.
I have had fantastic results in my fibre, but not yet with consistency or any sense of efficiency- what i am now trying to crack the code on.
Last year i read somwhere that in Norway they harvest nettle from stalks green in july- before seed is mature, and cook with woodash before pounding and spinning....
I tried this last summer but might have had too much ash in my water or cooked too long as the fiber even rinsed and neutralized with a slight vinegar bath still feels crunchy- i think i need to pound more yet. Generally i do prefer pulling fresh fibre off stalks as it is way faster then pulling off dry stalks so i am going to do another round of tests with this this year. And see if i have better luck getting to the spun fibre point with this method.

Other fun facts for processing:
Know that shady grown nettle has less bite then full sun nettle.
Look for yellow dock or plantain growing nearby to rub on any stings.
Harvest nettle, let it lay in the sun for several hours before stripping leaves and the hairs will have wilted = no sting!
Anyone with arthritic hands should love processing nettle- i have plants that have volunteered on my balcony in planters near where i hang my fibres to dry and often run my hands over the leaves to relieve joint pain... My husband is mildly concerned that the plants are getting bigger- not the best small balcony plant to be sure- i have promised i will trim them before company gets hurt!
 
Jotham Bessey
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stinging nettle has always been a problem in my yard. I'm glad to find it is good for both food and yarn/cordage. It is no longer a problem but a resource!
 
nataly marchuk
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I just wanted to share my childhood memories about stinging nettle.
Fairy Tales were always a delight and source of life skills in my life. One in particular the Six Swans https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Six_Swans was about the girl making shirts from nettle for her brothers turned into swans. I always thought it was the cruelest of punishments that wicked stepmother administered on poor girl. My friend and I were playing as that little girl and harvested some stinging nettle in the woods nearby. we placed them resting under the tree not quite knowing how to transform these plants into a shirt. After couple (or may be more) of days we checked on them and found out that nettle was covered with ants and you could see separate fibers as if we (or rather ants) did some work with them (retting?). Generally I was avoiding nettle plants and never thought anything good about them.
Recently I learned to accept and even like the nettle in my life. I have small patch (contained so far as I still not able to give it free life) of nettle that I use for Nettle Pesto, adding to Borsch and possibly learn how to make a shirt Finally
Thank you for great inspiration and useful links R.Ranson!
Nataly
 
Rebecca Gray
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When my children were young, I volunteered as a docent at the "Children's Museum" in Ft Worth, Texas.  They had some wonderful display rooms set up including a log cabin.  Outside the door of the cabin was a flax break.  Rather than mess around with beating the nettles or flax with a bat or stepping on them, the break would be much faster and much more efficient.
It was made like a small wooden trough or long box with the top and one end open.  It was about 4 or 5 inches wide and deep and at least 24 inches long.  There was a square bat that fit in it loosely that had a handle that was another 6 inches longer than the box (so you wouldn't hit your knuckles).  The bat fit neatly inside the box with a pin holding the tip in the far end of the box like a hinge.  The idea was to put the flax at a 90 degree angle across the break box and lift and lower the bat repeatedly, beating the straw cover from the flax.   If you Google "flax break", there are a lot of pictures of them with women using them.
Not difficult to make and much easier than any other manual method.
If it works for flax, it should work for nettles.  I can grow flax at 8,500 ft in the mountains, but I have never seen nettles up here.  Good luck!
 
Thekla McDaniels
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Rebecca,
I have a friend whose home is at ~8200 feet, we hike WAY UP from her place and there is a place where the nettles are abundant.  It is moist and south facing slope, the side of a mesa in fact.  It might not be the elevation limiting your nettle growth.
 
r ranson
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I put out my retting this week, including some nettles I harvested a while back.


 
David Livingston
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As someone who has spent quite some time attacking these plants and no doubt going to attack some more I am amazed to find this use for them . I look forward to finding out more !

David
 
r ranson
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I found The Nettle Page with lots of links and videos for processing nettle fibre.


In this video he is water retting nettles then scraping off the fibres from the stems as he removes them from the vat.  It looks like this takes about a week. 

One thing to note, he talks about how toxic the retting water can get.  It needs to be diluted (about 10 parts fresh to 1 part retting water) and then it can be used as fertiliser.
 
r ranson
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The next video along in the series talks about how to process these fibres, including a bit about traditional Himalayan methods. 


It looks like this method creates a fibre that is a lot like cotton.  Short, fine fibres. 

I like this.  They look very soft.

And yet, it conflicts with my previous knowledge which is that medieval Europeans processed it "like flax" to produce a fibre indistinguishable from flax except by microscope.  This just goes to show that there are many right ways to get fibre from nettles.
 
Thekla McDaniels
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These are great videos.  I know of a patch of nettles near where I hope to move later this year.  Perhaps I can harvest some and give this a try.

About the "like flax" idea, it may be that this method is similar in many folks minds to how flax is processed.

vaguely, it separating the fiber from the non fibrous parts using water.  My mom would  have seen these two processes as "the same thing".

I am thankful that you not only know the difference but found these teaching videos so that I who have spun much animal fiber through the years, including my own hair, feel confident about giving this a try and ending up w- in addition to the knowledge gained by trying something new, with some usable fiber to spin.
 
Inge Leonora-den Ouden
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raven ranson wrote:It looks like this method creates a fibre that is a lot like cotton.  Short, fine fibres. 
I like this.  They look very soft.
And yet, it conflicts with my previous knowledge which is that medieval Europeans processed it "like flax" to produce a fibre indistinguishable from flax except by microscope.  This just goes to show that there are many right ways to get fibre from nettles.

I agree, these short fibers are also conflicting with what I know about yarns and fabrics made of nettle from the past. The traditional fabric named 'neteldoek' (= nettle cloth) in Dutch looks like a very fine linen (linen batist). The fibers must be long to make it possible to spin such a fine, even, almost shiny, yarn.
 
r ranson
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Himalayan Wild Fibres are producing a nettle fibre. 

It looks like they strip the bark while still green, then process it into long and short fibres.

Using a proprietary extraction process, we produce a lustrous, long fiber that is spun by commercial mills to produce beautiful, unusual yarns for use in luxury interiors and high-end apparel.


Although they don't go into much detail, the pictures are enough to inspire yet another method to try.  Cut early, crush the stems, peel the bark, then try retting it. 
 
r ranson
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Right now my nettles are in full flower.  One of the few plants to be ahead of the season in this cold 'spring' we are having.

It's time to start experimenting on this year's crop.  I want to harvest a bit every few weeks to see what stages it's easiest to process.  If it ever stops raining, I'll start this weekend. 
 
r ranson
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Here's a Japanese video on Ramie harvest.  It's a close relative of nettles and I've seen it called 'stingless nettles' from time to time.  One of the advantages of ramie is that it doesn't seem to have the nodes on the stem like nettles.  These nodes are where the fibre is weakest so having a stem with less of those would be an advantage.



They harvest it green and cut it into what looks like one-yard lengths.  Submerge the stems in slow-flowing water (possibly retting, or maybe just enough to swell the stems to make them easier to work with - need a Japanese translation for this bit). 

They then split the stems with their hands and remove the pith. It looks quite easy and since the stems are still green, I think that the water tank wasn't a full 'ret'. 

The bark is now submerged again in the slow flowing water tank and weighed down with rocks. 

Next, the bark is removed from the cambium layer and we are left with fine ribbons that we know as ramie.


Not nettles, but perhaps some of the skills for processing ramie could be tried on nettles.
 
Cassie Langstraat
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Whaaaaattt. Amazing info raven. Never woulda thunk!
 
r ranson
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A brilliant video even if I can't understand what he's saying.  I love his enthusiasm.  I get the feeling he has a lot of knowledge to share.



It looks like nettles and they look a lot like how mine are right now.  Flowering but not seeding or drying down yet. 

He's picking them green and stripping the leaves.  Right away, he crushes the stem and strips the skin from the pith.  Next, he shreds the skin into finer strips.  He shows us a bit of knee spinning and how to make cordage from the green strips.

At about 5:10 he shows the challenge with the nodes and how the fibre is weaker there.  He also shows how much stronger the fibres are between the nodes. 

At first, I thought these must be stingless nettles, but they look so much like my local ones.  Then I realised he's handling them from the bottom of the leaf, always from the bottom, even when he strips the leaves.  There's little or no sting on the bottom of the leaf. 

About 14 min in, he shows a close up of how to strip away the pith from the bark.  He makes it look so easy.

He takes his nettle strips and some (washed?) ashes and boils them.  Next, he rinses them in the stream.  As he does, they seem to break apart the same length as the nodes were on the stem so that he has very nicely organised bundles of fibres, 4 to 6 inches long.

When the fibres are dry, he sort of breaks them with his hand and combs them.  A bit like scrutching and hackling one does with flax.  He's even left with a kind of nettle 'line' and 'tow' that are ready for spinning.

Brilliant - best nettle processing video I've watched so far.
 
Maureen Atsali
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I have a lot of probably stupid newbie questions.  I've always known that nettle had a billion uses, culinary, medicinal, fiber.  But I have just ignored it. Wasn't motivated enough to climb that learning curve. But it keeps coming back to peak my interest.

So I am here in the tropics.  Nettles are growing in the swamp, year round, no seasons.  First question, how to harvest them?  Should I go by size? Cut them at the base, or pull it by roots?  Is there a way to harvest without getting hurt?  Can I or should I be doing something with the leaves at the same time I am processing stems?  How much nettle do I need to get a useful amount of fiber?

And a sort of off topic question, have you ever known anyone to have a severe reaction to nettles?  More than stinging, temp rash, and discomfort?  I keep getting huge, nasty blisters on my lower legs... And it seems to coincide with the days I work in the swamp.  They look like burn blisters, itch like mad, and keep growing until they burst, usually about the size of a quarter.  After they break, they often become infected and cause me problems for weeks.  It has never effected my hands, only exposed parts of my legs - I usually work in shorts, and I am often walking through overgrown vegetation.  The only plant irritant I can identify is the nettles, but there are all kinds of unknowns that I could be reacting to.  My husband says there is nothing else in there that commonly has such a reaction... Maybe its an individual allergy.  Anyway, before I go playing in the nettles, I kind of need to know its NOT the cause!
 
r ranson
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These are great questions and don't know the answer to most of them.  That's why I'm experimenting.  With textiles like nettles, there are about a thousand right answers to how and when to harvest and process.  The thing is, not all of them are going to work for me and what works for me may not work in other locations.  So I'm trying as many different ways as I can to discover what works for in my location.

First question, how to harvest them?  Should I go by size? Cut them at the base, or pull it by roots? 


It looks like nettles can be harvested anytime from flowering to after they die in the winter.  It looks like many people cut them at the base.  Since mine are ready so early in the year, I'm thinking to cut one node up from the ground so they can produce a second crop.

Depending on your nettles, the leaves may make a good dye plant.  The younger leaves are often used for medicinal tea.  They also make great fertiliser in the garden.

have you ever known anyone to have a severe reaction to nettles?  More than stinging, temp rash, and discomfort? 


Nettle sting is basically the same chemical as a bee sting.  So yes, some people can have a very strong reaction.  Mine lasts for about 4 days (I might wear gloves for the harvest this year) and is worse if I touch the nettles the day after rain.  For our local nettles, the sting is only on the top of the leaves, so touching the stem and underside of the leaf doesn't make it sting.

There are some nettle relatives that have a deadly sting.  They grow somewhere near the equator, I think.
 
r ranson
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Following the example in the Russian(?) video above, I harvested and stripped the nettle 'bark' from the stems.  Very quick and easy.  Mostly painless.  Next time I might wear gloves.
nettle-fibre.jpg
[Thumbnail for nettle-fibre.jpg]
harvesting nettle fibre for yarn
 
r ranson
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Since there are so many different ways to process nettles, I'm trying a few of them and harvesting at different stages of growth.  This week the nettles are in full flower so I invited some friends over and promised lunch in exchange for a nettle harvest. 

We learned it is way easier and more fun to harvest in a group.
Long sleeves and pants are useful.
Dock this time of year has very little effect on the sting, but the juice from inside the stems of the nettles is very soothing.
There are a crazy number of ladybugs in the nettle patch.


Full Flower Nettle Harvest Methods.

We chopped the nettles off near the ground and stripped the leaves from the stems.  Next, we gathered the stems into sheaves and tied them with some nettle skins.  The stems were between 3 and 4 feet tall.

Some of these we are drying, some are on the lawn to dew ret, and the rest we skinned green.

Removing the skins was pretty easy and took almost as long as harvesting.  I think with practice this could be an acceptable amount of labour. 

I took some of these and boiled in a slurry of wood ash.  The result was slimy and not at all like in the Russian (?) video above.  Could this be because the nettle fibres aren't strong enough yet?  Or maybe I boiled it too long?  I'm drying the result and will report back if it helps.  But I would rather stay away from energy intensive methods like boiling.

Some of the skins we are drying and some I'm thinking to submerge in water for a day or so to see if that changes what they are like to work with.



The next attempt will come when the nettles have finished flowering and are starting to go to seed.  I suspect this will have stronger fibres and end up being the sweet spot.  After that, I want to try another harvest when the plants are drying down.
 
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Thanks for this thread and all the research and testing you are doing.  I am watching this thread with interest, because I know of a nettle patch at ~9000 feet, near where I hope to move later this year.

About the boiling in wood ash slurry, I wonder if soaking in wood ash slurry would suffice (perhaps for a little longer).  The lye in the wood ash will become active without addition of heat, if it is the caustic action of the lye you are wanting.
 
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Thekla McDaniels wrote:

About the boiling in wood ash slurry, I wonder if soaking in wood ash slurry would suffice (perhaps for a little longer).  The lye in the wood ash will become active without addition of heat, if it is the caustic action of the lye you are wanting.


Sounds good. I'll give it a try.

Right now I have some soaking in water. Thinking of doing some water retting soon too.
 
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r ranson
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I hear some of you say that you have nettles. 

I suspect that there is a lot of regional variation in how nettles are harvested because there is so much regional variation in the different types of nettles.  This makes me think that if I discover what works where I am, it may not work in other locations.  My conclusion, the more people who join the nettle along, the more we will know about nettles.

Any of you guys with a nettle patch at (or after) the flowering stage yet?  Can I persuade you to start playing with nettles too? 
 
Inge Leonora-den Ouden
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raven ranson wrote:I hear some of you say that you have nettles. I suspect that there is a lot of regional variation in how nettles are harvested because there is so much regional variation in the different types of nettles.  ... 

Maybe it helps to use the official (Latin) names of the different nettle plants? Here in the Netherlands (western Europe) we have Urtica dioica and Urtica urens.
 
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Part of it is the different kinds of stining nettles - although all will produce a fibre.

Part of it is the different locations themselves.

With flax, every location creates a unique condition that will change the timing of harvest and quality of the fibre.  Even two flax beds I grew 2 meters apart had very different fibres and almost three weeks different harvest time because of sun, water, soil quality, and other unknown factors.  Nettles being undomesticated, I suspect have way more variation.  We also don't have standardised cultivars of nettles (at least not commonly available) like we do with flax.  Even flax for oil and flax for fibre have the same latin name and the variation between the different cultivars is huge. 

The more people who participate in this nettle-a-long, the more information we can gather. 

I'm posting my experiences in hope of inspiring others to get out there and start playing with nettles.  If it's just me doing things, it's hard to find the motivation to share what I'm learning. 
 
Juli Anne
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I have three good batches of nettles that I have carefully tended and I think this year I will be playing with them as a fiber source. I understand soaking is the way to rot away the non-textile part and just leave the fibers?
 
Terry Hadford
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That is a wonderful Russian video. Most of it is clearly demonstrated but my partner was able to translate the crucial part about boiling the fiber with his rusty Russian. The presenter said there are a number of different ways to ret the fiber and that this is his method.
First he prepared the lye solution from wood ash. He removed all the big pieces and mixed it until it was only fine particles and it feels slippery. That slippery feeling is the alkali.
The first method he mentioned was just to leave the green material to soak for 2-3 ?days? (he was speaking quickly and it wasn't clear to my partner what the interval was, but it can't be weeks, the fiber would dissolve after that long).
The option he demonstrated was to speed up the process by boiling it. He tested the fiber after 2 hours of boiling and showed that the translucent fiber was starting to be visible so it was ready to wash. This method is also used by White Hmong Thai people to ret hemp. They boil the hemp for 3 hours and then wash and physically crush it.
When he was combing it, he said that the short fibers could be added back the longer fibers during spinning or you could make a very fine thread just with the short fibers alone.
 
Hans Quistorff
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I was intrigued by the experience of the ants striping the outer coating. We have ants here that make large mounds of conifer needles and thy seem to be harvesting sap from various sources.  I will try throwing nettles on the nest and see what happens. If they doo strip the surface I will also try my wild flax when it is tall but not flowering because the surface of the stems is still soft at that stage.
Anothe question is there usable fiber in the stems of field daisie flowers that I am cutting at this time to keep them from seeding?
 
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