This is essentially a guide to using wild nettles as a fabric dye but before I start I really need to confess that I LOVE nettles. I may even go so far to say that I have a passion for nettles and I can guarantee that this post will more than likely veer off in various nettle loving directions along with the fabric dying instructions so you have been warned.
First of all, I started gathering wild nettles when I moved to Norway. Before I moved I’d always thought of nettles as little more than an annoying weed. My friend Clara took me foraging in the woods one day in Spring 2013 and explained to me that nettles are traditionally used to make soup in Scandinavia in the spring. After a long, hard winter of eating dried and preserved food, nettle soup made from the fresh tips of the plant would give a much needed vitamin boost for hungry Vikings. Nettles have huge amounts of iron, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D and vitamin K, but more of that later.
If you’re going to gather wild stinging nettles, you’ll need rubber gloves. I learned the hard way that normal garden gloves don’t protect you from the sting. I’d also recommend wearing long sleeves and trousers, as well as shoes that don’t have open toes. In short, protect your skin because the stings hurt.
The best time for collecting is in the spring or early autumn. Nettles tend to grow twice a year at these times and can generally be found on the side of foot paths and in rocky, well drained ground.
Only take as much as you need. Before you start gathering, decide where you’re going to dry and store the plants and how much you can realistically deal with at one time. It’s easy to get all fired up and pick lots at one time, then have nowhere to hang or store them, which just leads to waste. Sorting and drying nettles can be a bit of a hassle when you first start, so start with a small amount, say around one carrier bag full.
Once you get them back home, and while still wearing your rubber gloves, arrange them into small bunches and tie them loosely with string. Hang them upside down and give them a good shake to get rid of any bits and pieces and bugs that may have got trapped in the leaves. It’s better to brush off any detritus rather than washing it off as you want the leaves to be dry when you hang them up.
Alternatively you can pick off the leaves and lay them out on absorbent paper on trays or a table top. The leaves usually dry more quickly this way, but it takes up more space.
Find a warmish, dryish, darkish place to dry them. Make sure there is enough space between the bunches or trays to allow air to circulate and then draw the curtains, close the door and leave them alone for a few days.
After a few days they will have lost their sting and will be safe to handle. Sometimes you can still feel the little needles, but they won’t actually sting you, just jab you a bit.
Once they’re completely dried gather them up and store them in a paper bag or large jar, then keep them in a cupboard. Keeping nettles in direct sunlight will fade their colour.
Some people use fresh leaves to make their dye, and it works, but for some reason I find that drying the nettles first makes a stronger dye and it just makes the nettles easier to deal with.
To dye fabric take a handful of dried leaves and soak them in boiling water.
I usually leave them to soak in a jar over night, strain out the liquid in the morning with a sieve and throw the squished up leaves into the compost heap. I either dip or soak my fabric in the dye bath, then leave it for a few hours. Remember to use only natural fibres – cotton, silk, wool, as the dye will not colour synthetics.
Once the fabric has been soaked for a few hours you can either leave it to dry naturally or bake it on a low heat in the oven. The heat will deepen the colour, but be careful not to leave it too long or your lovely deep green will turn into a mucky brown.
So back to the health benefits. These are all my own personal observations, I am not a doctor, so please don’t treat this as scientific, clinically proven fact. There is a lot of information about the health benefits of nettles online so go google.
About three years ago my hair started to get thin and I was told by my hairdresser and doctor that this was just what happens when you get past your twenties, however, I started drinking nettle tea and my hair has honestly not been this thick and silky since I was a teenager. In fact, about two or three months after I started regularly drinking nettle tea, I ended up with a weirdly shaped Joan Jett type mullet because the top two inches of my hair were so much thicker than the ends. My hairline which hadn’t exactly been receding but had been, let’s say, widening somewhat, started to become all fluffy with new hair growth.
I also noticed that in the winter my knees and hips, which usually ache in cold and damp weather felt absolutely fine. I won’t go into details as those details are somewhat … icky… but I also noticed a massively positive change in my digestive and menstrual health.
On top of that, nettle tea just makes me feel healthier in general. It gives you an energy boost without the buzz of caffeine and it feels nourishing without filling you up.
I drink a jar of nettle tea two or three times a week. I make it exactly the same way I make nettle dye, except that I chill it before I drink it because warm or hot nettle tea tastes gross. It can be stored in the fridge for two or three days and if you happen to forget about it and find it’s gone off a bit you can use it as plant food or a hair tonic that you can massage directly on to your scalp, or you can, of course, dip fabric into it.
Then there’s nettle soup, which can be made with the dried leaves, but is best with the fresh young spring time tips of the plant, picked before the plant produces seeds.
And one final tip, if you have a dog, I recommend taking it foraging with you. If your dog scents and pees on the nettles then the chances are other dogs have done the same thing in the same place so keep walking until you find a spot that’s not so interesting to your pup.
If you’ve tried nettles as a dye, food or tea please let me know your experiences in the comments section. I’d love to hear your tips and tricks as I’ve more or less worked all of this stuff out on my own.