The stinging nettle (urtica dioica) is a perennial, flowering plant. Its hairs inject histamine and other chemicals when touched by humans and animals. It stings, it pricks, and it burns. Yet despite its natural form, the plant is wearable. Like hemp and linen, nettle plants have long, stringy fibres that can be separated from the stem through a time-consuming process called retting, that rots away parts of the plant's cellular tissue. Netl is an innovative Dutch brand that is tempting us to place the fibres of this stinging plant against our skin.
|The stinging nettle. Source: netl.nl.|
The use of nettle as a clothing source is not a new concept; it has been used for this purpose for the past 2,000 years. It also has a long history of use in food, and for medicinal purposes. It fell out of popularity in 19th century Europe, however, in favour of an easier and cheaper alternative known as cotton. In her book From Sting to Spin. A History of Nettle Fibre, Gillian Edom writes about the use of nettle plants for fibre by indigenous groups in North America. Susi Dunsmore writes in The Nettle in Nepal: Tradition and Innovation that the fibres from nettle plants have long been used for clothing in Nepal: "The Himalayan giant nettle was processed and used for both fine clothing and for sailcloth. The fibre from the inner part of the plant was removed, the bark is stripped and can be used for basketry." Many years later, during the First and Second World Wars, the plant was used for German uniforms in light of cotton shortages.
Netl presented its first knitwear collection made entirely of stinging nettle in London and Paris earlier this year. The collection was designed by award-winning Dutch designer Rianne de Witte, who has been designing for the company since 2007. "She is considered a pioneer, is internationally known for her timeless and sustainable designs and has always been interested in sustainable fabrics," according to Nienke Feddes, Netl's sales and communication manager.
De Witte's inspiration for Netl's most recent collection is the work of Mark Rothko, a Russian-American abstract expressionist artist. De Witte was particularly inspired by his subtle use of colour-blocking and coloured squares, says Feddes, and she translated them into knitwear-designs. The silhouettes of the collection's dresses, tunics, and tops loosely follow the body.
|Crébas-Womba family. Source: netl.nl.|
So how did Netl stumble upon the stinging nettle plant as the basis of their collection? In the early 1980s, Bob Crébas and Carla Wobma founded the recycling store Goedzooi in Emmeloord, Netherlands. The shop's philosophy was based on the idea that what some may consider junk is often re-usable. In the early 1990s, Goedzooi became Het Goed, a chain of recycling stores. Around this time, Crébas and Womba also launched a classifieds website called Marktplaats.nl. In 2004 they were approached by eBay, who made them an offer that they couldn't refuse. The American firm bought out Marktplaats.nl for 225m euros. The pair soon found themselves on the list of Holland's 500 Richest People.
Crébas and Womba decided to invest the money in a new project. They discovered that the cultivation of cotton by the fashion industry was responsible for massive pollution and the deaths of thousands of people who cultivate it without protection. The pair learned that stinging nettle had been used throughout history to make clothing, and decided to demonstrate that it could still be a viable alternative to cotton and other harmful textiles.
In 2006, they planted 33 hectares of urtica dioica on the land where they live and work in Emmelord. "Stinging nettles grow in a temperate climate with adequate rainfall, like ours, whether we like it or not," explains Feddes. "Hardly any pesticides are needed for cultivation, which is fantastic. After planting, the crop is harvested in August, after which the plant grows back and the same field can be harvested seven years in a row. So stinging nettles really do grow like weeds. Moreover, research shows that stinging nettle fibres are as strong as cotton while 30 to 50 per cent lighter."
Feddes adds that, "stinging nettle is processed in a human-friendly and environmentally-friendly manufacturing process. The refining step for the Netl collection is a wet process based on biodigestion: we blend our nettle fibre with cotton and spin it mostly on cotton ringspin systems, but with other blends like nettle/wool, they are spun on woolen spin systems. The stinging nettle fibre can be mixed with cotton, wool, linen or other textile materials."
Comfortable, practical and clean garments. The colours in Netl's 2012 collection are inspired by those in nature, such as hazelnut, camel, sea blue, lavender and green moss. "Netl also has a black collection, known as Black-Netl," explains Feddes.
The typical Netl clients are strong and stylish women. Despite current economic woes, Netl seems confident. "People always want to look and feel good in nice clothing," says Feddes. "Our colours bring some light into these grey days."
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