From Sting to Spin by Gillian Edom

Reviewed by Fiona Dix

bookcoverOne of my favourite fairy tales is the story of a girl with eleven enchanted brothers - swans by day and men by night. To free them from their swan shapes forever, she has to spin each one a coat from stinging nettles. After a long struggle at this arduous task she almost manages it. Sentenced to death she has but one coat remaining incomplete - and all her brothers are transformed just in time to save her from execution... only the youngest brother whose coat is not quite finished, has to carry the wing of a swan in place of an arm to the end of his days.

You can find Hans Andersen's version of this story in a small book that is packed with interesting information about nettles as fibre - From Sting to Spin, by Gillian Edom. Gillian has spent many years researching this book - tracking down hundreds of references, historical anecdotes, items of folklore and images, documenting how the ordinary nettle - "a plant we love to hate" - has been used as a fibre source throughout history and across continents.

The book begins with a fascinating look at the links between textile terms and the roots of the word nettle in different languages. It goes on to cover archaeological finds, the use of different varieties of nettle (including ramie) in indigenous communities around the world, the uses of nettle fibres in Europe, and various commercial experiments in mass production. Gillian explores the effect on nettle use of imported fibres such as cotton, and of the two World Wars which gave renewed impetus to efforts to extract fibre efficiently from nettles

From Sting to Spin is full of quotes and snippets of fact, many tantalisingly inconclusive or now only partly understood. Gillian manages to weave this mass of detail into a very interesting story - of people's long struggle with a plant that has a precious treasure at its heart, difficult to extract, easy to overlook, but rewarding those who persevere with a fine and beautiful cloth.

I enjoyed reading this book very much and learned a lot too - not just about the fibre and the people who used it; many other interesting little nuggets are included along the way. For example, Victor Hugo's discourse on nettles, in Les Miserables, quoted in the book, provides a lesson not only in moral philosophy but in natural dyeing too.

In the final chapter, Gillian mentions that there are individual craftspeople who have been or are ("in latter years") working with nettle fibre - extracting it themselves; it would have been good to see a little more information here, and some names to follow up - I wanted to know more about these people!

If you are a spinner you may find yourself inspired by this book to try producing some nettle fibre for yourself; and while this isn't an instruction book, by the end you will have learned how numerous people with limited resources went about it, how well they succeeded, and whether their efforts survived.

From Sting to Spin is self published and comprises 68 pages, with photographs, diagrams, drawings and boxed extracts throughout, footnotes, a short glossary and an index. At £7 plus £1.30 UK P&P, I think it would appeal to a wide range of people - not only fibre enthusiasts, but anyone who is interested in plants, social history, folklore and the sheer ingenuity of human beings.

Available from Gillian Edom, 16 South Way, Bognor Regis, West Sussex, PO21 5HA.