As an herbalist, the plant world constantly intrigues me. Beyond medicine-making, plants continue to lure me into plant-dye experiments, cord-making, and other curiosities. Naturally, fibers and textiles are of interest and I’m always intrigued by traditional techniques and the revivification of lost ways…
And so, today’s topic is the natural fiber, ramie.
Ramie or China Grass
Urticaceae family (same family as Stinging Nettles)
I looked at a tag on my sweater this morning and it said it was a “ramie” and “cotton” blend. I have wondered, over the years, what ramie was and never bothered to research it.
I finally did today. And, much to my delight, I found out that it was a plant native to Eastern Asia and in the Nettles family (Urticaceae). The plant does not sting like Stinging Nettles, just so you know…however, they look incredibly similar (especially to our local Wood Nettles in the US, Laportea canadensis).
(You can read more about Stinging Nettles here).
In East Asia, they have been making fiber with this plant for centuries. You often find it blended with other fibers these days because “Ramie stalks are said to contain the longest extractable fibers of any cellulose fiber plant and so when blended with cotton, wool or silk creates a large range of durable and versatile textile types.”
Years ago, when researching Stinging Nettles, I remember that there were many references to it being used as a fiber in Europe, as well… So, this relative of Stinging Nettles, Ramie, and its use as a fiber in Asia makes total sense.
“Commonly called “China Grass” ramie is predictably native to China, from where it has been formally exported to the western world since the 18th century. The plant is part of the cellulose bast fiber group and belongs to the nettle family, with Boehmeria Nivea being the species most often cultivated for yarn and textile applications. Primarily grown in Asia and Brazil, nowadays only a fraction of the material is shipped overseas to Europe and the USA, making it practically unknown to much of the western population.
Not only is ramie a natural fiber, it is also similar to other bast fibers like hemp and nettles in that it needs minimal amounts of water and no pesticides or herbicides to thrive, also providing nutrition for the land it is grown on through it’s biomass. The stems of ramie plants can reach 8 feet in height and can be harvested up to 6 times a year. Following harvest, the stalks are peeled to extract the fiber by scraping off the bark from the fiber layers and hanging them to dry. After this, the fibers are split into thin threads and hung to dry again before the spinning process.”
As an herbalist and plant-lover, I really like knowing that when I put on this brown sweater…that I am wearing a nettle sweater… Just saying.