The Wild Nettle Plant grows about 6ft-7ft tall.

The Wild Nettle Plant grows about 6ft-7ft tall.

Reminiscing a conversation with her grandmother, Kala Kumari, a Kulung woman said, “according to our grandmother the first plant we ate was nettle and during a time of which lasted for a year in the 70’s, we survived because of nettle.”

Nettle plant grows throughout Nepal. The Kulung community values nettle both as plant and fabric. Nettle fabric also has a long tradition in the Kulung community. The skills of making nettle fabric have been passed on from women to women through generations. It also holds a spiritual significance with birth and death as the community uses the cloth made from nettle fabric to cover a new-born baby as well as a deceased body.

Once the bark is removed, the Wild Nettle gets processed by boiling it for several hours to soften it.

Once the bark is removed, the Wild Nettle gets processed by boiling it for several hours to soften it.

In the district of Sankhuwasabha, where the Kulung community live, Wild Nettle is collected at an altitude of 2800m. Every year in the month of October, a group of women from different villages in Sankhuwasabha camp in the forest for about a week while harvesting the plant. The women in the community primarily do harvesting and processing. They want to continue doing this as this provides them income for purchasing household items and give them some degree of empowerment as it is usually the men who the have the purchasing power.

The nettle tradition is in danger
The boiled Nettle gets mixed with white clay, which is dusted off once dried.

The boiled Nettle gets mixed with white clay, which is dusted off once dried.

There is a slow growth in the demand for nettle in recent years due to an increased interest among the international companies that value such wild fibres. However, women from such communities are facing multiple challenges. They are being subjected to social stigma where they are called “backwards” for holding on to the age-old traditions. Similarly, currently areas where nettle grows is also very fertile for cash crops such as cardamom.

Men in these areas are now calling household meetings to destroy nettle crop and substitute them with cardamom. One of the women members from the local nettle group said, “cardamom will bring money but this will be for the men. We still want to continue our heritage and teach our children to spin yarn and weave nettle.” In addition to preserving age-old tradition and heritage, the unparalleled role of women in nettle production suggests a more nuanced influence of nettle harvest and processing on their lives in terms of empowerment, self-reliance, and independence.

Weaving Nettle to make beautiful fabric.

Weaving Nettle to make beautiful fabric.

There is a need to support these women so they can maintain their traditional knowledge as well as develop innovative skills to meet the increasing international demand of this traditional plant.

Story and photos by Prabighya Basnet and Dave Smith. Prabi and Dave both have a degree in conservation science and set up the agri-social project Khali Khutta (“Bare Foot”) in Nepal, empowering people in remote mountain villages focusing on using ancient agricultural and manual labour techniques.