September 23, 2021

Painting with nettles

One of my favorite plants to dye in the spring is the nettle – one of my most anticipated plants. At this time of year, the leaves give me a soft gray-green color (maybe you get a slightly different color?) – the color feels very fresh and “alive” in early spring.

In this blog post, I will give you my tips on coloring nettles for the freshest colors and talk to two nettle-loving pharmacists at the same time. Kim and Wiki from Hand and Pharmacy. They answered some of my questions about nettles and helped me understand why low temperatures work best when removing paint from leaves.

As soon as the first nettles come out of the ground, I wait impatiently until they are tall enough for the first crop of plants. Then I cut the top leaves.

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(Photographer Siobhan Watts)

The nettle grows so wildly in so many places that I never run out of leaves. Since I collect them to paint and not to eat, I don’t think they come from clean areas like my local park, where there are a lot of dogs.

When collecting nettles at this time of year, we must pay attention to the nesting of caterpillars. This is a piece of advice I heard from a friend Alice Bettany – Pharmacist of Holy Seeds. The Red Admiral butterfly lays its eggs on the leaves of the nettle, so it is a sign that there is a hungry caterpillar inside the folded leaf. So do not cut the leaves, which may be caterpillars.

I cut the tops of the nettle plants with scissors and use the scissors as a tongs to place the stalks of the leaves in my basket or bag. Some people wear gloves to protect themselves from stings, but if I’m careful, I see that I don’t sting. Sometimes the only thing that stings me is getting up and forgetting that there is a nettle near my bare ankle!

When I get home, I leave the nettle basket on my balcony for a few hours to allow the insects to crawl. I look more carefully when I put the leaves in the pot.

1632419432 478 Painting with nettles Rebecca Desnos

As with all my paints, my methods are loose and intuitive and are a little different each time. I don’t paint my plants and I don’t record the water temperature. But here I wrote my general method.

A note about security

Use separate equipment from your regular kitchen equipment – you need a separate set for painting. Provide good airflow when painting inside. Keep your paint containers away from food, children and pets.

What do you need

  • Aluminum pot – this is the key to getting the brightest colors. I get muddy / brown shades when using stainless steel.
  • Wooden spoon
  • Strain
  • Dishes for filtering paint
  • Pre-washed and melted fabric
  • Stinging nettle

1632419433 609 Painting with nettles Rebecca Desnos

A note on the fabric

As mentioned in my Botanical Color book at your fingertips, I pre-treat the fabric (cellulose / plant fibers) using the soy milk method. You can choose another method, or if you dye protein fibers, you can not use anything. But for clarity, my fabric is all cellulose and pre-processed with soy milk.

Dyeing method

1. Put the nettles in a large aluminum pot (I see that I get the brightest colors from aluminum).

2. Fill the pot with enough water to cover the nettles.

3. Place the paint pot on the oven and heat very gently. As the leaves soften, push them below the water level. Stop the heat when the water reaches the boiling point. Then turn off the stove and allow the nettles to soak in the paint pot for a few hours. The goal is to gently color the leaves – do not cook while the nettle.

4. Regularly inspect the inside of your paint container and check that the water changes color. It will initially appear yellow and darken in a few hours. I like to put a piece of cloth in the paint pot and use a wooden spoon often to watch the color of the paint.

5. You can decide to reheat the paint.

6. Monitor the color for the next day or two and observe the color change of the liquid. My yellow changes from green to dark gray-green.

7. When you are satisfied with the color of your paint, strain the leaves. This can be after one, two or three days. If you allow the leaves to sit in a warm place for too long, the smell of the paint may start to come on, so be careful and use the paint before this happens. Strain through a fine mesh sieve and make sure there are no pieces of leaves in your dye, as they can get into your fabric or yarn and leave darker spots on the fabric. Filter again with a cloth if necessary to remove all parts of the leaves.

8. Pour the paint back into the aluminum paint pan and heat gently for a few minutes. Now you can choose to use a slightly higher heat, not to paint the leaves. Over the next few hours, notice that the paint darkens even more – the paint becomes almost black. Many dyes darken in this way – perhaps due in part to a reaction with aluminum due to oxidation, and as Kim and Vicki noted in the following interview – the leaves contain iron, so darkening the dye may be natural. “sadness” of the paint color from the iron. The sides of the aluminum paint finish are almost blue (see photo below) – this is where the paint reacts with the metal.

9. Add extra water to raise the surface so that there is more space for your fabric to move.

10. When you are satisfied with the color of the paint, add a damp cloth, then heat gently and mix with a spoon to help it paint evenly. (See my blog post here for tips on how to paint the most even colors). Boil the fabric and make sure it stays under the paint.

1632419433 556 Painting with nettles Rebecca Desnos

11. Allow to soak as much as you want and reheat several times if you feel the need. As you go, mix the piece so that you can paint everything evenly.

12. After a day, remove the fabric, squeeze the excess paint and allow to dry. Wait a few days until the paint washes off. If you dye the cellulose fibers, the final color will be much lighter than the original color that came out of the dye bath, but I see a lovely misty gray-green shade left.

1632419433 351 Painting with nettles Rebecca Desnos

Additional experiences

  • The dye fabric changes at different points in the process and sees how the fabric dyes different colors. The painting goes through an emerald green stage – it would be an exciting moment to paint some pieces!
  • Compare different paint containers – aluminum vs stainless steel (non-reactive) vs copper vs iron. Aluminum, copper and iron are all reactive metals and will affect colors differently. I feel that aluminum brightens the paint, I get more dull results than stainless steel, iron paint is darker (“sad”) and copper will somehow increase the color (maybe even greener!) To see!
  • Collect nettles at different points in spring, spring and autumn and observe how the color of the paint changes. At the end of the year I get beige / brown. Maybe it will be the same for you or not. If you paint with nettles regularly, you will be able to watch the effect of the seasons on the color.

Color durability

Before staining your favorite clothes with nettles, check how well the color stays after washing several times and exposing them to sunlight. The color level will be determined by how long you have pre-washed the fabric and pre-treated / prescribed it. I see that the color from the nettle remains good, but I am not responsible for your results. It may depend on the fabric you are using and many other factors. Even if the color does not last as long as you expect, you can easily repaint. But I personally see that nettles make a reliable paint. After all, humans are stained with hundreds of nettles, if not thousands of years.

Let’s talk now Kim and Viki from a handmade pharmacy Read more about nettles.

1. Write now and open new nettles everywhere. Young leaves always give me the brightest colors in the paint pot. Are these young nettles the strongest in terms of nutritional and medicinal value?

Apparently, these lush, green spring nettles are best for picking and coloring products for food and medicine! Nettle tops (stem and top 6-8 leaves) are best selected before flowering, when they are soft and full of protein and rich in minerals such as iron, calcium, silica and magnesium – fantastic for everyone, but especially for vegetarians and those prone to anemia.

Stinging nettles are harder, more bitter, and contain insoluble crystals of calcium carbonate, which can irritate the kidneys and theoretically cause kidney stones in very large doses. Don’t worry if you miss the season, cut nettles can be “washed” a second time in the fall and harvested again.

2. When I paint with nettles, I think a lot about not cooking the leaves – this ensures that the best greens are extracted from the leaves. If I heat the water too much, the paint becomes browner. Why is this?

It is very interesting to note this, and it will be from two main things. First, the short warm-up period ensures that chlorophyll (a photosynthetic cell in green plants) does not break down and stays fresh and green. Also, when the nettles are boiled for a long time, you will see that the liquid is not only dark, but also has a very metallic taste if you swallow it. This is because iron dissolves in water from plants, and a darker color is caused by the oxidation of iron.

3. When preparing a nettle infusion, does the low heat / slow infusion offer different health benefits compared to making tea with hot water perhaps more typical? Which method do you prefer and why?

It is a traditional way to pour boiling water on nettle leaves and brew it as a tea. For plants of plant origin, other delicate phytochemical compounds tend to not be cooked for a long time because they will break down: for harder materials such as bark, seeds and roots, boiling and decoction are prepared.
However, adding berries to your diet is the preferred method to get the greatest nutritional / mineral benefits. Cook the nettles like spinach, no need to overheat; chop them and add to soup or fry at the end of the cooking time. Just a few minutes is all it takes to destroy stains, and once mixed, it adds an excellent umami flavor!

4. When dyed with dried nettles, the color can not be compared with the beautiful color of fresh leaves. Is there a difference between fresh and dried nettles in terms of nutritional value?

One of the main benefits of nettles is the presence of very stable minerals (iron, silica, calcium, etc.), and therefore drying does not affect their taste. Unlike other delicate herbs, nettle dries and retains very well. So use it fresh when you can get it, but don’t worry about it drying out for use after the season is over. For us, it is a kitchen staple and it is so tasty and nutritious that they should enjoy it all year round. There is an old saying, “If the nettles had been eaten in March and the Muggworts in May, many servants would not have gone.”

5. What are your favorite ways to use nettles in herbal practice?

There is a wonderful use of nettles! The infusion is an excellent final hair tonic to enhance and add shine. Just prepare a strong infusion and after it has cooled enough, use it as a final rinse in the shower after shampooing. The seeds are high in omega 3 and are a fantastic super food used by people of plant origin for people who are stressed and depleted. Just a pinch (less in the case of nettle seeds) is mixed smoothly, mixed into hot porridge, or as part of an energy ball recipe. There is even a study that helps stabilize blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Then there is a simple nettle anemia tonic that helps raise iron levels and is great for women (and men) of all ages.

Thanks for the interesting conversation, Kim and Vicky! I really appreciate your thoughts on your favorite nettle.

Kim and Vicky There is a brilliant book called Hand Pharmacy: Herbal Remedies which I bought last year and thoroughly recommended. There are enough nettle recipes out there!

I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.

If you decide to paint a nettle and share pictures on Instagram, use the hashtag #mylocaldyeplants we can see each other’s results and color change.

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