In Praise of Nettles

Embracing Zocha, the Himalayan Stinging Nettle

by Pema Choden Wangchuck, excerpted from Tashi Delek magazine, Nov-Dec 2023 issue

Zocha, or Himalayan Stinging Nettle: prehistoric, environmentally friendly, endlessly versatile

“You’re just like nettle worms” means you are a quick-tempered person . . . but there’s so much more to this wondrous nettlesome species than people realize . . .”

My early childhood in the Dungsam valley, Pemagatshel, has taught me to be alert and keep away from the deep green wild plants, armed with a thousand tiny stinging hairs, called the zocha, the stinging nettle. I have memories of my legs burning while whizzing on the bike with my brothers, and the blooming of itching white bumps on my hands and face while foraging sergong, the yellow wild berries. Zocha grows widely in the open forests and meadows, and it was a sight one couldn’t miss in Pemagatshel, a remote district in eastern Bhutan.

Clothing

Textiles made from nettle plants are one of the first inventions in human history other than the use of flax and hemp. Evidence shows that people in cool climates have used nettles since the Bronze Age to create textile fibers. Traditional fiber plants do not survive in cool, temperate climates, but nettles thrive. The fiber is found in the stalk of  the plant. This fiber comes with unique strength , and smoothness, that are largely used for textiles . . . Nettle fibers provide natural air conditioning, meaning the hollow fibers fill with air inside and create natural insulation. . . .

This intricate bag or “phechung” is hand woven using nettle fiber, cotton and silk

 

Nettle textiles in Bhutan

The original fiber used by local weavers long before native cotton or wild silk, for which Bhutan is now much better known, was nettle. Communities in Trongsa Dzongkhag, Wangduephodrang, Zhemgang, Lhuentse, and Samdrup Jongkhar harvested nettle to produce clothing and utilitarian textiles such as bags, wrapping cloth (buendi), and multi-purpose ropes. The fiber was also used by archers for stringing traditional wooden bows. Until the mid-1960s, nettle and other bast fibers were used chiefly for clothing. Older Bhutanese remember women’s nettle-cloth dresses which were fastened with thorns or sharpened bamboo slivers.

The most elaborate handwoven textile in Bhutan known as the kushuthara also has association with the nettle.  While the process of nettle yarn is no doubt labor intensive entailing several procedures starting from harvesting the stem, cooking, toughening/beating, washing to spinning into yarn, the nettle cloth is gaining prominence and value. Generous efforts both in terms of funding and training made available by the Tarayana Foundation and the Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan have further encouraged its promotion and preservation among the concerned communities. The 2019 EU-Bhutan Trade Support Project that brought together 22 direct beneficiaries in an effort to support 100% made-in-Bhutan products also promoted local nettle textiles, making them popular nationally as well as internationally.

Pema Choden Wangchunk, Chief RTA curator currently on sabbatical, is studying in Australia. She previously worked at the Museum Reitberg in Zurich, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle.