The I have been conducting experimental archaeology with bison hair and stinging nettles in my textile lab at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. I didn’t realize I was doing experimental archaeology until our park superintendent, Lisa Baldwin, took an interest in my experiment. I just thought I was doing living history.
The experiment started with a few sentences in a book. I read “The Wilderness Road” by Robert Kincaid in preparation for our months here at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Originally published in 1947, the book is an excellent history of the Cumberland Gap and the early settlement of Kentucky. Chapter 10, “Trials of the Hard Winter” discusses William Fleming’s time in Kentucky. Colonel William Fleming was sent by the Virginia Legislature to Kentucky County in 1779 to settle the hundreds of land disputes before Kentucky became a state.
In addition to his work as the head of the Land Commission, Fleming kept a meticulous journal and copious correspondence, detailing daily life on the Kentucky frontier. From October, 1779, until May, 1780, Fleming and his Commission adjudicated 1,328 land claims. Even more important than settling the land claims, Fleming’s correspondence and journal left a valuable record of what life was like on the frontier. He described the cold and the unsanitary conditions, the making of maple sugar, and the use of nettles and bison hair for cloth.
The journal, published in 1916 in “Travels in the American Colonies” gives wonderful details that are very interesting to any historian of the period. I finally found the reference cited by Robert Kincaid in the journal on page 641. “The people every where were bruised in pulling nettles which had been rotted like hemp by the ice and snow and yields a good strong bark, the nettles growing very tall and strong, when broke and spun makes a strong thread, when wove makes a strong coarse cloth but harsher than hemp.” The settlers mixed the nettles with bison hair or wool to make it softer and more durable.
When I read this, I knew I had to try it. Cloth made from bison hair and stinging nettles. Not a common combination. I read an article on preparing the stinging nettles and decided to find some fibers already prepared. I also ordered bison hair roving online. The bison hair, in particular, is expensive so I didn’t get a lot of either of these fibers. But I got several ounces of each, hoping that would be enough to spin yarn and weave some cloth samples.
The bison hair was easy to work with – just like wool only shorter fibers. The nettles, on the other hand, were like spider webs. The nettle fiber might be really strong and soft, but if my hands were wet or sweaty, the fiber stuck and was difficult to get off. I tried brushing the fibers together in a 50/50 blend, but they kept breaking when I spun them. I might have had too much twist for the nettles. Flax, which is similar, requires very little twist. I couldn’t find any details about spinning the nettles.
I kept trying different combinations of bison hair and stinging nettle fiber and ended up with a 35/65 mix of stinging nettles to bison hair. I spun this into about 500 yards of single ply bison nettle yarn. The yarn was uneven because the nettles kept clumping up.
After I spun the yarn, I put it on the loom to weave. I used a sett of 12 ends per inch and the cloth was 7 inches wide. This gave me three strips about 12 inches each with a 4″ fringe on each end. I hemstitched each piece of cloth. Weaving the cloth was frustrating because the warp yarn kept breaking. If I had been able to make enough of the yarn, I would have double plied it to make it stronger.
Once I took it off the loom I washed each piece differently. The cloth is very coarse and feels rough – not something you would want next to your skin. I thought it might get softer, like linen does with repeated washing. Not so. The cloth that I washed repeatedly was still just as rough as the carefully hand-washed cloth. Tom said it would make a good pot-scrubber. Even though the cloth was coarse, it was holding up well and seemed strong. Rough but durable.
As I mentioned, the park superintendent, Lisa Baldwin, was very interested in my experimental archaeology. She kept stopping by to check out the different stages. This made the rangers more interested in what I was doing as well. I appreciated her interest and encouragement.
Will bison hair and stinging nettle cloth catch on? I doubt it, but it is interesting to think about other fiber possibilities.