Page last updated at 15:08 GMT, Tuesday, 3 June 2008 16:08 UK

Nettle fabrics set for catwalk

Alex Dear in her nettle knickers
Alex Dear made lingerie from nettle based fabric in 2004

Fabrics made of fibres from nettles could soon be seen on the catwalk and on the High Street.

What began as an experimental pair of knickers four years ago has evolved into office furnishings and car upholstery and is now set to make a debut in fashion.

A team from the textiles and design department at De Montfort University in Leicester has been working on making fabrics produced from stinging nettles commercially viable.

In 2004, student Alex Dear modelled lingerie she had designed, using nettle-based fabrics.

A team from the university has since been developing fabrics mixed with wool that are already being used in car furnishings and furniture upholstery

Working with a nettle farm near Desford, agricultural scientist Dr Matthew Horne and the rest of the Sting project team have also been blending nettle with other fabrics on a "top secret" project to develop new textiles for clothes.

Since the technique of extracting fibres from nettles is decades old - generally used in times of shortages - the team has developed a new take on an old method.

They do sting, but they are a special type of nettles that are bred for the fibre
Dr Matthew Horne, De Montfort University
Mr Horne and his team have been working with "a lot of companies in the UK" to produce and use nettle-based fabrics.

But they are keeping the project with a Dutch company to produce blended textiles for clothes strictly under wraps.

Mr Horne said: "[Nettles] have a key technical feature that enables them to be blended with other fibres and gives the fabrics that are produced from that a very special property.

"We are one of only a few places in the develop this idea."

The fact nettles are easy to grow, environmentally sound and a renewable crop means it could prove to be very popular, he said.

"The crop requires very low inputs," Mr Horne said. "It does not require any pesticides, it does not require the high levels of fertilisers that things like cotton may... it also provides a habitat for various wildlife.

Fabric made from nettle fibre
Nettle fabrics are being used in car furnishings and furniture upholstery
"They do sting, but they are a special type of nettles that are bred for the fibre. The fibres are contained within the skin on the outer stem of the plant," he added.

The East Midlands is no stranger to innovations in the textile industry, according to Julie King, head of department of fashion and textiles at De Montfort University.

"It's the second largest manufacturing region in clothing and textiles in the EU," she said.

"We cannot compete with China and India on low labour costs", said Ms King, but there is still room for success.

According to the East Midlands Development Agency, there are about 1,500 businesses involved in clothing and textiles and 21,300 employees working in the industry in the region.

"What we do very well here is innovation - in technical textiles, manufacturing methods and design," said Ms King.

"We have retained a lot of the design development, technical research, buying and merchandising offices and marketing and PR."

Student shows off nettle knickers
01 Jul 04 |  Leicestershire

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