Historical Sew Fortnightly, Sewing

A smock of nettles

Of all the fairytales, the one that intrigued me most growing up was The Wild Swans (also known as The Swan Princes).

There are many variants of the story, but basically it is about a girl (Hans Christian Andersen, in his version, calls her Elise) whose brothers are enchanted and turned into swans.

14th century nettle shift thedreamstress.com

In order to free them from their spell, our heroine must make each of them a shirt of stinging nettles: and while she spins and sews (or knits, depending on the version), she cannot speak.

14th century nettle shift thedreamstress.com

Some of the local villagers are suspicious of the silent girl who gathers prickly weeds, and of the garments she is creating.

14th century nettle shift thedreamstress.com

When, desperate for a new source of nettles, she gathers them from the churchyard, the villagers turn against her completely, and try her as a witch.  She desperately sews even as they tie her to a stake and pile the wood around her.

14th century nettle shift thedreamstress.com

As they light the fire, her swan brothers fly overhead and circle around her, and she throws the shirts over them.  Unfortunately she hasn’t quite finished the sleeve of the last shirt, so her youngest brother retains his wings.

With her brothers finally freed from the spell, our heroine can finally speak and explain why she was making stinging nettle shirts.  The villagers are apologetic, and everyone lives happily ever after (presumably).

14th century nettle shift thedreamstress.com

I found the fairytale interesting firstly because fabric and sewing are so central to the story, secondly because the girl is so much the heroine of the story: saving her brothers and freeing herself, but mostly because of the fabric the heroine works with.

Making a shirt of nettles sounds like a mad fantasy, but there is actually a fabric made from nettles: ramie.  Ramie is similar to linen, and has been used as a fabric since ancient times.  There are Egyptian mummies wrapped in ramie bandages, rather than linen.  More of interest to me, I’ve read accounts that mentioned that ramie was used in the Middle Ages when linen could not be sourced (presumably because of droughts or warfare).  While the mentions are very third hand, and I’d like to see the original research, I was fascinated by the idea of a medieval ramie garment.

Last year I managed to get my hands on two metres of handkerchief weight ramie (at Fabric-A-Brac, of all places).  It was sold as linen, but I’m pretty confident the fabric is ramie.

So I handsewed a 14th century (more or less – it could be worn any time up until the early 19th century) ramie smock inspired by The Wild Swans.

14th century nettle shift thedreamstress.com

For the photoshoot my sister and I tried to capture the essence of Elise’s story: gathering nettles (we settled for wild parsley) and watching for her swan brothers, all while isolated and outcast from the normal world.

14th century nettle shift thedreamstress.com

I wore the shift (I know, not quite how the story works, but I had no need to make mens shirts) myself.  Since it’s very under-clothes-y, and sheer, I’m wearing it over a bra and knickers and tap pants and a slip for maximum modesty.  Very important especially since we did some photography on a beach right by the road!

14th century nettle shift thedreamstress.com

I’ll do a post about the shift construction, but with these images I just wanted to create a fairytale.  I certainly got the essence of it when it came to pain: my feet are so bruised from limping around on the rocks by the seashore!

14th century nettle shift thedreamstress.com

After taking pictures on the beach, I noticed a little goat trail heading up the hill, and we explored it, which turned into a mad scramble straight up a steep hill spotted with pine trees.  Those images look a little more ‘Snow White running fleeing into the forest’ than Wild Swans.

14th century nettle shift thedreamstress.com

After 30 minutes uphill, we were rewarded by a sunlit meadow at the summit:

14th century nettle shift thedreamstress.com

So my smock has already been well worn in: I’ve gone tramping in it!   It’s very comfortable, though pricklier than linen, but wearing it over a synthetic slip wasn’t.

The Challenge:  #6  —  Fairytale

Fabric:    2 metres of handkerchief weight ramie – $5

Pattern:  None, drawn up based on basic smock/shift pattern construction and conjectures about Medieval undergarments

Year: intended to be 1380s, but this basic construction could be used from 1200-1800.

Notions:  silk thread – probably less than $1 worth.

How historically accurate is it?   Medieval undergarments are a bit of anybodies guess, there is so little extent textile or visual evidence, though, having made mine, I suspect my construction is unlikely, simply because it creates significant weak points (I’ll tell you about that in a construction post).  And, of course, having a raime undergarment is based on the slimmest historical evidence, especially since I don’t particularly trust my sources.  So there could have been a 14th century smock that looked just like mine, but it’s more likely that it’s completely off.

Hours to complete:  4.5.

First worn:  For the photoshoot and a mad scrambly hike over the Miramar hills, because that’s what everyone does in a Medieval shift, right?

Total cost:  $6 (woohoo Fabric-a-Brac frugality!


  1. Erin says

    First of all: thanks for doing this. I love that story, or parts of it. ( Some versions get grisly and aren’t my favorite. ) the photos are wonderful and really capture the isolation that is such a key part of the story. ( and besides, if she knew how to make a nettle fabric maybe she already had a shift of nettles? I’m curious what characterizes raime. Does it have similarities with some hemp fabric? I had no idea raime was nettle let alone that nettle was commercially woven! (Which I suppose is redundant…) I know that dogsbane and milkweed both have long bast fibers that can be made into linen-like threads and fabric. ( and apparently milkweed fluff was researched in the US as an alternative to kapok during one of the world wars…)

    • You’re most welcome! There are some pretty icky details in some versions, but if you pare it back to the basics across all the versions it’s a really fascinating story.

      Raime is a lot like linen – much more like linen than hemp, as it is even crisper than linen, whereas hemp is softer than linen. Raime will break along creases, but it doesn’t sag and bag at elbows and knees.

      Raime is also used as the name for other fabrics made from bast fibres (just like flax can describe a number of bast plants). Love the idea of milkweed as kapok – you’d think anything would be an improvement over kapok!

  2. I love this post. Your pictures are beautiful and you did a great job combining storytelling with the historical and other non fiction information.

  3. What a great photoshoot. And what a nutty story. So, the villagers think she is a witch because she gets some nettles from the church yard, but when she magically transforms three swans into men, they’re all, oh yeah, sorry. Because witch craft paranoia was all logical like that! hehehe. Psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim wrote an amazing book called The Uses of Enchantment that explores the purpose and meaning of these stories in teaching young people about aspects of life – I wonder what this one may have been an allegory about?
    It amazes me how you manage to look 16 sometimes, and 35 at others, and all in one day! And always beautiful with it! xo

    • “So, the villagers think she is a witch because she gets some nettles from the church yard, but when she magically transforms three swans into men, they’re all, oh yeah, sorry.”
      Good point! And where were they when the poor guys got turned into birds in the first place, eh? Instead they set upon this poor girl who is charitably weeding the churchyard AND recycling the weeds into garments. Clearly, eco-friendly = witch!

    • Hehe, thanks! So that gives me an average age of 26? I’ll take that 😉

      I guess witches turn things into animals, so if you turn things back into a human you’re clearly not a witch? Maybe?

  4. What a lovely shift!

    (Also, have you read Juliet Marillier’s “Daughter of the Forest”, which is a wonderful adaptation of the Wild Swans fairytale.)

    • Jenny Wren says

      I second that recommendation! It’s a really well-written book. I kept putting it down and being surprised that I was able to speak.

    • Thank you!

      I’ve heard of it, but I’m not really a fan of most modern fiction, and I distrust fantasy in particular. If I run across it in the library or a bookstore I might give it a try.

    • Thank you!

      Those articles are on my reading list for writing my terminology post but I haven’t had time to read them properly yet 🙂

  5. I would love to be able to make a smock from ramie. Evidence is mounting that it was used in pre-Viking age Scandinavia, at least. But it’s hard to find here in the U.S.

    The photoshoot above is lovely, and you look lovely in the smock–just like your fairytale girl.

  6. I seem to remember that ramie had a bit of a ‘moment’ in the UK in the late 1980s. However there were concerns that because it had long fibres, which were so fine as to be almost invisible, it could catch light if it got too close to a naked flame such as a gas ring. The solution seemed to be to iron it very thoroughly after laundering.

    Of course, this may just have been tabloid scaremongering, but there’s never anything wrong with a thorough ironing!

    • Ramie was quite ‘in’ everywhere in the late ’80s – usually combined with polyester for the linen look without the linen crumple. I’d never heard the fire worries though!

  7. I love all the beautiful clothes you make, but I have to say, this post contains some of the loveliest photos I’ve seen of you. So simple and natural.

    • Thank you! I guess this post is my equivalent of those no-makeup selfies 😉 No makeup, wild hair, and I didn’t touch the photos – not even to colour correct them!

  8. julietmarillier.comVery comfortable looking smock. Well done! 🙂 That’s one of my favorite fairy tales too. Have you read the series written by Juliet Marillier that are based on an Irish version of that fairy tale? Anything written by Marillier is good, but that series (Sevenwaters Forest) is especially so. The first book is called “Daughter of the Forest.” http://www.julietmarillier.com/books/daughteroftheforest.html

  9. Elise says

    Her name was Elise? Wow. I always found that story so sad, even the happier versions.

    So on a happier note, what lovely photos!

    • Elise says

      It reminds me of the King Lear-like story I was read as a kid: La Princesa de las Juncos, about making a garment out of grasses.

      As for bookreading, I suggest From the Forest! (And I’ll be peering into a lot of the other book recommendations, too)

    • According to Hans Christen Anderson, yes! I thought you’d find that interesting. It is quite sad, and often creepy.

  10. VERY fairy tale-ish! That is an inspired garment and photo shoot…I enjoyed the post very much.

  11. pitt.eduOh my gosh, you chose the same story as I did!
    Except the version I read was called The Six Swans, and the shirts were made from asters.


    I have an 18th century shirt all cut out in aster coloured linen, with one shoulder sewn.

    Villagers in fairy tales always overreact to everything.
    The pictures and the shift are lovely. You can never have too many shifts. (or shirts)

  12. Lynne says

    Beautiful, beautiful photos! And your under-layers don’t show, even through such fine fabric.

    If you were one of Pratchett’s witches, you’d have to be Magrat, the research witch. Eye of which newt? Toe of which frog? I always wondered about those nettles, being a bit of a Magrat myself. The excellent article to which Sue shared the link suggested that nettles were the fibres of a variety of naturally growing plants. Wiki offers this list of plants known as nettles …

    Time for someone with a strong pair of gardening gloves to get out there and check the nettles!

    Then there are forty-odd kinds of dead-nettles that don’t sting…

    So much to learn!

    • Thank you!

      Raime is made from stinging nettles – urtica dioica, though other forms of nettles have been used to make raime in the past. The fairytale makes it clear that the garments are made from stinging nettles, as the pain the girl goes through to weave the garments is a big part of the story.

      • Lynne says

        I just found this, too. “German Army uniforms were made from nettle during World War I due to a shortage of cotton.”

  13. Grace Darling says

    Wah! My comment was deleted first time …. is it the link?


    Why shirts made of graveyard nettles by bleeding fingers and silence should disenchant men turned into birds by their step-mother is a question the story doesn’t need to answer. It just needs to give us compelling images of exile, loneliness, affection, and metamorphosis — and of a heroine who nearly dies of being unable to tell her own story.”

  14. Oh, these photos are so absolutely beautiful! I have always loved the story of the wild swans (although I didn’t know there are more versions than just the Andersen version around). Thank for posting these. I am totally in awe.

  15. Such fantastic photoshoot!
    There’s a Czech version, recorded by Božena NÄ›mcová, with seven ravens as the heroines brothers, and she gets married throughout the ordeal and is accused of being a witch by the jealous/envious/evil sister (or stepsister?) of her husband, who switches their newborn children for animals. Here, the youngest brother only has seven feathers left on his shoulder, because she could not finish the last seven stitches. So in that respect it’s nicer, but she still ends up nearly burned at stake…

    Looking forward to your construction post – I’m curious what the weak points are!

  16. I really enjoyed your shortened version of the story interlaced with the really dreamy quality of the photos. I remember nettles always stinging horribly where they grew up around our barn. However, the donkey loved eating them and they are supposed to make tea as well as fabric. I’m glad I was never pressed to collect them! Your tunic is lovely.

  17. Nettle fiber is also traditionally used here in Nepal, and it’s getting revived for sustainable livelihoods. It’s mixed now with various fibers (nettle/hemp, nettle/bamboo) for export, but traditionally it wasn’t mixed with anything. At least that’s what my Key Informant (eg my husband) tells me he remembers while growing up in the village. Now I have to ask more questions next time I go there!

  18. Klara says

    Nettle fabrick was called “Scotch” in 18th century and was used for lining girls gowns (for example). Nettle threads was also used.

  19. It’s fantastic, and the pictures really capture that fairytale ambiance. You make an excellent fairytale princess.

    This story always fascinated me too, because of the nettle shirts. Until recently I thought nettle shirts were one of those fairytale things, like spinning straw into gold, but it seems nettles have been made into cloth quite often, and since very early times. However, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered ramie. Would you say it feels like a slightly pricklier linen, or does it have a different kind of texture?

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