Although this may go entirely against one of the central themes of this beautiful film, stop what you’re doing this instant and find your way to a showing of The Nettle Dress. It’s one hour and eight minutes of pure soul nourishment, and there’s really no reason why you should starve yourself any longer.
On this page, you’ll find…
The Nettle Dress is an independently-made film by documentarian, Dylan Howitt. Filmed over seven years, it follows the single-minded journey of textile artist, Allan Brown, as he discovers an interest in nettles, allows it to become an obsession, begins to find immense solace in the power of traditional weaving techniques, and ultimately creates a dress that is as much a monument to the years and legacies that found their way into the warps and wefts as it is a garment. The original Kickstarter page describes the film, almost flippantly, as “hedgerow couture”. In truth, it is so much more.
We meet Brown in Limekiln Wood, a wild, discarded patch of land to the north of Stanmer, East Sussex, just as his interest in local fauna is starting to itch. With hindsight, he is able to see reasons for this sudden fascination, but it has initially to do with mindfulness – with being in the moment. Brown, his wife Alex, and his children are clearly nature-minded – bound to the land and alert to the wheel of the year – so his interest is not particularly unexpected. He becomes fascinated by the way in which nettles only sting when approached from a particular dimension, and he’s mesmerised by the way their seeds puff and explode in the fragile evening light. He finds himself wondering what can be done with their stalk fibres and how our ancestors may have used them as thread. He begins stewing up nettle soups, fresh from the earth, in the open air. Before long, he has begun drying them and spinning them into a rough yarn.
Without knowing why, he is preparing himself for unforeseen circumstances. “The weaving, spinning, gathering,” he later muses, “was like I was being equipped with these tools to get me through what was coming up.” In quick succession, his father succumbs to leukemia (“I was sitting by his bedside, spinning nettle”), and Alex is diagnosed with (and is ultimately taken by) terminal cancer. From that moment on, The Nettle Dress becomes a meditation on strength in the face of indescribable grief, with the transformation of the dress itself – initially fragmented, ultimately rugged and sturdy – a visual and tangible metaphor for the experiences Brown must navigate. “On some levels,” he realises, “it feels like it’s been a process of weaving a shroud, because it was totally there to absorb the loss and the grief.”
Time is a central theme. How could it not be? It heals, certainly, but it demands respect along the way. Seven summers of nettle gathering are followed by seven winters of spinning and weaving. Brown trudges on, marvelling at the arrival of each new year as Liz Pearson soundtracks the startling, fresh verdancy with a transfixing rendition of ‘The Birds in Spring’ [Roud 356]. The seasons pass and the inexperienced nettle weaver spins 14,400 feet of thread. “It keeps demanding that you take the slow road,” he explains. “Each slow process fills it with intention – the history of these last seven years, crystalised into this material.”
It should come as no surprise that the dress ultimately gets made, but there’s an exquisite pain and beauty in the realisation, somewhere along the line, that this dress – all that love and longing this man has experienced, brought together in one simple robe – is being made for his daughter, Oonagh. It’s hard not to be moved by the sight of this young woman, clearly the spit of her mother, wandering through Limekiln Woods in a dress made by her grieving father from the natural materials growing beneath her feet.
Oonagh Brown wearing the Nettle Dress. Photo credit: Mark Carroll
Quite aside from being “hedgerow couture”, The Nettle Dress is a discourse on love and loss, and an ode to the magic of wildness – to the areas of beauty, undisturbed by our unrelenting appetite for instant gratification. It’s an extended reminder of that feeling so many of us experienced during lockdown, that our immediate surroundings may well be enough. It’s a hymn to the power of family, community, storytelling, patience, learning and self-discovery. Without wanting to over-egg the pudding too heavily, I was left feeling like I’d been offered a rare glimpse into what it is to be human.
As the film ends, we find the Brown family gathering for ‘Mumness Day’, a celebration of the tender mark Alex left on the world. Looking back over his seven years of weaving, Allan Brown observes, “When this dress is at the end of its life, albeit in rags, it can just be laid back down in Limekiln Wood.” It’s a moment that, for me, sums up the essence of this film, not to mention the ‘folk process’ that we so often speak of on this website. The footprint we leave behind us is made up of the memories and stories we create while we are here. And that, ultimately, is enough.
A chat with director, Dylan Howitt
How did you hear about Allan and his nettle dress?
Allan is an old friend. Several years ago I suggested I come and film some of his beautiful textile work and that’s when he mentioned the experiments he was doing trying to make nettle yarn. We ended up making a how-to video called Nettles for Textiles which went viral and helped spawn a Facebook group of the same name. The group now has over 22k members.
We made three short films in total, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later that he had enough yarn to make a garment, and had the idea to make a dress. There was clearly a bigger story to tell and a longer film to make, so we crowdfunded a small budget and this film (a couple of years later still) was the result. I used material I’d filmed for the original how-to and short videos to tell the whole seven-year story.
You use the traditional song, ‘The Birds in Spring’ as part of the soundtrack. Do you see an obvious link between traditions and what Allan was doing here?
The song is sung by Liz Pearson of Chalkhorse Music. It does seem to have quite a local provenance to us here in Sussex. The origin of the song isn’t fully known, though it seems to be local to Sussex, Surrey and Essex. It’s been passed down for generations and sung by various folk singers over the years. For example, George ‘Pop’ Maynard of Copthorne Sussex was recorded singing it in 1955.
It was also in the repertoire of the famous Copper family of Rottingdean, as well as the bands Finest Kind and Bellowhead.
And, yes, what Allan is doing is part of a very long tradition – the crafts of spinning, weaving and dressmaking that, until recently, so many would have known how to do, and that he says are “still in our fingers”. And the use of nettles for cordage and textiles is thought to go back as far as Neolithic times.
What is Allan up to these days, and what has become of the nettle dress itself?
Allan is busy making textiles of all sorts, using natural fibres and dyes. He’s also a big gardener and allotmenteer. You can follow him on his Instagram account, @hedgerow.couture. As for the dress, Allan brings it for people to look at and handle whenever we do Q&A’s at our film screenings.
The Nettle Dress will be screened at selected theatres throughout March. Head to the Tradfolk events calendar for locations and times. For more info on the film itself, head to nettledress.org.