The Nettle Dress

Collecting nettles

Allan Brown made a nettle dress. It took him seven years and his good friend Dylan Howlitt filmed the process to create a stunning and evocative documentary. Meanwhile, the dress-making process sparked a movement in the form of Nettles for Textiles (a Facebook group with 22,500 members) and Hedgerow Couture (Instagram). The dress is finished but the journey for Allan appears to have just begun.

nettle dress

How it all began

If you read the blurb, you would be forgiven for thinking Allan, who lives in Brighton, had a background in textiles. He’s described variously as a textile artist and designer, but he wasn’t at the beginning of the process. He had had various professions, but he had never sewn, spun or woven anything.

Back in the 1990s, I was involved in some environmental protests and more recently, I’ve been a keen allotmenteer because I was interested to learn about growing your own food. One day, I was walking on the South Downs twiddling with a nettle stem and I started wondering whether it was possible to make clothing out of nettles. Years ago, I was shown how to make cordage out of nettle, so I knew it had cord capabilities. I suppose simultaneously I was starting to think about the increasing fragility of international supply chains and what would happen if we had to make our own clothes out of hyper-local materials. I knew how to grow food, but I didn’t have the skills to make clothing.

The idea took hold, and I started looking for information about sewing with nettles. If I’d found the answers I was looking for at the time, the story might have ended there. But I didn’t. So I started experimenting. Everything I’ve done and created since has been a process of trial and error and learning from scratch.

At the same time, I set up the Facebook group, Nettles for Textiles. And I appear to have inadvertently tapped into something. I had no idea others were working with nettles, but suddenly, people from around the world started contributing to the group. And when Dylan filmed a couple of my demonstrations, things went viral.”

the nettle dress

The medicinal benefits of creativity

It was against this backdrop, that Allan suffered two devastating losses: the death of his father and the death of his wife, leaving him to grapple with grief whilst raising a young family.

This is where the process of making a nettle dress became my medicine. When my wife died, it was as if the nettles were primed to step in and they gave me a skill and a purpose that was immensely therapeutic. In amongst the chaos that is involved in bringing up a family on your own, if I could get just 10 minutes a day picking or processing the nettles, it helped my mental health. They were little windows of medicine. The spinning has served me so well over the years, just being able to do something with my hands. I’ve often been asked how I kept going, but in fact, I couldn’t have stopped. Dylan was a great motivation, but I needed the process.

And although this started as a solitary pursuit, I have found that it has become social and has brought people together and connected them. There are spinning groups and it’s a bonding experience, but on a personal level, it’s also connected me to many people.

The nettle dress poster

The emergence of a dress

Over the course of seven years, Allan would gather nettles from the South Downs during the summer and process them during the winter. He explained there was no masterplan at the outset but eventually he came to realise that he needed to create something from the material he was making and so the idea of a dress immerged.

“My wife, Alex, was an amazing seamstress and this seemed a natural homage. There was a lot of experimenting with the weaving process and some of it was daunting. For example, putting it all on a loom for the first time and cutting the cloth. But I knew I had to create something out of what I’d been doing.”

Nettle dress headpiece

A lasting impact

The dress is now finished, and if you go to one of Allan’s talks, you can see it and touch it. He doesn’t know how long the dress will last but when its time is up, it is completely biodegradable. And in the meantime, it has left a very tangible mark on society.

“I’ve been winging it up until now and I don’t know why I’ve been given this platform. But I guess this has just touched a nerve. Nettles have been a major source of fibre and cord for thousands of years (although they probably saw their heyday in the Bronze Age) and using materials like nettle, flax and hemp is a model that has served humanity well. And working in this slow way definitely changes your perspective on modern-day convenient culture.

This alternative approach can also now provide a new avenue of creativity and an opportunity. Nettles grow in abundance and thrive on human habitation. This isn’t necessarily about going back to the old ways. It’s about going forward with what we’ve learnt. The idea that you can make your own clothes from materials that grow within a limited radius of where you live is going to become more important and we need to fill the gaps that exist in our ability to create things locally from local materials. So, I am not sure what is next but yes, this seems to be the beginning of my journey and not the end.”

There is a special screening of the Nettle Dress with Q&As on the 26 March, followed by two screenings of the film on the 29 and 30 March at Chichester Cinema at New Park. Allan and the film’s Director, Dylan, will be attending the Q&A event after the screening with the dress itself so it’s quite a unique opportunity to hear from them personally and see the dress in real life.

If you enjoyed this piece about The Nettle Dress and are  in the Chichester area, you may also be interested in:

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