The inspiring story behind making a nettle dress
BY Scheenagh Harrington
11th Sep 2023 Film & TV
3 min read
How the film The Nettle Dress captured the seven-year endeavour of making a dress from nettles, and also sews in threads of tragedy, love and connection in the process
If this summer’s "Barbenheimer" frenzy demonstrated anything, it was that cinemagoers were hungry for something different. From September 15, audiences across the UK can indulge that appetite once again, with the nationwide release of The Nettle Dress.
The quietly absorbing 68-minute documentary follows Sussex-based Allan Brown for seven years as he sets out to hand-craft a garment from nettle fibres using traditional techniques.
"Over seven years, Allan Brown crafts a garment from nettle fibres using traditional techniques"
Directed, filmed and edited by Dylan Howitt, this achingly beautiful and contemplative story unfolds slowly, drawing the viewer into Allan’s world as the nettle dress project takes shape, and helps him deal with both the deaths of his father and his wife, Alex.
Dylan describes making The Nettle Dress as an, “evolving, extended conversation between us two, but also between myself and the material, and him and the nettle”.
“We pulled back from hammering fast fashion facts and figures,” said Allan. “People are increasingly aware of that as an issue but we wanted to tell the story from a very personalised, small scale, and let those ripples make connections in people's heads.
“It was the same with death and loss. We didn't want to amp up the sentimentality of it, respecting that everyone in our audience has suffered loss and has gone through it in different ways.
“There was an organic growth to how the film evolved and how those themes were arrived at. We didn't have a list, they just emerged during the making of it.”
Nettles for Textiles
Allan and Dylan initially collaborated on a short video about using nettle fibres for cloth which was posted to the Nettles for Textiles website. It proved so popular that Allan launched a Facebook group of the same name which, to date, has more than 27,000 members worldwide.
Many of them helped fund The Nettle Dress film after Dylan and Allan gave an online screening. “That was wonderful encouragement because so many people wrote beautiful things,” said Dylan. “It spurred us on to finish the film.”
Multiple story threads
Because there were no big money backers or producers, there was no pressure to tell the story in a certain way, as Dylan explained: “The Nettle Dress has lots of story threads woven together: the making of the dress over seven years, the passing seasons, loss and renewal, the loyal companionship of Allan's dog Bonnie and others besides.
"Allan span a thread while doing something mundane, and another while his father was dying"
“If you look at the dress, go in really close, you can see the individual threads. Allan might have been spinning one doing something quite mundane, or another while his father was dying. All of those threads are woven in and you can’t unpick them. It's all there. I hope the film has that feeling that you can hop on different threads and view it in different ways.”
A forgotten art
The crafting community has taken The Nettle Dress to its heart, but it has also taught Allan a lot, too. “Nettles is probably one of the most ancient arts, but it's a forgotten one. It’s a case of relearning how it could have and has been done, because there's so little information. It felt like a community science project, with lots of people working at it together.
He added: “I've been bowled over by how textiles are different from so many other artistic mediums I've worked in, where there's a sort of preciousness and an individuality. Especially on the crafting level, it seems to be all about sharing and passing on knowledge and skills.
“I don't know whether that’s because it’s a predominantly female-dominated space, but it's really a refreshing feeling of communal learning.”
Rave reviews and the community
Audiences on both sides of the Atlantic who have attended selected screenings of The Nettle Dress have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic about it. “One of the lovely things with the film is that the craft community feels seen,” said Dylan. “It's a place where they come and meet each other and talk about what craft and creativity can mean.”
For Allan and Dylan, whose stepfather died around the same time as Alex, the rewards from The Nettle Dress are perhaps more profound.
Connections through crafting
“That whole period of seven years felt really quite insular,” Allan said. “Obviously, Alex dying halfway through, I felt my horizons were really drawn in because I was just trying to cover what we both did before. It felt very small and in a way that facilitated what I was getting from making the dress.”
"The nettles and the making of the dress felt like I was given gifts to help me through a tough time"
“Some of the themes that came out in the film were because Dylan and I were spending time together and because of COVID, even seeing people was quite challenging. But since the film has been finished, it's just flipped everything over: I've been out in the world, going to lots of screenings and chatting to people.”
Allan added: “The nettles and the making of the dress felt, as I say in the film, like I was given gifts to help me through a tough time. Now The Nettle Dress has delivered in the same way. I feel like I've been gifted a connection back with people.”
Banner photo: Allan Brown's daughter Oonagh in the nettle dress. Credit: Mark Carroll
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