A man’s seven-year mission to make a dress out of stinging nettles foraged from nearby his home became a labour of love and healing as he grieved following his wife’s death.
Allan Brown, a creative living in Brighton, found solace in nature as he walked the family dog Bonnie, and the exposure to the woodlands stirred his curiosity of what material made out of nettles was like.
“I couldn’t find any examples of what it felt like. If I had been able to see some and hold some that would have been the end of the inquiry,” the 54-year-old said.
“Because I couldn’t, [I thought] the only way I’m going to feel nettle cloth is to make it myself.”
I found spinning such a therapeutic activity
He added: “I didn’t know how to do it. I reckoned I could make a really amazing thread from that and turn it into a fabric.”
The father-of-four committed to the process of learning ancient crafts to spin the thread, weave the cloth and more with “lots of fails” before he completed the dress made out of 14,400 feet of thread.
During the years of crafting, his father died in 2016 before his wife Alex was diagnosed and died of cancer in 2018, but the project still gave him a sense of moving forward.
Mr Brown said: “I found spinning such a therapeutic activity. I don’t meditate, I find it difficult to sit still, but [spinning] took the edge off whatever levels of panic or grief I was feeling.
“I really felt I had been given a gift to hold myself together.
“When I was spinning, everything was all right.”
What began as one man’s challenge however changed after Mr Brown asked his old friend and filmmaker Dylan Howitt to help him make a “how to” video for YouTube to share his nettle material findings with the textile community.
While they expected a handful of people to appreciate the tutorial, they soon found it being shared, with millions of hits.
As the project continued, Mr Howitt carried on filming the nettle dress come to fruition and decided to make it into a feature film which was released by Dartmouth Films in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from Friday September 15.
Mr Howitt said: “It’s slow craft, it’s slow filming is how it’s rippled out.”
A Facebook group called Nettles for Textiles was kick-started after the YouTube video success, bringing nearly 28,000 followers from around the world who in turn helped crowdfund the making of the documentary.
Mr Howitt said the 68-minute documentary called The Nettle Dress was not part of the plan at the beginning of the experiment.
The BAFTA-nominated filmmaker added: “That is almost part of the whole story of this, it’s just about following the process, following the thread, literally.”
The film won the audience award at Brighton’s film festival, Cinecity, in 2022, and achieved sell-out preview screenings in what has become a “word of mouth sensation”.
One of the moments that Mr Howitt said “absolutely blew me away” was watching Mr Brown split open the nettle stalk exposing the fibres which was like “hidden treasure”.
“I had no idea this plant we all know, it’s ubiquitous in the landscape, and the first plant everyone’s learnt [and] your mum tells you to watch out for,” he said.
“To see that was really magical.”
The 55-year-old added: “A sense of wonder stayed with me all through the years and [I] just wanted to capture that wonder somehow through the film.”
The Brighton resident described while the film on one level is following the dress-making process, another is how Mr Brown uses it to grieve the losses of his father and his wife.
“It’s turning something difficult and dark and painful into something else, renewal and something different,” he said.
“I think this idea of the power of making and the meaning of making and craft and creativity and what that can give you is really important to me.
“A lot of how Allan got through difficult times becoming a widower with four kids to look after, was connection with nature, was going out into the woods following this really simple craft.”
Mr Brown added: “In the aftermath of Alex dying my world grew very small… nettles and the dress gave me a sense of direction.
“In the smallness of that world I just started to notice a lot more just walking, being in nature. Without the slowing down I would have just walked straight past the nettles.”
In a “lovely completion of the cycle”, one of Mr Brown’s daughter’s Oonagh, 21, became the model for the nettle dress, after years of devotion went into making the finished product.
Mr Brown said: “Alex, she died so bravely she really wanted us to move forward, she didn’t want us to mull on it, she lived her life right up until the end in the way she wanted.
“The dress, in a similar way, it’s a celebration. It’s got a lot of her in it, it’s going to be worn by the next generation.”
Mr Brown has been making other garments since completing the dress as his passion for the “greenest of slow fashion” continues.
To find out more about the film click here.