In 2016 textile artist Allan Brown, 54, a baker at the time, finally gave in to his four children’s demands for a dog and got Bonnie, a golden labrador-cocker spaniel cross. Already exploring ways to live sustainably for a low-carbon future, Allan decided to use their country walks near his home in Brighton to forage and learn about medicinal plants and those that could be used for making cloth. He knew the names of loads of plants, but the most ubiquitous was the stinging nettle, that hated outlier that grows amidst rubble and gravestones, stinks when boiled, and had stung him very badly when he fell into a clump of them as a child.
There was something about the nettle’s “fuck-you attitude” and its resilience and stubborn ubiquity that spoke to Allan’s interest in public land for common usage. “I thought, ‘I wonder if nettles have ever been used to make clothing, and if they have been, how was it done? I just had to set about trying to do it myself,”’ he recounts in The Nettle Dress, a mesmerising documentary directed by his friend Dylan Howitt about Allan’s life with nettles and the devotional dress he made in honour of his late wife, Alex, a keen sewer and maker.
“What if I was out and I ripped my clothing,” he tells me. “How would I repair it without having to rely on existing structures and systems and going to a shop to buy yarn? If I could make a thread out of nettle, I could patch a piece of clothing. Or if a shoelace broke, I could make a new one. I could just see the tangible usefulness of spinning as a skill.” Little did he know what uses he would put these new skills to. “It was like I was being equipped with the necessary tools that were going to get me through what was coming up,” he adds. “Even though I had no idea what that was.”
Alex seemed to have a sense that her number was up
Sitting out on the deck overlooking his garden, Bonnie beside him, Allan tells me how, through a combination of YouTube videos and trial and error, he taught himself the ancient craft of nettle spinning and, eventually, how to weave, cut and sew. Alex, by now working as a teaching assistant in their local primary school, left him to it, as did his children: Darroch is now 27, Isla, 24, Oonagh, 21 and Hamish, 17. He and Bonnie harvested nettles in nearby Limekiln Wood and on the South Downs, laying out nettle bundles on the lawn to ret (a late Middle English term, meaning to rot) in the dew. The process allows for ribbons of fibre to be extracted from the bark by hand. “The romantic in me likes their resistance to mechanisation,” he laughs. “They’re almost a symbolic plant that says, you are not going to tame us, this is how you need to approach us in order to work with us.”
The first time he ran his fingernails down the groove of a nettle stem, prised it apart and teased out the mass of “soft, silky fibre” within “was a revelation”, he says. Every day since Allan has carried a pouch of fibres with him, hand-rolling a skein of fibre to soften it, just as he was doing as he and Bonnie waited for me at the railway station on the day of our interview.
When his father was dying in the winter of 2016, Allan sat with him in hospital and spun nettle on his drop spindle. “It’s beautiful that it’s such a quiet activity,” he says. When Alex was diagnosed with terminal stage 4 bowel cancer in the summer of 2018, it was spinning, once again, that stilled his mind.
It was Alex, however, who took the sting out of her imminent passing for the rest of the family, says Allan. “She totally lived every minute of what she had left, but she seemed to have a sense that her number was up – she accepted it. She just seemed to get her head around it, which is what she had done when each of the children was born at home. She got on with what needed to be done with an incredible fearlessness. She was amazing.
“She did the chemotherapy more to show the children in the future that she did do what she could to try to survive it, even though I think she knew it was in vain. She was seeing friends and going dancing, even when she was on crutches.” Her school gave her a hot tub to ease her discomfort. Despite it, she managed to make a giant carnival puppet for the annual Brighton Festival Children’s Parade, as she had done every year.
Allan takes me up to her room, cleared of all but a few of her belongings by Oonagh. An exuberant Frida Kahlo-esque giant puppet with gold-foil drop earrings stands in one corner. “Alex managed to follow the parade all the way down to the seafront,” says Allan. “That was the last big hurrah of the world that she knew.” Soon after, she made “a nest” in this room. “She slept and I span,” Allan says in the film. “I got the sense that my internal world was being captured in the twist of the fibre,” he tells me, “and that all the struggles and the joys and the grief were being put into the cloth, as it would have been for our ancestors.”
The spinning proved as therapeutic as all the walking with Bonnie. “I realised that what might be seconds, or usually minutes, of feeling overwhelmed, or feeling the scale of the loss, would soon be replaced by a happy memory or something completely different.”
It took Allan seven years to spin 14,400ft of thread
Alex, meanwhile, began “struggling to stay on top of the drugs and painkillers and the morphine,” Allan says. “She went into the hospice just for a weekend break, but she never came back out. She said, ‘I need to get on with dying now; being with the children and us at home was just too difficult.’ She needed to withdraw from the children in order to be able to do that.”
The day she died, aged 45, just a few months after her diagnosis, England was playing in the World Cup. “The children were together in the hot tub on the deck, going, ‘Come on, Mum, send us luck.’” They named the date of her passing Mumness Day, inspired by a Seinfeld episode in which an alternative to Christmas Day is inaugurated. Each year, says Allan, “we remember Alex and all the funny stories. The vibe is joyful remembering. Like Alex, they’ve all got a dark sense of humour. They’ve been incredibly resilient and strong – they are Alex’s legacy.”
The idea of the nettle dress only took form after Alex’s death, though Allan had toyed with the idea of making a piece of cloth much larger than the samples he had made thus far. When a Nettles for Textiles Facebook member told him about Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Wild Swans, this parable of endurance spurred him on. Following the death of his wife, so the story goes, the king remarries. The wicked new queen turns her 11 stepsons into swans, leaving their one motherless sister to mourn them. In a dream, a fairy tells the sister that if she weaves a coat made from stinging nettles found growing on graveyards for each of her brothers, they will be released from the spell, providing she shows “courage and perseverance”. The sister prevails.
“The girl in the story became a sort of muse, but the fairytale was really useful on a practical level, too,” says Allan. “I found it intriguing that stinging nettles were being used, a fibre that requires more work than flax or hemp, as would have been known at the time. It’s a gauge of the sister’s dedication to undoing the spell.
“Then there’s the fact that she had to collect them from graveyards and span them in silence as she grieved the loss of her brothers – there’s a big association of nettles with death.”
It took Allan seven years to spin 14,400ft of thread and to weave a 25 x 2ft width of cloth for the undyed Viking-style tunic dress. Oonagh, who was at home during the making of the dress, served as the tailor’s dummy. She is filmed wearing it as she walks through Limekiln Wood. There is magic in the air.
In the house, the talismanic dress is draped over a sofa in Allan’s workroom, home to two spinning wheels. A wooden artist’s mannequin sits on a bookshelf, dressed in a miniature toile. When I pick up the dress, its weight takes me by surprise. It feels strong and protective. “I’d wear nettle cloth into battle,” laughs Allan. “The dress has a lot of Alex in it,” he adds. “She just loved being a mother; she gave it everything she had. Even though the grief is in it, the nettle dress has really been more joyful than anything else.”
The Nettle Dress is in cinemas now