Yesterday I saw beautiful film called The Nettle Dress at the Electric Palace Cinema. It’s one of those films that really stays with you afterwards and I thought I’d try and put into words some of the reasons why it is so good.
The film follows the seven-year long journey of textile artist Allan Brown as he learns how to produce textiles from locally foraged nettles – eventually making the eponymous dress from these special, place-specific fibres. Parallel to this story of slow textiles and the magical encounter between Allan and his local woodland are the tragic losses of his father, and of his wife, Alex. The film unfolds its textile narrative within a broader human story of loss and presence, and of the power of making as a source of healing, consolation and hope.
We follow Allan and Bonnie, the family dog, on many walks to a ragged pocket of local woodland. Here, Allan finds great patches of nettles, wonders how they might become cloth, and begins his material experiments to work out the process. We see him making nettle tea in the woods, sitting with lengths of nettle stem and experimenting with different ways to extract the tough pithy core from the long, silky outer fibres; we see him walking in the nettles in the spring, in the summer, in the autumn, in the winter. The delicate way in which this story is told by filmmaker and director Dylan Howitt conveys the sense of wonder that underpins a creative search. The awesome labour involved in producing textiles by hand is also vividly drawn in how the film conveys the passage of time through years and seasons, and in endless scenes that linger lovingly on all the processes and stages of nettle cloth production.
Scenes of manual labour are accompanied by the narrative of what was happening in Allan’s life at different stages of making. He talks about his drop spindle and the work of spinning 14,400ft of nettle yarn as a way of “not losing the plot” through a painful time. He describes it, too, as work that enabled him to be truly present and attentive at the moment when his father died, and in long months of stillness spent at the bedside of his wife Alex, whom he describes as having made “a nest” in her room when she became terminally ill: a nest in which she mostly slept, and where he mostly sat and spun yarn. The quality of attention – of thinking carefully about what we are doing, and living from each moment to the next – feels like the very heart of this film. It’s there in the careful framing and focusing of the camera work, and in a soundtrack that allows us to hear the material contexts of this fabric, unencumbered. We hear the warp and weft of the loom in its real timings, the whispers of the shuttle and the beat of the beater. The wind in the trees that form a canopy above the stands of nettles. The scraping sounds as Allan finds and pulls apart the seams along each nettle stem in order to extract its soft and silky fibres. The triumphant, bell-like clanking of the ratchet as the final length of cloth is unrolled from its beam. The heavy snip of the scissors – a sound that also lets us hear the substance and hand of the cloth as it is cut.
What is so wonderful about this quality of attention is that the whole film draws you into its mood of wonder and wondering; this is not a film about someone showing how much they know but, rather, sharing – with humility and vulnerability – their openness and curiosity; their moments of discovery. Allan, at the start of the film, daydreams innocently about making cloth from nettles; by the end of the seven-year long process that leads to the creation of the dress, he makes the relatable comment that perhaps if he’d known what was in store, he’d never have embarked on such a labour-intensive process.
Though the film is firmly rooted in the real, material world, it also has a special kind of magic. Allan refers to a well-known Fairytale (of which there are various versions) in which a sister has to make nettle shirts and place them over her brothers (who have been turned into swans) in order to undo an enchantment and return them to human form.
Allan’s grief and loss are similarly transformed through creating a magical garment from nettles. There’s something sensitive and tender in the images of Oonagh (Allan’s daughter) wearing the eventual dress in a photoshoot in the woods where the nettles were gathered. She echoes the figure, memory and legacy of her mother; Allan’s decision to put his efforts towards this magical dress that he himself could never wear also speak powerfully to the work and love involved in clothing and protecting your family.
The palette of this film and the colouring throughout are worth a mention, too; the film feels suffused with colours deliberately chosen to emphasise the materiality of the nettle as both plant and fibre. The greens of this plant and the lands where they grow feel especially vivid and alive.
They speak to the vim and vigour of the plant – the “‘fuck you’ energy” that attracted Allan to working with it in the first place. We see the bristling hairs that create the famous sting and the crownlike arrangement of the leaves around the stem in green scenes that feel rudely, brilliantly, stingingly alive. The other colour – nettle as fibre – is much more difficult to describe, but rendered just as richly. As those of you who work with wool will know, the colour of a sheep fleece is very much more than a hue or a value. It’s a colour that speaks richly to labour and land; a colour you’ll spend hours photographing to try and capture just as you see it (and you rarely can). The colour of nettle fibres is similarly indescribable. It’s the silvery grey-green beige of dried stems in winter light; the colour of plant bones; the magical silver thread of a fairytale. It’s the ordinary, undyed workwear of the rough, plain-woven fabric that clothed human beings for millennia – and yet it’s also special and rare, as so many of us have lost all connection to clothing made in this way. In the film, the magic materiality of nettle fibre is conveyed through attentive lens-work but also in how the gold and silver qualities of daylight have been used.
I had so many favourite moments in this film but perhaps the one where we see the moment when pollen puffs from nettle flowers in summer was my favourite. Imagine how much you have to slow down, to care and attend, to both see such a moment and to capture it.
Everything about this film was a reminder that even in a scrappy bit of woodland at the edge of the city, deep in the weeds, we can find astonishment and hope; that the spikiest of things can be softened with care and effort; and that making can so often form a path out of despair. Although it is a sad story, it is also an affirming one. This film celebrates the power of making, our attention as a form of love for the earth and for each other, and what it means to make something soft in which we might wrap ourselves and those we love.
The Kickstarter Project Page that allowed this magic to be made
An interview with Dylan Howitt (Director)
The initial film, Nettles for Textiles, that started the process that led to this wonderful film
The film’s official website