The Nettle Dress

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Dylan Howitt

Slow-TV lovers will revel in Dylan Howitt’s 65-minute documentary, The Nettle Dress, an often-absorbing study of the lost traditional practice of nettle weaving, turning plants into cloth and then into a garment to wear. Alongside the physical skill of creating cloth from plants, Howitt situates this in a broader commentary about our connection with nature as well as the enduring mythical and pastoral notions of the British landscape and its unrealised potential to support a more sustainable way of life.

This is a very gentle documentary, following protagonist Allan Brown through the process of identifying suitable nettles, harvesting and treating them to create thread that is then woven slowly into cloth. This documentation of practice is given a great deal of space in The Nettle Dress and allows the viewer to understand the involved but rewarding process while Brown explains each stage of development. There is much satisfaction to be had from watching him finally cut the cloth from the loom, a milestone moment, before washing and teasing out its idiosyncrasies with small pebbles.

Howitt is shrewd in allowing Brown to tell his own story which becomes part instructional video but increasingly an insight into why making the dress matters and what it comes to symbolise for his family. Because this is also a close study of grief in which Brown commemorates the fourth anniversary of his wife’s death as well as his late father, slowly revealing the cathartic nature of the process of creation that seems to bring such comfort to Brown and his grown-up children. And that grief is handled sensitively in keeping with the calm and restorative tone of a film that feels unhurried, building to the revealed dress but deliberately avoiding false tension or suspense on the part of the filmmakers.

Only one other family member appears in the film – Brown’s daughter – who becomes the model for the finished product, and it would have been interesting to split the narrative later in the film to understand more about her own connection to the dressmaking and reflections on her father’s absorption in the process of creating. Other family members are seen from a distance but in a film that looks to celebrate their mother, the viewer learns relatively little about her or her own connection to the woods surrounding the family home. The Nettle Dress is deliberately unintrusive about the family’s loss but in doing so keeps the audience on the outside of its motivational driver.

The more fashion-orientated viewer might also be interested in why Brown selects a plain tunic-style dress with medieval references rather than any other kind of garment – even his daughter asks if it will have “Lord of the Rings sleeves” – but the filmmaker doesn’t interrogate these decisions. While the eventual dress is given its due (although not in close-up to properly see the craftsmanship), the technical process takes precedence over the creative one.

Nonetheless, introducing wider audiences to traditional artistry and sustainable practice is one of the things this film does so well. Beyond make do and mend, it explores human engagement with the world around us, rethinking the properties of often disregarded plants to create something of enduring practicality.

The Nettle Dress is in cinemas from 15 September.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Sustainable fashion

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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