the design and manufacture of fashionable clothes to a client's specific requirements and measurements. A word associated with celebrities and red carpets and one we are familiar with in the world of fashion. Hear the word hedgerow and you might be forgiven of thinking of jam.
Well Allan Brown wouldn’t agree. With a passion for the most ethical and sustainable textiles he has made it his mission to explore some of our lost traditions, reviving the cultivation of local plants to make into fibres, fabric and from there to authentically circular clothing.
Allan how did your incredible hedgerow couture journey start?
Hedgerow Couture was just an Instagram name I came up with - a sort of joke – but in a way does capture what I’m about...although I do admit that I’m more Hedgerow than I am couture. It's aspirational – I’m fascinated by clothes and simple ways of clothing oneself, but I seem to spend more time at the other end of the process, with the plants and fibres from which clothes are made.
My textile journey started with playing with nettles and wondering whether it was possible to make clothing out of nettle fibre. In order to answer my wondering, I had to set about doing it myself and on the way learned how to spin and weave.
You work with flax, hemp and nettle. Can you tell us which is your favourite to work with and if one is any easier to convert to fabric than another?
Flax, nettle and hemp are the most wonderful plants, each giving us and numerous other creatures food, fibre and medicine. I’ve mainly worked with nettles and flax, but have spun a lot of hemp and am in collaboration with others to grow it here in East Sussex. They each have their own characteristics and niches they inhabit, but once processed and spun its often difficult to tell them apart.
I really do love the bast fibres and think having all three growing on any given piece of land is the way forward. However, nettle holds a special place in my heart because its what I’ve worked with most. It’s a foraged fibre which makes it unique, it really is the fibre of the landless. With just the simplest of tools one can make an almost immediate start on creating your own yarn and building a direct relationship with your environment and your clothes.
Is it important to return to the use of natural fibres for clothing? If so why?
Yes, I believe it is essential we do so. Textiles and food growing/ farming were traditionally inextricably intertwined. Your clothes and your food would be grown from the land you worked. Oil and coal have afforded us the energy and materials to create a glut of cheap, often plastic clothes, but this is not a sustainable model and the environmental impacts of our reliance on them are wreaking havoc with our ecosystems. Ultimately we will have no choice but return to growing and raising our sources of fibre from the land we live on, in an ecological and regenerative manner. We’re going to have to make much less go a lot further.
Along with growing our fibres, we will need to re-familiarise ourselves with the skills of our ancestors in order to create textiles from them – by hand, with the simplest of equipment. I think, that in the coming years, we will be spending a greater portion of our time gardening, growing our food and fibres and crafting our own clothes .
What is the most challenging thing about working with natural fibres?
As with food growing, both the challenge and the reward of working with natural fibres is nature itself. When working with plants fibres almost every stage, from sowing, growing, harvesting, retting and drying, are weather dependent and you’re trying to time activities to benefit from the changing conditions.
The spinning, dyeing, weaving of the fibres once processed is wonderful. Each step is a celebration of all that you’ve managed to grow and gather. The feeling of creating clothes from your own immediate environment is so enriching and rewarding.
Since lockdown there has been a huge increase in our desires to spend time outside and be more self-sufficient. We think of growing our own food but if someone reading this wants to start growing their own fabrics is it realistic? What advice would you give?
I can’t help but feel that we have a deep yearning for the land, for being embedded in it and sustained by it. Growing – at least some – of our own food and fibre is a deeply rewarding thing to do. Working an allotment or getting involved in community growing spaces is definitely the place to start. Even if you have a garden I’d still recommend trying to do this with other people as you’ll great fun!
As far as fibres go flax is the obvious choice – we have a long tradition of growing it and as well as being a beautiful plant, it will provide you with an amazing fibre. It’s easy to grow and even a modest bed will provide you with enough fibre to keep you busy until the next season’s crop is ready for harvesting. You’ll also soon want to start a little dye garden so you can colour your yarns and cloth.
If you have no garden or land to grow things, begin by foraging nettles or seeing if you can pick up any fleeces from local sheep. Try and hook up with local spinning groups or set up your own. I bet there are spinners and knitters on every allotment site in the country!
Can you tell us what you have growing in your allotment?
A group of us share several allotments that are worked collectively, but we each manage our own areas.
On the food side of things I grow all the usual things, potatoes, leeks, kale, squashes, onions, beans, carrots, beetroot etc.
On the fibre front I grow flax. When the law eventually changes I’d grow hemp too. I also usually process a few sheep fleeces every year, so the waste of that is used as mulch. I also have a dye garden up the allotment and grow madder, woad, weld, coreopsis, French marigold and anything else I can squeeze in. I’m pretty self sufficient in fibre and dye plants, with plenty of room to still grow food.
There was a special screening at the recent Natural Fibres Festival in London of the film – The Nettle Dress. Tell us about your involvement in this project and what the film is about?
The film, The Nettle Dres,s was put together by my good friend Dylan Howitt, an awesome and sensitive film maker. Years ago we shot a short film called ‘Nettle For Textiles’, which went viral and ended up pulling together a large community of nettle lovers from across the world and inspired the facebook group by the same name.
I suggested to Dylan that perhaps he should shoot some footage of my attempt to try and make a dress from local, foraged nettle, as I wasn’t sure if it was something that had ever been captured on film and when it may be attempted again.
We had little idea that it would take years but nevertheless Dylan continued to shoot bits and pieces as the project progressed. I wasn’t even sure if it was possible, so it may have ended up being a complete fool’s errand!
However, in a way that closely resembled the weaving of the cloth, Dylan wove together a beautiful film. He has a nose for the essence of things, for finding the heart of the story and a gentle way of telling it.
What have you loved most about the journey so far and what is your long-term vision for Hedgerow couture?
I’ve loved meeting and interacting with all the people that nettles have brought, and continue to bring into my life. I think spinning has been the greatest discovery for me and I’m almost evangelical about encouraging folk to pick it up. I think it can change the world, Ghandi was on to something!
I’m curious as to where Hedgerow Couture goes myself.
Many thanks Allan.
You can follow Allan and his natural fibre projects @hedgerow.couture
As a naturopath our co founder Primrose has always been of the opinion that we are not just what we eat. We are what we wear and what we surround ourselves with. Molecules and chemicals in our environment are transferred to our body through our skin and through ingesting and breathing in tiny molecules.
Seeking a healthy lifestyle is about far more that what you put on your plate.
When we are not outside in the fresh air, we are inside in our homes surrounded by painted walls, fabrics and furniture all with their own manufacturing journey that we very rarely stop to question.
Last week we were pleased to talk to our friend Charlotte Lawson Johnston who is bringing the idea of natural, chemical free interiors into our awareness via her business Cloth Collective.
We are excited for her to share with you her work and vision which is closely aligned with ours at Bedstraw.
You have a beautiful instagram page and I encourage anyone reading this to follow you if they are not already – you are often documenting the natural dyeing that you do. How did this journey with natural dyes start? What was the inspiration?
I had a textiles business selling fabric by the metre mostly to Trade. I was printing the collections in a UK based factory and each time I visited to do another print run, I suffered from terrible headaches. I began researching the print pigments and dyes being used in the textile industry and discovered that most of the fabrics created for our homes are full of toxins. I set out to change my practice so that it would not negatively impact our planet or our health. I discovered the work of Sarah Burns who is a talented print maker. She also makes all of her pigments and dyes from plants. Sarah generously shared her knowledge of natural dyeing with me and that was really the beginning of my journey! We are now collaborating on a collection together which is so lovely!
On your website you say “We believe we should be able to fill our homes with exceptionally beautiful textiles without compromising our well-being or negatively impacting our environment.” Explain how you achieve this and how it contrasts so heavily with mainstream soft furnishings.
Most of the off-the-shelf soft furnishings readily available such as cushions, ready-to-hang blinds, rugs and bedding are coloured with synthetic dyes and chemically finished. These man-made dyes negatively impact our environment in several ways, for example polluting our water systems and destroying biodiversity. Many of the chemicals used to finish textiles (such as fabric softeners) contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s). They are unstable at room temperature and so toxic gases evaporate into our indoor spaces thereby reducing our air quality. At Cloth we naturally dye all of our fabrics and they aren’t finished using any nasties! Our dyes are all hand made from flowers and food waste making our fabrics 100% natural, breathable and if anything GOOD for our health rather than bad!
The use of natural dyes within interiors world is still very ahead of its time. What reaction have you had from the interiors community from what you are doing?
Two years ago people thought I was mad, mainly because they couldn’t see how natural dyeing could be a scalable business. Thanks to journalists such as Roddy Clarke, sustainability is now a prolific subject within the interiors industry. Toxicity in the home is less of a mainstream topic but with the rise of the wellbeing industry, I think it’s only a matter of time before it’s something more and more designers and makers will want to tackle. People are excited about what we are doing and they want to learn more about the benefits of our natural dyes. Designers are open minded and like the idea of being able to offer their clients British made, non-toxic and sustainable fabrics!
You have had some great collaborations to date. Tell us a project about a project you have most loved doing and why?
For me, it is about the people, always. I am currently working on a collection of 6 plain colours with Edward Bulmer Paint. The base fabric is woven with hemp and linen. We are creating dye recipes to match 6 of Edward’s most popular natural paint colours. Both of us are gentle chemists, creating plant based pigments and there is a mutual respect for our craft. Edward’s team are an absolute joy to work with and have given Cloth such an amazing platform from which to shout about non-toxic textiles. If we can do for home furnishing fabrics what Edward has done for the paint industry, we will be very happy indeed!
Tell us a little about the people involved in the “collective”?
The idea behind the collective is to join forces with other British based craftspeople in the textile industry to create fabrics together. Whether they be growers, weavers & spinners of sustainable fibres (such as hemp and linen) or printers and embroiderers. We want as much of our supply chain to be as British as possible.
You mention you use botanical waste. What do you mean by this? And aside from waste do you have a favourite natural dye to work with?
When we refer to Botanical waste, we mean waste from flowers. We love to dye with British madder root. Being a dye stuff that is grown here in England, it has a low carbon footprint and that is a big positive. Also the pinks harnessed from Madder are absolutely beautiful and we just never get tired of working with this plant derived pigment. Recently we have been creating recipes with Madder and Gallnut, this mix creates a dirty/beige pink similar to Edward Bulmer’s paint colour called Jonquil!
All the fabrics you use are natural fibres. Why is this important to you and can you tell me about the materials you use currently and the ones you envisage sourcing in the future?
Yes that’s correct, we only work with fabrics woven from sustainable fibres such as hemp, wool, linen and peace silk; fibres which are positive for our environment. For example hemp requires little to no irrigation and it sucks carbon from our atmosphere as it grows. We would love to use more locally grown fibres and were excited this year to discover a silk farm not far from us in Herefordshire. In terms of the future, we would love to be working with more British Grown fibres……there seems to be an exciting movement to reignite the Flax industry here so fingers crossed that we will be dyeing British linen in the not too distant future.
What you are doing and what we are doing at Bedstraw is all part of a larger green and conscious awakening. The planet is in an exciting but vulnerable time of change, what do you feel are the best things we can each do as individuals to adapt and bring about positive impact?
Sometimes climate change can feel overwhelming and most of us think we can’t make a big enough impact. It’s about incremental changes to effect change. Washing less, buying less, driving less, making environmentally positive purchases. Also talking to others about the small changes you are making, can easily influence them to do the same!
Thank you Charlotte
You can follow Charlotte on her instagram page @clothcollective.co and via her website www.clothcollective.co