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