Natural Dyeing with Woad

Earlier in the month while the boys stayed at home with Eric, I attended a French General workshop on dyeing with woad (Isatis tinctoria). Woad (from the Brassicaceae family, a cousin to broccoli & cauliflower) has been cultivated in Europe since ancient times. Woad was prized by Napoleon and used to dye his army’s uniforms. At one time, the production of woad was the cornerstone of the economy of the south of France.

Indigo on the left. Woad on the right.
To formulate the dye, the plant was cultivated and the leaves picked in the first year. The leaves are crushed and, originally, left to ferment in a vat for over a year. The pH of the vat was maintained with the urine of the male work force. The woad industry of the past supported what I imagine to be a coveted job of drinking beer & urinating. The fermented leaves were then dried into woad ball that were later pounded into a powder used for dyeing. During the elaborate cultivation and processing of the woad, it is impossible to tell if the work will yield a successful dye or in what shade. The nuanced formulation of woad dye fell out of favor with the advent of synthetic dyes.
Diluted ammonia took the place of urine to maintain the pH of the dye vats I used. Denise Lambert from Bleu de Lectoure in the south of France lead the workshop on woad. In Toulouse, she grows and harvests acres of the plant in France and manufactures the dye. The formulation of a consistent woad pigment took Denise Lambert five years of research and experimentation.
Denise demonstrated on how to slowly lower garments into the dye vats, careful to avoid air bubbles which would cause the fabric to dye unevenly, then she pulled out the material. As air hit the garment, the color changed from yellow to green to the ubiquitous blue of woad. Watching the oxidation happen so rapidly was almost like magic.
I presoaked my garments for dyeing in water, then joined the rest of the group in a day long woad dye fest, learning the technique, returning to the vats to achieve desired shades, then setting the dye by immersing the garments in water & hanging them to dry.
Stopping only for a delicious catered lunch, I quickly returning to the vats as the woad dye slowly started to loose it’s ability to transfer pigment. The sun moved very far west and the dyeing came to a close; I returned with the group to French General to celebrate with a glass of Lillet and great conversation.

The Meng sisters at French General plan to hold another Woad Workshop on September 24, 2011. I highly recommend attending. Class size is limited. I know my curiosity to dye with natural pigments has been sparked. I look forward to learning more.
More pictures of the workshop at Ramshackle Solid.

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19 Comments

    • Greetings,
      You can order woad extract in powder form from www. renaissance dyeing in France. It comes from the same source as Maiway in Seattle and much cheaper, including the shipping. Bleu de Lectoure.
      Good luck. Dyeing with Woad is simple, either using extract or with leaves. It takes longer than other natural dyes but it is worth it.
      Monique

  1. I recently did an involved search for the woad plant so I could add it to my herb garden. I found it almost impossible to buy anywhere! Apparently, many states found it to be a troublesome invasive plant and won’t allow it’s sale. If you have a resource for plants, I’d love to get a few.

  2. I watched a documentary on woad some years ago. Woad (the plant) looks a lot like mustard, but its one drawback, which is a big one, is that it poisons the ground around it so that nothing else will grow, so if you decide you want to grow your own woad for dying, be forewarned!

    It does make for the prettiest shades of blue, which can be deepened by subsequent dips in the vat.

    I would have loved to attend this workshop; I wish they’d come up to Portland!

  3. Thanks for this, Julia. What a great workshop! I particularly approve of the wine-after element. I might have to take the one in September.

    Funny thing is that we’ve taken in a kitten, and it looks like we might keep him/her/it(more on that in another post)— and I wanted to name it Woad. Partially because of the color of its eyes (which I know is temporary) but more because the Celts painted themselves with woad before going into battle–and this kitten is a berserker warrior.

    Anyway, my idea was shot down by everyone who heard it because Woad sounds like road when pronounced with a lisp. I still think its a good name, though! And all the while, you’ve been steeped in woad. What are the odds?

  4. Rachel, I saw a supplier called Maiwa Supply online. I’ve not ordered anything from them, but I noticed they have a lot of information and dyes.

    Herbalpagan, so true. The woad plant is considered highly invasive and the shipment of seeds and cultivation of woad is illegal in some states including California. Montana had an extensive campaign to eradicate woad. After the workshop, I was very excited about the idea of growing my own woad, but in the delicate ecosystem that is California, I don’t want to introduce another invasive plant. I plan on experimenting with some natural dyes that are indigenous to CA instead of planting woad.

    Paula, two people flew in for the April workshop, one from Hawaii and the other from Santa Cruz for the day. Maybe you can plan a trip for September? Or contact some of the natural dye shops in Portland to see if they might be interested in hosting a workshop. Denise Lambert is wonderful.

    Mrs. Homegrown, I highly recommend attending the September workshop. It was a great day. And I think Woad is a great name for a cat. What does the cat think?

    • Greetings,
      Check out http://www.remaissancedyeing.com and you will find Woad extract for sale at a very reasonable price. It is the same Woad from the same region as Bleu de Lectoure.

      It is not difficult to dye with woad at all. the color is gorgeous.
      Monique

    • Greetins,
      Ritcher’s herb in Canada sells woad seed. Check if in your area it is allowed.

      Monique

  5. I was there too! I wish I had known it was you. I would have made a point to say hi! As it is, I think we did chat at some point, over a vat of the stinky stuff. I too had a great time, and even wrote about my new addiction to woad on my blog. I you wind up going to the one in September, make sure to let me know.

  6. A pioneer in brought woad into Utah Late in the 18th or early in the 19th century, can’t remember the exact date, However, we have annual Woad pullings all over northern Utah, the Plant is so invasive and destructive, It has ruined so much of our natural ecosystems. So be forewarned before you tempt to propagate it in your area.

  7. Hello to everyone,

    I’m Denise from France who gave the woad dye workshop. If you can, do come to the workshop in September. Woad is a most interesting plant and because it is not as known as Indigo, one has little if not bad information on it. Yes, it was considered and still is as an invasive plant because it is not controlled. For centuries, it was the only plant in Europe providing blues. It was known by the celts and worn by the kings of France. It has always been farmed and controlled and never grown wild. Contrary to what is told, it is not a poison and the farming cooperative who grows our 90 hectares of woad plants, resow each year on the same lot. We do not keep the plant more than 1 year. It is a fantastic medicinal plant and I could give you a lot of info on the possibiities and propreties of Woad (besides its most unique blues – worn only by the Kings of France, by the way). Regards to all.
    Denise

  8. http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=ISTI

    USDA Plant Profile for Dyer’s Woad (including class information and where it is prohibited)

    http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/forb/isatin/all.html

    US Forest Service information about Dyer’s Woad

    http://www.thegrowers-exchange.com/Woad_p/her-wod01.htm?gclid=CL7n9b2i8KgCFQpm7Aod9keqHw

    It looks like the Growers Exchange has woad plans for sale, but they will not ship to those states where the plant is illegal.

  9. i have had a lot of sucess with walnuts. they make green tones first, then as they begin to decay more the color becomes brown. they fall off the tree in late fall, just keep an eye out for large lumpy tennis ball looking things, those are probably walnuts. collect them in a large enough container to hold the necessary amounts of fabric and water. cover with hot steamy water, not boiling if you are using a plastic bucket, and add your pre wetted fabric. this is a great dye for cotton because of the tannins it contains. i just take some fabric every now and then, tie it up for designs or just toss in for an even color. leave for at least a week, but longer will just deepen the color. i have left things in for over a month before i rinse them out. it is an easy vat that you can get fairly permenant results with very little effort. another cool thing about this and many other dyes which contain tannin is that it has a very strong reaction with iron mordant. it will darken the color different shades of brown, grey, and almost black, depending on how long you expose the fabric to the iron solution. be careful with how long you leave it in because iron does slightly weaken all fibers, though celulose fibers will be more resiliant. anyway, if you are experimenting with natural dyes, this is a great one to work with. the results are fairly washfast and lightfast, and there is very little time or effort involved. check out cheryl koleanders website aurorasilk.com for more info, as well as google for lots of other information…hope this helps! happy dyeing!

  10. Pingback: From the Land of Cockaigne: a story of blue - Systematic Wonder

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