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.
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.