An Ode to Woad – Part 1

I’ve recounted my experience dyeing with woad this last weekend to quite a few people in the last several days, and almost every one of them had the same question, “what the heck IS woad?”  So, for those of you who have the same question, here is a little background:

Woad comes from the common Isatis tinctoria plant.  It has been in use as a pigment and dye since Egyptian times, and possibly longer.  Many have thought that the blue pigment the Picts (early Scottish tribes) used to color their skin blue was woad, although there is some debate about that.  Oddly, for a dye that has been around for so long, it is surprisingly difficult to extract.  Because of that, the cultivation and processing were controlled by wealthy “woad masters” throughout much of European history.  Until Napoleonic times, the extraction method took a full year and a half, and involved a long fermentation in urine filled vats.  I can’t even begin to imagine the smell!  And not just any pee would do.  In order to have the proper ph level. it had to be human male pee.  Thus the preponderance of taverns near where the woad was produced.  Cheers!

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Even once Napoleon’s chemists had figured out a quicker (and hopefully less odoriferous) method, so as to supply his army with blue cloth, the extraction was still a laborious process.  Above are workers hand rolling “woad balls” in order to put them out to dry.  Unfortunately, the heavy manual labor required to extract the dye made it fall out of favor, and the last woad production ended in England in the early part of the 20th century.  Happily, some dedicated people, like those at Bleu de Pastel de  Lectoure , have been working hard, to not only revive the art, but to improve upon it and make it a commercially viable, natural, alternative to synthetic dyes.

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Here is a contemporary woad ball, from which you can see dripping one of the most interesting aspects of woad.  It isn’t actually blue.  Well, at least not to start.  The dye begins as a sickly greenish yellow.

Here is an image I took of one of the vats we used last weekend.  Looks SO appealing, doesn’t it?  And by the way, although no pee is involved in the process these days, the smell is still a bit on the strong side.  At this point in the game, I was not feeling quite so enthused.

However, if you notice the color of the bubble sludge forming at the top, you will see a lovely blue color.  This is the amazing thing with woad.  It needs oxygen to turn blue!  I’ll tell you more about that in my second installment next week.

Woad can be used as either a dye or a pigment, and it is light fast, unlike indigo.  That makes it a really useful substitute for synthetic pigments used in everything from printing to car paint.  Above you can see a comparison of indigo (the darker blue on the left) and woad pigment powder.  The color of woad truly is unique, and in many ways I now prefer it to indigo.

So now that you know a little bit about woad, I thought I would give you a peek at how the French General workshop day started.

As everyone arrived at the shop, we were each greeted warmly by owner Kaari Meng.  Although I came by myself, I instantly felt comfortable and amongst friends (of the “I just met you but you seem cool” sort).  There were tables upon tables of delightful linens, fabric scraps and sundries, all for sale and ready for dyeing.  I had picked out a few items from home to dye, but couldn’t resist getting a few extra things to try out too.  Here is what I planned to dye:

Doilies???  Yep, I bought some doilies, and you know what?  I am SO glad I did, because they were some of my favorite pieces once they were dyed.  You can also see a white cotton blouse, a bundle of fabric scraps, and a bit of the two tablecloths I brought along.

Check back Monday for An Ode to Woad – Part 2, in which I discover that I now have a serious addiction problem.

One Response to “An Ode to Woad – Part 1”

  1. Woad Less Travelled « Shop Anima Mundi Says:

    […] Rachel Hulan, of, writes about woad’s history, origins, and her recent experiments with the elusive natural […]

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