Last Saturday I left the boys to amuse each other (before you call social services, one of said boys is 36 and perfectly responsible), jumped in the car and headed to the wilds of Breckland for a morning of hand-on learning about one of our oldest and fascinating dye stuffs.
Woad is distinguished amongst natural dyes for not requiring a mordant to set the colour. Like its sister, indigo, it is a surface dye, so doesn’t penetrate the fabric but rather fades, just as your jeans do. French woad produces that heathery blue we so associate with Provençal woodwork and china, whilst the colour Ian Howard produces at his farm near Dereham is much more intense in colour and more like the kind of indigo we think of in those high contrast, blue and white Japanese textiles.
Lockets containing woad seeds have purportedly been found at ancient burial grounds in the area, Boudicca’s warriors were said to have painted their faces with the pigment and the blue in the Bayeux tapestry is from this plant. In short, this stuff has been satisfying the desire for blue colour and textiles for a very, very long time.
Part of my interest in the process is an ecological one. With no chemical mordant required to set the colour, it seems a environmentally conscious choice for a world where many textiles really ought to display a health warning. When I’ve got a morning, I’m going to try to set up a dye shop in one of the barns and see what happens. The idea of using a locally grown, earth friendly dyestuff is just intriguing to me… Watch this space…
I used shibori-style stitching to create a resist, before submerging the fabric into the dye bath. As logic dictates, the longer the item is left in, the more intense the colour and on this first attempt items were left in for only a few minutes. The resulting colour (in the first picture) is that French blue.
What is so fascinating about woad is that the blue appears only after the dye has oxidised, so it first appears green and changes to blue as you watch it drip dry. Alchemy indeed.
For more information, take a peek at this website: