Hitting the Woad

Around the city of Toulouse in France, there are a lot of (now faded) blue shutters and architectural details. That’s because during the Middle Ages, Toulouse was a famous European woad dying center.

I’d never heard of it before I became interested in eco dying, but woad (isatis tinctoria) is a flowering plant that was used to dye textiles a radiant blue color in Europe long before indigo was introduced there. In France it’s called “bleu pastel” because the flowers that rose to the surface of the dye vats were once used to make pastel sticks. Though it was also farmed in Asia and some parts of Europe, woad grew especially well in the abundant sunshine of southwestern France.

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Woad blue was the color of the French monarchy (“King’s Blue”/Royal Blue), and also the Catholic Church. In fact, at one time there were thirteen official shades of woad sanctioned by the French government. Because of their value, French woad producers were protected by both Church and King.

They needed it. The alchemical nature of woad dying was so mysterious, that some people considered the woad dyers witches. It didn’t help that the woad dyers stood over large, cauldron-like vats with long sticks that they used to submerge and retrieve fabrics. Or that, in order to achieve just the right PH balance for the dye in the vats, men would sometimes have to urinate in them.

After being replaced by indigo and later chemical blues in the late 1800s, woad was no longer farmed and the complicated process for extracting its pigment –  which had never been formally documented but rather passed on through word of mouth – was virtually forgotten.

That is, until French/American couple Henri and Denise Lambert took it upon themselves to bring woad back. I mean, they literally brought woad back because when they set out to rekindle the practice of woad dying, no one could tell them how it was done and there weren’t any seeds available to grow it. The Lamberts eventually purchased some from a museum and it took them five years to learn how to farm it, extract its pigment, and ferment it. Eventually they refined and modernized the process and began dying fabric commercially under the Bleu de Lectoure label. Denise came to Chateau Dumas during the week I was there to talk about woad and give us the opportunity to dye with it.

Denise

Denise Lambert

It turns out that even the process of dying with woad is complicated. After you have grown several tons of woad, reaped it at just the right moment, made woad balls from the leaves, waited a year, extracted its pigment and fermented it to just the right PH level in your vat, you can’t just dunk a piece of cloth in that vat and swish it around. In fact, if Denise Lambert saw you doing that you would be in big trouble and I won’t tell you how I know that.

No. You have to lower the fabric gently into the dye vat, then pull it down and toward you with your giant stick to make sure it hasn’t trapped any bubbles. And as soon as you pull it (GENTLY) out of the vat, it begins to oxidize and change from yellow to green to blue so if you accidentally pull a corner of somebody else’s fabric out of the vat, you better pull it all the way out and hang it on the line or you could also get seriously busted and I won’t tell you how I know that, either. Plus, you have to repeat this process at least two, often three times, in order to get a good blue.

Melanie

Melanie

But when you do it’s almost magical, and very addictive. That’s  because depending on the thickness, weave, and type of fabric you are trying to dye, varying shades of blue can be achieved. Also, you can make a lot of bad puns with it.

Particularly if you are a novice woad dyer, you never know what you’re going to get. You approach woad dying thinking that you’re only going to dye a scarf or two, and before you know it, all of your clothing is in the dye vat and you are running around the south of France in just your knickers.

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I have to say, the woad blue is just gorgeous. It doesn’t come across nearly as well in pictures, but it’s almost luminescent. I ended up dying a blouse, a scarf, a vintage linen nightdress (that I bought at the vide grenier), a few antique linens, and some lace. But I also saw a dress, a jacket, several pairs of pants, part of a quilt, a couple of wooden spoons, book pages, and one doll go into the dye vat.

Some people think that woad has antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties and may also fight cancer. I wouldn’t doubt it.

You can follow woad whisperer Denise Lambert on Facebook.

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La Vie En Rose

During the last week of August, I had the incredible opportunity to spend a week at Chateau Dumas in southern France, attending a textile art workshop taught by Mandy Pattullo. The class was centered around Mandy’s “thread and thrift” approach to textile art, where vintage and often threadbare quilts and fabrics are sourced to create collages embellished with embroidery and appliqué. Chateaus, France, sewing, and vintage fabrics are among my favorite things, so it was as close to the perfect vacation as I could ever hope for.

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Chateau Dumas, front view. We closed the shutters during the day to keep out the heat and opened them at night, old school style

I’d brought some fabrics from home, but I also had the opportunity to purchase some locally because on the very first full day of my séjour, there was a flea market a mere five minutes walk from the château! A French Flea Market!

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The vendor at this stall is a victim of Brexit

In point of fact, French people sell a lot of the same junk that Americans do at their flea markets. But I did find some quintessentially french linens (damaged) that I’m looking forward to hacking up and sewing into something new. And it was heartening to learn that my French is still good enough to negotiate a bargain.

Later that afternoon my classmates, a few stray husbands, and I went to the Sunday market in the village of Saint Antonin Noble Val, where fresh produce, cheeses, antiques, and little dogs carried in arms or stuffed into handbags abounded.

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Little Dog in a Cheese Shop

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Antiques Store in Saint Antonin Noble Val

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Frankly, I was kind of overwhelmed by everything that was on offer and left with very little in my shopping bag. “Thread and Thrift”, I reminded myself, was the name of the workshop I was there for. Had I come to France just to return home with a suitcase full of even more dusty vintage rags I’d have to hide in places where my husband wouldn’t find them?

Sort of.

Even though I was staying at a château overlooking the rolling hills of the southern French countryside and even though all of my meals were prepared for me using only the freshest locally sourced ingredients, I worked very diligently all week. In fact, I sewed with such intensity (by hand, mind you), that one day I got a sewing headache which forced me to temporarily retreat to the patio sitting area for a cuppa. (The château is owned by an Englishwoman and the workshop was sponsored by the London-based Selvedge magazine, so there were many friendly English people there and we drank lots of cuppas.)

Mandy Pattullo cites Louise Bourgeois as one of the artists by which she has been inspired, but in fact Mandy is like a Louise Bourgeois to me. I’ve been impressed and inspired by her work for so long, I still can’t believe I had the chance to meet her and work alongside of her all week. I’ve participated in a few “continuing adult education” type courses where no one ever gives you constructive criticism and your assignments are kind of a joke. Not so Mandy Pattullo. She challenged me, kept me very busy, and was as liberal with her knowledge as she was with her constructive criticism.

Here are a few photos of work-in-progress by students in the class:

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And here’s a little peek at some things I made:

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Detail from a textile collage made using scraps of vintage fabric and embellished with bits of embroidery.

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Appliqué fish on an antique quilt fragment, backed with indigo dyed linen

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Page one of a cloth book bound inside an old leather wallet

The cloth book is supposed to be a kind of memento of my trip, so each page depicts something of significance to me.

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There are so many memorials for the fallen of World War I in France. The photo on the right is from a gravestone in a little cometary just a few minutes walk from the château.

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My tribe

It was an amazing trip. To be able to do something I love so much in a beautiful setting, surrounded by generous, like minded people, was an incredible gift. l hope to blog a bit more about this trip later, if I can tear myself away from the sewing.

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Alchemy

Last fall I tried dying fabric using plant products and was immediately hooked. I love the nuanced organic hues that you can get, but also standing over a steaming cauldron and stirring a bunch of weird things together to see what color they will produce. It’s like being a kid again and making potions from stuff you collected in your back yard.

Admittedly, I did a little research before starting. Even more than the Internet,  Sasha Duerr’s book on the subject has been the best resource I’ve found to date. It turns out there are several steps you have to take just to prepare a fabric for dying, and Duerr explains these very thoroughly. Unfortunately, she does not let you cut any corners. I was scouring and boiling and mordanting my little pile of fabrics for days before they were finally ready to go in the cauldron. There was a kitchen scale involved and I had to use math.

Normally I may not have gone to all the trouble but truth be told I really felt that I could not let Sasha Duerr down. Read the book and you’ll understand.

Anyway, so far I’ve dyed fabric using:

  • Queen Anne’s Lace
  • Oak hulls
  • Pokeberries
  • Blackberries
  • Turmeric
  • Black Beans
  • Madder Root

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For my latest project I ordered powdered dyestuff from Maiwa because I don’t know how to forage for madder root in the dead of a Cleveland winter.

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I dyed a small batch of vintage linens from Lithuania that had seen better days. And look how nicely they turned out:

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For one of the pieces, I added iron powder to my dye as an “after mordant.” A mordant is an agent like tannin or alum that helps bind plant dyes to the fiber. But you can change the color of a dye pretty significantly just by adding iron. In the case of my madder root, the iron powder turned the dye a plum purple color, which ended up lilac gray after it dried.

I made this bird with it.

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I just love the idea of turning a tattered piece of vintage cloth into something like that. You know?

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Name Days

Every so often I like to scour Etsy for vintage Lithuanian ephemera, as one does. If I’m feeling generous, I will also add “Latvian” and “Estonian” into my search parameters. That’s how I came to be the proud owner of three pre-war Latvian day planners and one set of German trivia cards about Native Americans.

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It seems that the primary purpose of the calendars was to keep track of name days, which were very important (still are?) in Eastern Europe, and celebrated like birthdays. There is a Lithuanian word – “vardadienis” – that literally means “name day.”

Since my daughter’s name is Latvian in origin, it was never listed in the Lithuanian calendar. Now that I finally know her name day, I will be sure to commemorate it by giving her flowers and a doughnut with sprinkles for breakfast.

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My son’s name day is June 24th. On this day, if he were in Lithuania, he would get a free drink and try to jump over a bonfire. My husband’s name day is March 17th and every year he gets a parade.

My name day is May 28th, but so far nobody has ever sent me a card or even given me so much as a pat on the back.

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