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.
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.
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.
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.
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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