Category Archives: nature

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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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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I Have Customers!

Remember when I realized I love birds? Well, I put up some bird feeders in the backyard soon after writing that post, and for the longest time not one single bird chose to dine in either of the three restaurant options available to them. Which I couldn’t understand because the stuff I put in the Squirrel Proof Deluxe Perch-n-Peck Limited Edition Avian Diner On A Stick looked so good I was temped to pack it in my kids’ lunches.

Then one day while I was looking at pictures of birds on the Internet, I heard some chirping outside and wouldn’t you know it but I had two customers! Really pretty ones, too. I don’t know what kind they were because it happened before I had purchased my Field Guide to Birds of North America, but I stood looking at them with my face pressed up against the windowpane for a solid minute, maybe more.

Those two were my only visitors for several weeks, until just recently. Today I was sewing a bird in my sunroom with the windows open when I heard a veritable chorus outside. There  were several robins, a couple of sparrows, a cardinal, AND a gorgeous red headed woodpecker with black and white spots in one of my trees. Just like Woody! I ran upstairs to fetch my binoculars, but by the time I came back down the woodpecker was gone.

And here’s the little dude I finished sewing today:

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He is made of of linen and embroidered with crewel wool. His wire legs are wrapped in florist tape and jute string, and he’s got some extra wool roving around his feet (talons? claws?) because he is also freakishly skinny and will need all the extra warmth he can get in order to survive the winter.

I love him.

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But I think it may be time to change his diaper.

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Birdbrain

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Some kind of a red bird from the Field Museum in Chicago

Something is currently happening to me, apparently much later than it does to normal human beings: I’m suddenly fascinated by birds.

It’s not that I ever held birds in contempt like I did watercolor painting, it’s just that they were part of the background, flitting about in the sky and leaving turds on the windshield. I knew there were a lot of birds in the world and that they were somehow an integral part of the ecosystem, though I could never be bothered to put up a bird feeder, say, or pause for a long, contemplative look at a bluejay.

But recently I’ve been really noticing birds and totally staring at them.

They are tiny dinosaurs. They are quite beautiful. And they can fly. How do they do that?

Do they have internal compasses? Where do they go during thunderstorms? How do they produce so many different sounds?

And what’s up with woodpeckers?

Mind, I still think birds are disease-riddled and the other day when my kids found an interesting feather in the backyard, I made them wear surgical gloves to pick it up. On the other hand, I’m currently reading the memoir of a woman who sets about training a goshawk and I sense the inevitability of a future in which I’m at a bird sanctuary wearing khaki shorts and binoculars and toting a watercolor sketchbook.

Which brings me to the other thing I’m mysteriously drawn to here in middle age: watercolor painting. I used to think it was a wimpy sort of medium. It brought to mind ladies in straw hats, wicker furniture, glasses of iced tea, and grade school. It was timid and flavorless. It was oil painting’s spineless and feeble-minded cousin.

But something about the grace and fluidity of watercolor painting is becoming increasingly attractive. I guess I appreciate subtlety and nuance more than I did in my younger years. And ever since taking a watercolor class while on vacation last week, I see that though it is quite approachable, watercolor is also a difficult and unforgiving medium.

Naturally, I am now impelled to wed my newfound love of birds with my newfound love of watercolor. So far I haven’t had much success, which is okay because according to Malcolm Gladwell, it’s going to take about 10,000 hours to master. In the meantime, I got myself a bird feeder and a second-hand ornithology lab notebook.

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A page from my ornithology notebook

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Fossil from the Field Museum in Chicago

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