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Isatis tinctoria, with Woad (play /ˈwoʊd/; or glastum) as the common name, is a flowering plant in the family Brassicaceae. It is commonly called dyer's woad, and sometimes incorrectly listed as Isatis indigotica (a newer and invalid name for the same plant). It is occasionally known as Asp of Jerusalem. Woad is also the name of a blue dye produced from the leaves of the plant.
Woad is native to the steppe and desert zones of the Caucasus, Central Asia to eastern Siberia and Western Asia (Hegi), but is now found in southeastern and some parts of Central Europe as well. Long important as a source of blue dye, it has been cultivated throughout Europe, especially in Western and southern Europe, since ancient times. In medieval times there were important woad growing regions in England, Germany and France, and towns such as Toulouse became prosperous on the woad trade. Woad was eventually replaced by the stronger indigo and then by synthetic indigoes.
The first archaeological finds of woad seeds date to the Neolithic and have been found in the French cave of l'Audoste, Bouches-du-Rhône (France). Named Färberwaid (Isatis tinctoria L.) or German Indigo, of the plant family (Brassicaceae), in the Iron Age settlement of the Heuneburg, Germany, impressions of the seeds have been found on pottery. The Hallstatt burials of Hochdorf and Hohmichele contained textiles dyed with Färberwaid (woad dye).
Melo and Rondão write that woad was known "as far back as the time of the ancient Egyptians, who used it to dye the cloth wrappings applied for the mummies." Skelton informs us that one of the early dyes discovered by the ancient Egyptians was "blue woad (Isatis tinctoria)." Lucas writes, "What has been assumed to have been Indian Indigo on ancient Egyptian fabrics may have been woad." Hall states that the ancient Egyptians created their blue dye "by using indigotin, otherwise known as woad."
Julius Caesar tells us (in De Bello Gallico) that the Britanni used to colour their bodies blue with vitrum, a word that roughly translates to "glass". While many have assumed vitrum refers to woad, and this misconception was probably repeated for political reasons, it is probable that Caesar was describing some form of copper- or iron-based pigment. The northern inhabitants of Britain came to be known as Picts (Picti), which means "painted ones" in Latin, and may have been due to these accounts of them painting or tattooing their bodies.
The medieval period onwards
Woad was one of the three staples of the European dyeing industry, along with weld (yellow) and madder (red). Chaucer, mentions them, lamenting their use by the dyer ("litestere") in his poem The Former Age:
No mader, welde, or wood no litestere.
Ne knew; the flees was of his former hewe
The three can be seen together in tapestries such as The Hunt of the Unicorn (1495–1505), though typically it is the dark blue of the woad that has lasted best.
In Viking age levels at York, a dye shop with remains of both woad and madder dating from the 10th century have been excavated. In Medieval times, centres of woad–cultivation lay in Lincolnshire and Somerset in England, Jülich and the Erfurt area in Thuringia in Germany, Piedmont and Tuscany in Italy, and Gascogne, Normandy, the Somme Basin (from Amiens to Saint-Quentin), Britany and above all Languedoc in France. This last region, in the triangle between Toulouse, Albi and Carcassonne, was for long the most productive of woad, or "pastel" as it was known there, one writer commenting that "woad... hath made that country the happiest and richest in Europe." The prosperous woad merchants of Toulouse displayed their affluence in splendid mansions, many of which are still standing. One, Jean de Bernuy, a Spanish Jew who had fled the inquisition, was credit-worthy enough to be the main guarantor of the ransomed King Francis I after his capture at the Battle of Pavia by Charles V of Spain. Much of the woad produced here was used for the cloth industry in southern France, but it was also exported via Bayonne, Narbonne and Bordeaux to Flanders, the Low Countries, Italy, and above all Britain and Spain.
A major market for woad was at Görlitz in Silesia. The citizens of the five Thuringian Färberwaid (dye woad) towns of Erfurt, Gotha, Tennstedt, Arnstadt and Langensalza had their own charters. In Erfurt, the woad-traders gave the funds to found the University of Erfurt. Traditional fabric is still printed with woad in Thuringia, Saxony and Lusatia today: it is known as Blaudruck (literally, "blue print(ing)").
Medieval uses of the dye were not limited to textiles. For example, the illustrator of the Lindisfarne Gospels used a woad-based pigment for blue paint.
The dye chemical extracted from woad is indigo, the same dye extracted from "true indigo", Indigofera tinctoria, but in a lower concentration. With the European discovery of the seaway to India, great amounts of indigo were imported. Laws were passed in some parts of Europe to protect the woad industry from the competition of the indigo trade. Indigo was proclaimed to rot the yarns as well. "In 1577 the German government officially prohibited the use of indigo, denouncing it as that pernicious, deceitful and corrosive substance, the Devil's dye." "... a recess of the Diet held in 1577 prohibited the use of 'the newly-invented, deceitful, eating and corrosive dye called the devil's dye.'" This prohibition was repeated in 1594 and again in 1603. In France, Henry IV, in an edict of 1609, forbade under pain of death the use of "the false and pernicious Indian drug".
With the development of a chemical process to synthesize the pigment, both the woad and natural indigo industries collapsed in the first years of the 20th century. The last commercial harvest of woad until recent times occurred in 1932, in Lincolnshire, Britain. Small amounts of woad are now grown in UK and France to supply craft dyers. The classic book about woad is The Woad Plant and its Dye by J. B. Hurry, Oxford University Press of 1930, which contains an extensive bibliography.
A method for producing indigo dye from woad is described in the book The History of Woad and the Medieval Woad Vat (1998) ISBN 0-9534133-0-6.
In Germany, there are attempts to use woad to protect wood against decay without dangerous chemicals. Production is also increasing again in the UK for use in inks, particularly for inkjet printers, and dyes, as woad is biodegradable and safe in the environment, unlike many synthetic inks. The plant's presence has its problem however since Isatis tinctoria is viewed as an invasive species in parts of the United States.
Historic Dyes Series No.1 - The History of Woad and the Medieval Woad Vat
by John Edmonds
The first book in John Edmonds' comprehensive series explores the most famous dye of all time: indigo. Throughout history, indigo has been virtually the only natural blue dyestuff. Woad was the source of the dye in Europe since Neolithic times, and it appears that the plant was introduced into Europe for this sole purpose at the same time as farming spread from the Middle East.
Blue dye is the most complex of all the natural dyes and, consequently, was one of the most valuable commodities in medieval international trade. Toulouse is the area which has become known in mythology as the ‘Land of Cockaigne’ or the land of plenty – the cockaigne was in fact the woad. As a result, woad was the second most important import into England in the 15th century. This booklet follows the rise in imports of woad as the English textile industry grew in the 15th century, before examining the decline in the woad trade with religious strife on the continent. Finally, the arrival of indigo from India changed the woad trade for good in the 16th century.
This booklet not only offers a fascinating glimpse into a little-studied medieval commodity market, but can also be used as a practical guide to the methods used to create natural indigo dye.
John Edmonds was a leading expert in natural dyeing techniques and history. This was recognised in 2003 when he was asked to appear in the Tudor Age series of 'Worst Jobs in History' with Tony Robinson demonstrating the dyeing process using woad. The results shown on the programme speak for themselves.
Blue is the color of sky and water. From the time of the ancient Egyptians, the blue depths of water personified the female principle, while sky blue was associated with the male principle. Blue is the color of all heavenly gods and stands for distance, for the divine, and for the spiritual.
Blue is also the symbol of fidelity. Blue flowers, such as forget-me-nots and violets, symbolize faithfulness. According to an old English custom, a bride wears blue ribbons on her wedding gown and a blue sapphire in her wedding ring. Tiny flowers of blue speedwell are part of the wedding bouquet.
In the English language, blue sometimes refers to sadness. The phrase "feeling blue" is linked to a custom amongst old sailing ships. If a ship loses her captain, she would fly blue flags when returning to home port.
In German, to be "blue" (blau sein) is to be drunk. This derives from the ancient use of urine (which is produced copiously by the human body after drinking alcohol) in dyeing cloth blue with woad or indigo. However, the color blue also had other associations in Germany. The Blue Flower was the symbol of German 19th century Romanticism, thanks to the novel fragment Heinrich von Ofterdingen, by the German poet Novalis.
The first blue pigment was azurite, a natural mineral. Soon thereafter, Egyptians manufactured Egyptian blue, which quickly spread throughout the ancient world. During the Middle Ages, the recipe for Egyptian blue was lost, so azurite and expensive ultramarine from Afghanistan were the only sources of blue available. In the 15th century, smalt, a finely ground blue glass, came into use for painting. The first pigment produced due to the advancement of modern chemistry was a blue, Prussian blue, which was soon followed by cobalt blue and cerulean blue.
Blue is a primary color in painting, with the secondary color orange as its complement. It is in the visible spectrum at wavelengths in the range of 440–490 nm.
Believe it or not, bright blue is one of the most likely candidates for a ‘rich’ colour. It was the most expensive colour in painting, and although blue dye from the woad plant (Isatis tinctoria) was actually one of the basic and most commonly-used dyes, it required something like nine months of processing work, which included fermentation. This did not bar it from being worn by ordinary people, but the brightest (not necessarily the darkest) blues would require the most treatment. According to medieval commentators, blue was extremely pleasing to the eye and had celestial connotations. It is said in period sources that lapis lazuli – an extremely expensive painting pigment – could be used for dyeing. The colour was often used in paintings to depict for the gown of the Madonna.
The value of woad dye was illustrated in medieval Europe. Some parts of France grew rich on the back of woad trading and dyeing, and as the ‘royal’ colour in France (the arms of the King of France are gold fleur-de-lys on a blue field), it was especially revered in France. The lust for blue drove many medieval farmers to ruin. They could grow woad very easily and make a fast profit, but the plant stripped the land of its salts and left it barren and unusable. As a result, laws on woad farming were introduced in France and the Italian states. True indigo, imported all the way from India, was also used, but was much more expensive and did not really prevail until the 16th century.
Originally from India (very old use). One of the most popular dyes used in the later medieval ages, since it held very well to fabric. Made from the leaf of a plant soaked in water. The dye was also used for paint and cosmetics. Expensive since only the leaves gave dye and each only a small amount. The plant is around 3-5 ft high and harvested twice a year. The leaves are steeped in water 9-14 days, then put into vats to be beaten so as to oxidize the dye. While in the vat it changes from a yellow color to dark blue. It is then left inside for two hours, and then the water is drained. The slug is boiled to stop the fermentation, the strained and left to congeal into a paste; it is then cut into bars to ship. Thought by Europeans until the 1700s to be a mineral from India. Venice, Italy was the first place in Europe to use indigo. Not really used in Europe until the 1400s/1500s, since it had to be shipped by water. Laws were passed in parts of Europe to prohibit its use because of the powerful woad guild members who considered it a threat to their blue dye.
2-5 ft high plant. The dye comes from the leaves. Originated in Southern Europe and Turkey but spread up to England and Sweden. Leaves are crushed to pulp and placed into small heaps to dry out. These are then kneaded into five pound balls and left to dry for four weeks. They are then ground into a powder, spread on a floor two to three inches thick, sprinkled with water until they form a paste, and are left to ferment for nine weeks. It took a lot of the plant to make any pigment, about a 9:1 ratio, but the plant was abundant and used cheap land, so was a good crop to grow. Young leaves produced a light blue.
There are two sources of natural blue dye: woad and indigo. The woad plant was widely used in Britain right through the medieval period and earlier whereas indigo was a later immigrant to Europe. Both plants produce the same colourant 'indigotin' which makes it impossible to tell by chemical analysis which was used in any particular find. Therefore archaeologists have relied on information about what plants were grown, and on documentary evidence of trade in both dyestuffs to decide whether any specific textile find was dyed with woad or indigo. There is an excellent article about woad in The Thirty Year Journal of Academic Papers published for the SCA's 30 year anniversary.
My first experiment with woad was from plants grown in my own garden. The method used and described below is NOT a medieval method. This gave a nice soft blue - like faded jeans.
Indigo is an eastern plant which came into Europe in a big way in the later medieval and early renaissance period. The following method of dyeing is again not the period method - it uses indigo blocks purchased from a local craft shop and is similar to the woad recipe.
|Murex purple||purples, reds, and blue-violets||From mollusks. The chemical components of mollusc dyes are very similar to indigo.|
|Woad||Blue||Native to Northern Europe. Famous as the blue used by Celts for body-paint. Woad seeds were found in Medieval archaeological sites. Woad is a vat dye - a fermentation process must be used to fix the colors.|
|Indigo||Blue||Native to Middle East. Same chemical as woad (indigotin) but in greater quantities; same sort of dye process. Laws were passed in England to prevent indigo use to protect the woad industry.|
|Mushrooms||mainly yellow or dull brown, some varieties blues, greens, reds, oranges, purples, and other colors||Difficult to impossible to tell if they were used historically.|