Woad – Pastel du Teinturiers
Woad was cultivated as the source of blue dye for more than 2000 years. Plinius, in the first century A.D., reported that the women of Britain dyed their naked bodies blue to attend ceremonial offerings. Julius Ceasar, noticed that the men used Woad as a war paint. They painted their bodies with a paste of the leaves. This may have had two purposes, firstly to scare off their opponents, secondly to staunch blood and heal wounds.
The process of obtaining the dye through fermentation gave off a terrible smell. Queen Elisabeth I of England banned the process of obtaining Woad dye in a 8 km radius of her palaces. It remained a popular dye for fabrics until Woad was superseded by Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) in the 1630’s. The colour of Indigo is more appealing, although some Woad continued to be used as a colour fixative in making the Indigo dye as it is a more permanent blue than that of Indigo. In the beginning, when Indigo was first introduced in the 16th century, laws were passed to protect the local Woad industry. Henry IV of France, in an edict of 1609, forbade, under the pain of death, to use “the false and pernicious Indian drug”. When artificial dyes became popular in the early 20th century, the Woad and Indigo industry collapsed. The last commercial Woad harvest in recent times occurred in 1932 in Lincolnshire. Small amounts of Woad are now grown in the U.K. and France to supply craft dyers.
Woad is a biennial, 45 cm – 130 cm tall. In the first year, just a rosette of leaves are visible. In the second year the stem emerges. The stem leaves are arrow-shaped, clasping the stem. At the top of the stem there are much branched racemes of yellow flowers. Each flower is 4 mm across with 4 petals, followed after flowering by numerous hanging seeds.
The above ground parts , when crushed, give off the blue dye. The leaves are harvested in the first year, in summer. The blue dye is obtained by fermenting, drying and re-fermenting the crushed leaves, and adding lime-water to the final product.
Apart from Woad being used as a dye, it was traditionally used as a poultice to stop bleeding, heal wounds and ulcers. It is poisonous and should not be taken internally.
Bibliography: Kruiden – Lesley Bremness; Fleurs de Méditerranée – Larousse; RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and their Uses – Deni Bown; Herbs and Herbalism – Malcolm Stuart; Isatis Tinctoria – Web.