Last week, a friend of mine asked me what woad was. I tend to wander about thinking that everyone has the same information stored in their heads as I do, so am surprised when they don’t.
The short answer is, historically, it is the European source of the blue dye called indigo.
History in Britain
It has a long history of human cultivation and has been grown in Europe since the Stone Age.
Boudicca and the Iceni tribe in East Anglia used woad to colour their faces and, some accounts say, their bodies, before going into battle and in the north, the Picts painted their bodies with woad. Interestingly, it was the Romans who coined the name “Picts” as the word means “painted” in the Celtic language.
As anyone who has ever inadvertently put an ungloved hand in a woad or indigo vat knows only too well, that colour just loves skin. It’s not something your hand will let you forget in a hurry and, for several days, it will leave people who don’t know you well, wondering if you are a smurf in training, or auditioning for a part in an Avatar sequel. So, I’m guessing, this persistent characteristic is one of the reasons why the ancient Britains used it.
Another reason may be that woad can be used as an antiseptic and it may have been used to help to heal the more minor wounds of battle.
Cultivation and Processing
I have been doing quite a lot of reading around how to grow and cultivate woad as I have some seeds to plant next spring.
Woad is grown as an annual, so it is planted and harvested in one year. The leaves give the colour and are chopped up into a paste and shaped into balls. These balls are dried out, and then crushed into a powder. The powder is wetted and allowed to ferment. Once it has dried out again, the fermented powder is added to a vat of urine (or potash). And fermentation continues for another 3 days. Then, the vat is ready to dye your wool, fabric, hands, faces and any other body part.
The process can be speeded up these days through the use of sodium dithionite, instead of the urine vat.
But, the thing that astonishes me, every time I think about it is, how did ancient people’s figure it out? There just feels like too many steps, to have stumbled upon it accidentally. I have such regard for ancient dyers who must have been great experimenters and highly observant.
Woad is a bit smelly. Actually extremely smelly when it is fermenting. I can attest to this personally as, in the heat of summer I left a mini skein I had rather unsuccessfully tried to over dye with woad, in a little water, in a bowl in my studio, for a little too long, while I pondered what to do with it. I tried washing away the whiff, without success and even though I then moved it directly to the wheelie bin outside, the smell lingered for ages. Weeks later, I thought I kept getting an occasional whiff of it, although that may have just been my imagination.
I can wholeheartedly sympathise with Queen Elizabeth I, who refused to allow it to be cultivated near her palaces because of the smell!