Indigo and Woad

Woad botanical drawing. Image sourced from  here.

Woad botanical drawing. Image sourced from here.

This past week I began to dig a little bit into woad dyeing*. I’m starting much as I did with indigo- absorbing any and everything I can get my hands on so that I know what practice will work in my unconventional dye space (read: either my kitchen where nothing can be too toxic, or a shared basement with lots of space and drains but no running water or electrical outlets and limited heat and storage). After reading a few blog posts and shop blurbs I am finding that I am going to have to do more confronting of my own ancestral fuckery than I had anticipated in this research**. The rhetoric I am running into around woad is that it is the plant was used to achieve blue dye before indigo. There’s a period at the end of that sentence. That period says (but does not say) “… in Europe.” The period, placed where it is and leaving out what it does, implies that woad is the older of the two blue dyes available, that it came first, that Europe has a stake on blue (or even on indigo). When in fact, dyeing with indigo is an ancient practice in Japan, India and West Africa and is only (relatively) new to the scene where white people are concerned.

So, I have taken a step back and settled into a history lesson. I’m reading Women’s Work, the first 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Barber, but I am impatient for dye knowledge and we are just dipping into the concept of spinning fiber, so I am skipping ahead and cracking open my dye books. First and favorite is Wild Color, by Jenny Dean. There are two large sections on woad in her book- a sort of profile on the plant itself, and a page on method/recipe. And before I go further- let me say that I have the 1999 edition and it has since been re-released, so I can’t speak to any changes in language since then. Both sections devoted to woad describe it as a European dyestuff, similar (scientifically) to indigo, and falling out of favor once trade routes opened up and indigo became available in the 15th century. Note: There are moments in the longer history section where the author forgets to give context and dips into a European perspective without acknowledging it. The overall takeaway is that the practice of dyeing is at least 6000 years old, and the oldest evidence of such comes from India, China, parts of South America, Egypt, and Siberia- with credit for mordanting going to the Egyptians. European dye practices existed quite early as well, but really take off after access to (and trade with) the above regions is established.

My second favorite dye book- Harvesting Color by Rebecca Burgess- does not mention woad, so I’ll skip it this time (but if you are looking to dye with native plants and you live in North America, it’s a good resource). The third book in my collection is The Modern Natural Dyer by Kristine Vejar. The other two are so practical for my personal dye practice that I rarely crack this one open. Woad gets a brief mention here, right under indigo: “Woad was used to obtain the color blue until indigo became available in the 1500’s, and by the end of the 1800’s woad was rarely used”. Insert your own “in Europe”, and note too, that the 1500’s (or 1400’s) saw the establishment of trade routes making indigo accessible to Europe and the 1800’s saw the invention of synthetic indigo, wiping out the need for a local alternative. The history section is told from an almost entirely unacknowledged European perspective, with statements like: “In ancient times, only royalty was allowed to wear purple***, and the color came to signify great power” that forget to mention that in other cultures this was not the case. Meh, and more meh than I was expecting and I’m bummed about it, to be honest, given my big old crush on AVFKW.

So, what I have learned so far is that indigo and woad have a history that becomes deeply entwined once indigo comes to Europe. I’ve also learned that the most common rhetoric to be found is that woad was THE blue dye until indigo popped up on the scene from places unmentioned, which is negligible at best and a flat out lie if you want to be honest.

My next step will be digging into the history of woad in Europe (and specifically Germany) pre-indigo trade. And ordering some seeds (which I will grow in a bucket so I don’t accidentally introduce woad to the larger Chicago area).

*If you are wondering why I am researching woad- I’ve given up my indigo practice. If you are wondering why I gave up my indigo practice, I wrote about it here.

**As a white person of European, and specifically German descent, I should know this by now.

***A fun fact: purple was such a rare and special color in European textile dyeing because it was harvested by literally milking sea snails in the Mediterranean. Here’s an article about it.