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.

DIY or die

When I was 19 my then-partner and I decided to make all of our own clothes. I can’t remember now what the reason was. The environment? Unethical working conditions in garment factories? Struggles with binaried clothing? Being small and angry queer humans who needed direction in life after dropping out of school? Being very very broke? Maybe all of those things.

I can pinpoint the beginning of this project in time because I was sewing (a bikini- made from a sweatshirt) during President Obama’s inauguration. The metal sewing machine that we used somehow interfered with the radio when I pushed the pedal, so I would sew a few inches and then pause to listen. I was terrified that he would be assassinated.

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My first forays into practical garment making were bumbling disasters (see above- bikini made from a sweatshirt… in January). Even bigger of a disaster was that we had committed to this project- and then given away a good portion of our clothes as incentive. In hindsight I can say that it was an ambitious project, and well intentioned. I can also see the support we had, in friends and co-workers and housemates who dropped clothing and fabric off for us to repurpose. At the time I felt so scared and frantic, but looking back I feel proud and know that I was loved. I don’t have a single article of handmade clothing left from that time. The tights I intended to knit never got past the shin and the one pattern we had for homemade underwear never did sit right on my thighs. But I have scraps of fabric from dear friends that still make it into quilts, and some of the garments I knit now grace the bodies of people I love.

I wish my 19 year old self could see my closet now. It took ten years, but I am living the reality that I so badly wanted to force myself into back then. I wish I could whisper in my own ear that these things take time and patience (and um, some learning of skills), and I wish I could say thank you to myself for planting those seeds as I took my first steps in my adult life. They have grown and grown and today they feed and quite literally clothe me.

(Photo from Victoria Weeber, roughly 2009)

2009 // 2019

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In 2009 I was 19. I lived at the Eugene V. Debs co-op in Ann Arbor, MI, less than a mile from the house I grew up in. I cooked vegetarian dinner for 23 people once a week and I ate full milk vanilla yogurt for breakfast and dessert and argued with my housemates about whether or not cereal was too expensive. In 2009 I had just dropped out of art school and I was beginning to grasp the full extent to which that decision damaged my connection with my family, who had anticipated a different course for my life. I woke up each day with my heart racing, excited and terrified to be so alone. In 2009 I thought they would probably come around. In 2009 I worked full time as a cashier at the People’s Food Co-op. My best friend was a grocery stocker and we had the same haircut. We would leave work on our bikes and race home to call one another on the landlines of our respective co-op houses. In 2009 I was beginning the relationship that would determine so much of my life for the next five years. I was beset by crushes, at home and at work. I was in love. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was queer, I was QUEER! I WAS QUEER! and I had cut all of my hair off to prove it. In 2009 I painted life-size portraits on cardboard on my lover’s bedroom floor and had my first art show. At the co-op. In 2009 I thought Mirah and The Blow were the same band and they were my favorite band, along with Daisy May.

In 2019 I am 29. I live in Chicago, IL, in a hundred year old apartment building 250 miles from the house I grew up in. I cook everyday and bake bread when I’m moved to. I still think cereal is too expensive, but make concessions for bulk granola. In 2019 I don’t have a degree in anything and I support myself partially on my own work- as a knitter and a quilter and occasionally I will deign to say: an artist- and I work a few days a week as a studio assistant. I wake up each day with my heart firmly in place and my tall-ass wife brings me coffee in bed to get it racing. In 2019 the only room I don’t work in is the bedroom, but all other floors are fair game. In 2019 I am five years into the relationship that I plan to determine the rest of my life within, and I am beset by crushes and I am in love. I’m a lesbian, and don’t let my long hair fool you, I’m still QUEER! as fuck. In 2019 my computer thinks I only want to listen to Bauhaus and half of an album by Shannon and the Clams and I don’t think I’ll correct it.