Julia McLean looks at the fascinating history of the blue dye called woad, and how its revival as a natural dye is proving successful.
“When Mel Gibson, playing the 13th-century Scottish warrior William Wallace, smeared his face in woad and hollered ‘Freedom!’ for the Scots against the English in the film Braveheart, he was following a tradition that went back more than 1,000 years to the days of Boadicea,” wrote Caroline Donald in the article “Lady sings the Blues’.” Both the word Briton and Pict are from older words meaning painted. There are those who think the Britons painted themselves with woad – not so much to frighten the enemy but, as it has great astringent properties,
to help scars heal after a battle (re: Roman soldiers with Hydromel and modern hospitals with Manuka honey).
When merchants came back from the East with their beautiful indigo dyes, the European growers of the woad plant (Erfurt, Toulouse, Amiens) from which blue dye was made were so worried that they instituted all sorts of protectionist policies. Colbert, the finance minister, faced with Louis XIV’s expensive expansionist warlike ways, tried to cut down on France’s importation of foreign goods. He founded Royal Manufacturing factories and ordered the French to source their raw materials from inside France. Colbert controlled the production of dyes by using only home grown woad and rose madder. In 1609, the French government ordered the death penalty for those who used indigo rather than woad!
In England, indigo was declared poisonous (untrue) and was banned until 1660. So woad continued to be used and later helped the indigo to fix better. I read somewhere it was used by puritans to fix the black in their clothes and that policemen’s uniforms were still dyed with it until the 1930s when the last woad mill in Europe (Lincolnshire) closed.
Widows wearing black were known to be wearing widow’s weeds. Some say this expression comes from the Old German for garment, but I heard it was from the fact that the colour black came from woad which is a plant that spreads like Japanese knotweed and so became known as a ‘weed.’ It has this reputation to the point where several American states forbid its growth – notably California, Utah and Washington.
Woad (Isatis Tinctoria) grown in Normandy and Picardy from the earliest times was called guede, or in the south of France, pastel. In Normandy it was used to dye the linen which was produced here in great quantities until the end of the 19th century. In the south, they mixed it into chalk and created the first pastel! Around Toulouse and near Nimes, in the south, they dyed thick woven cotton with it and the colour was known as bleu de Nimes or as Americans say ‘blue denim’.
Woad is a medium to tall herb. From the base rosette the stalk grows up bearing yellow florets about 4mm in diameter. I planted mine 4 years ago and have to dig out large patches as it invades the whole garden. Most of the dye is in the leaves and they are harvested in July and August in the second year of growth. The steeped leaves used to be rolled into balls (called boules de cocagne = woad balls) and were stored until needed for producing dye. As Europe got richer in the 16th centuries, the areas around where pastel or woad was grown became known as Le Pays de Cocagne (Woad Country) because it was the blue dye that created the riches for the area and by extension Le Pays de Cocagne came to mean a very rich area.
Many European countries use the expression but the etymology is varied. The English referred to rich lands as the Land of Cockaigne. The Dutch/Germans thought it came from the word for cakes or pastries (kokke etc.) and others thought it referred to the fact that there was an abundance of food and this was well cooked.
The truth lies somewhere between Brueghel’s 1567 painting “Le Pays de Cocagne” (Woadland or the Land of Milk and Honey) showing a cleric, a soldier and a peasant lying replete on the ground surrounded by foods that fly onto their plates or drip directly into their mouths and the prosperity brought to the area of France now known as the Pays de Cocagne – Land of the Woad Balls which lies in the triangle between Toulouse, Albi and Carcassonne. Think, Toulouse sausages, pate de foie gras, cassoulet de carcassonne, and goose fat for cooking, and you will appreciate how this area was known as the land of plenty!
As the demand for less-polluting dyes has grown, the EU funded the Spindigo project and farmers in Norfolk (UK), Spain, France and Portugal are harvesting woad and indigo plants and selling the dyes and products. You need one metric tonne of woad leaves to extract a kilo of pigment! I have already ordered a blue silk scarf and have decided that a woad-dyed beret is a must have for someone living in France.
For further information:
Unsure – dickuhne 2006 from Flickr
Cartoon – Gary Larson from Farside
Expectant – Olgierd Pstrykotworca 2010 from Flickr