Therapists say that blue is connected with communication, so it seems apt to start with a post about woad and Japanese indigo. These are the two easiest indigo-bearing plants to grow here in the temperate climate of the South East of England. We grow both of these on our allotments each year.
It’s easy to save seed from woad and the plant is hardy in our climate. Anyone can grow it.
Japanese indigo is much harder from a horticultural point of view. It’s not frost hardy and is prone to pests when over-wintered under glass. Our growing season is just a bit too short for seeds to set reliably in any quantity. But it yields a lot more indigo than woad. One of our ‘labours of love’ is picking the tiny seeds from dry flower heads at the end of each season to ensure we have plants for the following year.
When it comes to creating a woad or Japanese indigo dye vat there really is no substitute for learning alongside someone more experienced.
I remember the acute disappointment years ago when our first crop of woad leaves gave no trace of blue whatsoever, despite extensive reading and the enthusiastic help of our local Spinners, Weavers and Dyers guild. My partner Ash does not show his emotions much. But there was no doubt that evening just how angry and frustrated he was. We later came to realise the problem had been that we were using an ineffective reducing agent, although it was the one recommended in a leading text book. (There’s an entire post to be written on the subject of the errors and ambiguities I’ve encountered in books about plant dyeing.)
Over the following years we have refined our plant dyeing techniques enormously. Some of our current practice has evolved out of our own experiments. But just as much has come from attending workshops with wonderful teachers, in particular Jenny Dean, Penny Walsh, Jane Meredith and Debbie Bamford. The Weavers Spinners and Dyers Guilds are an excellent learning resource and way to connect with like-minded craftspeople.