Ever since starting to grow our own dye plants I have wanted to create something I could wear, something that had been created from scratch. In the past I have been quite content to use bought materials to create works of art and craft but as I got older this has appealed less and less. I used to be confused by people who wanted to go back to creating the raw materials of their crafts. I thought that the raw materials were just tools to aid creativity and it was easy to buy the best. I never concerned myself about where they came from or how they had been produced. In time something changed and the thought of creating the raw materials myself began to be more important. I do not really understand the reasons why.
Growing our own dye plants was at first a sort of curiosity but one that propelled us into the world of spinning fleece. After all if you are prepared to grow your own dyes then it no longer seems right to use them to dye commercially manufactured textiles. What would be the point of that? So fleeces were obtained and Susan set out on the road of learning how to clean and mordant them. Later came carding, spinning (drop spindle and wheel) and plying into yarn with diversions into weaving and peg loom weaving. But learning all the steps to achieve a finished dyed garment has turned out to be a steep hill to climb.
Once I had learned how to spin I decided to dye sufficient fleece to make a jumper and trusted to my ability to learn how to knit when I had enough yarn.
Red madder dyed fleece being carded into rollags, spun and wound into balls ready for knitting
The first photo I have of the beginning was taken in 2014 and shows some of the madder dyed fleece and yarn. However by the time this was taken I had probably been at it for quite a while. The dyeing process was done very carefully so as not to felt the wool. Chopped root was heated to about 60ºC and the fleece added. The dye pans were then placed in a hay box and left overnight. The next day the fleece would be removed and the chopped root at the bottom of the pan was pounded to help release more alizarin (the chief red dye of madder). The pot was then reheated and fleece reintroduced. This might be repeated 3 or more times before a suitable red was obtained.
Slowly, slowly I built up a good stock of dyed fleece to spin. The shades of red varied so I tried to blend the darkest with the lightest to obtain as even a result as possible. Even so the yarn shows a variation in colour which results in the very pleasing stripes of the finished jumper.
Once I had enough I needed a knitting pattern and I quickly found out that knitting patterns are created for consistently even commercial yarn, not home-spun. But with help from our good friend Brian Bond and a few test squares of my own knitting I ended up with a ‘sort of’ pattern I thought I could work to. This was adapted from a cardigan design in one of Brian’s books that I liked the look of. But that’s where it all came to a bit of a grinding halt. I started on the indigo dyed blue rib of one side of the jumper but after several weeks of trial, with much undoing I had barely got into the red. The level of concentration needed to knit was so great that the slightest distraction caused dropped or added stitches or some other mistake. Even when I thought I was concentrating I would often find myself knitting the wrong stitch and all this before I had got to the point of having to reduce the number of stitches or do any of the fancy edging. It was too much.
This is as far as I was able to take it on my own.
The wool and the bit of rib stayed in its bag for months until Susan took pity on me and decided to have a go herself. Susan can knit but has no experience of knitting with irregular yarn. So what did get knitted took a long time and wasn’t remotely the right shape or size. Susan was canny enough to know that sewing the pieces together would have resulted in an unusual jumper to say the least. So back into its bag it went. Then along came Tracey Ballard who said nonchalantly “Oh yes I’ll finish that off for you if you like”. It meant that my dream of doing it all myself was truly out the window but by this time I was a pushover to accept any help.
No doubt after much remedial work (we suspect more than has been admitted to) Tracey turned up with the finished jumper a few months later. It was exactly as I imagined it. It is heavy and warm and it fitted perfectly. It is the first new jumper I have worn since one my mum knitted me many years ago. I failed to do it all myself but the feeling when wearing it… well it’s indescribable. The colour red is bold and bright. Red was my fathers’ favourite colour. He would buy me red shirts for Christmas which I would never wear. Now I have a totally unique red jumper, one that could never be bought in a shop and one that I will be proud to wear and show off for the rest of my life. No doubt my Dad would have approved.
The smile says it all.
Thanks to Susan and Brian for encouragement and advice. Special thanks to Tracey for finishing it off. It is friends and the small things that make life worth living even if they do take 6 years to complete.
The back of the jumper showing the stripes produced by variations in the dye.
Currently the main method of indigo extraction in use on internet Facebook pages is the 2 -3 day long soak in water. I believe this was the main method used commercially in the days before synthetic indigo wiped out the western market for natural indigo. Originally used to extract indigo from Indigofera tinctoria it is still used for small scale production in South Asia. The method is now used for Japanese indigo presumably because the traditional Japanese Method of composting the leaves is too large scale and time consuming for craft dyers. So it has been with some bafflement that I’ve seen the rise of this soaking method as I have always followed the Jenny Dean method which is even quicker.
We were introduced to plant dyeing through the pages of Jenny Dean’s “Wild Colour” and have used her recipe from this book for many years. It involves heating the leaves and can be done in two hours. Since we started to use this recipe we have tweaked it somewhat, discovering that there is no need to heat the leaves over 75 to 80°C to get maximum extraction. Another wrinkle is the need to allow the heated leaves to cool fairly rapidly. Large containers holding 20+ litres tend to cool too slowly and the indigo can be damaged. We did try one experiment when we cooled the extraction bath artificially but that was too quick and the results were very poor. An ideal extraction would be to heat about 1kg of leaves in 5 to 10 litres of water to 75°C and allow it to cool naturally over an hour. In our climate it will fall to around 40°C or less during that time.
So, now to the experiment which was a bit slap dash, but I am sure that it was systematic enough to have fairly good validity for a home dyer.
I picked just over 2kg of fresh Japanese Indigo of the Long Leaf variety which was showing no signs of any flower buds. This was divided into 2 lots of 1026g.
Long Leaf Japanese Indigo showing leaf curl – a result of prolonged hot sunny weather.
Hot Soak Method (based on Jenny Dean)
Once batch of leaves was added to a large pan with about 8 litres of cold tap water (20°C) and then gradually heated with constant stirring to 75°C. This took exactly one hour and at the end the leaves had lost all of their fresh green tint and had turned almost black. The water was a very dark grey (a lot darker than usual in fact and I attribute this to a higher than normal amount of indigo in the leaf – a result of the weeks and weeks of hot sunny weather we have had this summer).
The leaves were then left to soak for one more hour, after which there was an indigo bloom at the surface and the water had darkened further. The leaves were removed (by straining through old tights) and 4 tablespoons of household ammonia were added with an immediate colour change to dark yellow/green. The liquid was then oxygenated by pouring from bucket to bucket about 20 times during which the liquid darkened to a green black. A small quantity of the liquid (viewed from above in a white plastic cup) looked olive green.
Comparison of Hot and cold indigo extraction after 1 hour of soaking but before straining.
Cold Soak Method
The second batch of leaves was placed in a plastic bucket filled with about 8 litres of hot tap water (57°C). I used hot water because I did not wish to wait more than 24 hours. At this temperature the leaves become slightly cooked and release cell contents into the water quicker. The bucket was then set aside for 24 hours. After 1 hour the temperature had fallen to 44°C, the leaves were still quite green and the liquid was much paler and bluer than the hot extraction at the same stage. See image above.
After 24 hours the leaves were still greenish, although they had darkened somewhat. There was a lot of indigo scum on the top leaves. The liquid was grey with a blue tint. The plastic bucket was stained blue. Generally the results so far looked good, with much more blue visible than in the Jenny Dean method.
Cold indigo extraction after 24 hours. Lots of indigo bloom on leaves.
After leaves are removed, alkali (ammonia) added and liquid aerated.
Comparison of colour of water after extraction.
Colour of leaves after cold soak for 24 hours.
Empty plastic bucket used for 24 hour cold soak now stained with indigo.
The leaves were removed and about 4 tablespoons of household ammonia were added and the colour immediately changed to yellow green. The liquid was then oxygenated, by pouring back and forth between buckets about 20 times. During this process the liquid darkened until it was nearly black. A small quantity looked blue/green.
Both extracts were then heated at the same time in separate pans to 50°C, the ideal temperature for dyeing wool, and spectralite reducing agent (thiourea dioxide, thiox) was added (one and a half teaspoons) to each pan. They were then left for about 2 hours to give ample time for the indigo to be reduced. The pots were then reheated to 50°C and an identical skein of wool (Corriedale) was added to each. Both pots were then gently stirred to promote even dyeing and the skeins were removed after 20 minutes.
Initially the colour of the skein from the Jenny Dean (hot) method looked darker but on drying no difference could be detected.
Test dye showing relative strengths of dye bath from Hot and Cold extracted indigo.
The amount of indigo extracted appears to be the same for both methods. However, heating, cooking and stirring the leaves increased the amount of fine particulate plant material in the liquid which increased the amount of sludge in the bottom of the dye bath.
I should clarify I don’t use lime (as a combined alkali and flocculating agent) to obtain a dried indigo pigment from my dyeplants. Any indigo I don’t use straightaway for dyeing, I store as liquid sludges. But I can see that for people who do use lime, the cold soak is advantageous because the resulting indigo pigment would contain fewer impurities than the hot soak because the liquid extract after straining is purer. For myself I’m quite happy to continue using my modified Jenny Dean process as it is fast and reliable.
Out of interest I also decided to compare the Long Leaf Japanese Indigo to Woad. I processed a similar quantity of Woad leaf according to the 24 hour soak method in the experiment. Another wool skein was dyed in nearly identical conditions and the results prove to me that Woad can actually produce more indigo than Long Leaf Japanese Indigo.
Comparison of strength of indigo extracted from Long Leaf Japanese Indigo and Woad.
A note on alkalis
There has been a lot of controversy about which alkalis produce the best results. I have tried most of them and found that what is important is the pH not the exact chemical used to get there. Washing soda is the weakest and produces very poor results. Household ammonia is excellent and relatively safe, provided you don’t get it on your skin or breathe it in. Calcium hydroxide (lime) is good and has the added benefit of soaking up the indigo precipitate and settling it to the bottom fast (flocculation). Sodium hydroxide is also good but is very corrosive – a danger to skin and textile.
Whenever using strong alkalis you must take safety precautions: wear gloves; avoid splashes; don’t ever add water to dry alkaline powders or granules, add the powder to water; label colourless solutions and store safely; never leave sodium hydroxide solutions unattended for curious animals or children to explore (it is colourless and odourless and very corrosive indeed).
by Ashley Walker Copyright August 2018 Banner photograph copyright Sharon Cooper
On the 9th August, after two months with barely a drop of rain, the heatwave and drought in the South East of England may finally have come to an end. Despite regular watering the unnatural weather has taking its toll on our dye plants. For the first time our woad plants are being eaten by Cabbage White butterfly caterpillars (Large White Pieris brassicae and Small White Pieris rapae) and more recently by flea beetles (genus Phyllotreta). I guess the critters were getting desperate to find plants with a bit of juice in their leaves. The weather is having an impact on me as well, I have to water the indigo nearly every day and keeping the rest of the garden needs water too so I’m spending hours each week that I’d rather be spending on writing or dyeing.
This is the first part of a two part post on observations of the dye plants in our garden. This one deals with the plants we have been growing for more than a year. The second part will cover new plants.
European Woad – Isatis tinctoria
These Large White caterpillars managed to eat the whole woad leaf, leaving only the midrib behind.
We have grown Woad for about 12 years now and for the first time our plants have been attacked by caterpillars and flea beetles. This makes a change from the usual small black slugs which put a few holes in the leaves but seldom do any serious damage.
A cluster of Large White butterfly eggs on the underside of a woad leaf
Shiny black small Flea Beatles can slowly chew their way through a woad leaf leaving it like a sieve.
Woad flower spike August 2018 – from seed to flower in one season as a result of pampering.
I expect that the extraordinary hot weather is to blame with the butterflies and beetles probably acting in desperation. Although the flea beetles appear to thrive, the caterpillars have had a much harder time digesting the unpalatable leaves and most of the newly hatched critters have simply died, leaving a few small holes in the leaf. Only one plant had its leaves reduced to its midrib but even this one will survive as it is now putting out new growth. Interestingly it appears to be only the plants I have watered which are being eaten. There are a few plants which never get watered and these are looking fine.
A few people have asked about growing Woad in tubs or containers and this year we’ve had a few in containers ourselves and this has revealed a problem. One of our plants grown in a container in good compost and watered and fed regularly has grown large and is currently putting out a flower spike which will drastically reduce the amount of indigo in its leaves. Its very unusual to see Woad flowering in August so I can only assume we have pampered it too much – given it the ability to grow large enough to flower in one season. So if you are growing Woad in containers don’t give them too much fuss!
Chinese Woad – Isatis indigotica
Chinese Woad – about as big as it gets before flowering
Planted out in April these Chinese Woad immediately produced flower stems
We have been growing this for two years now, desperately trying to find out how to stop it flowering a few months after planting. From what I’ve read I’m in good company and this is the chief reason Chinese Woad has not caught on as a source of indigo, despite the fact that it could potentially produce as much dye as Japanese Indigo. Some of the literature indicates that botanists think Isatis indigotica is basically just a variety of tinctoria (European Woad). However, if that is so it has evolved away from tinctoria to a considerable extent. Indigotica is clearly adapted to a much warmer climate and although still nominally a biennial it behaves much more like a half hardy annual. It will flower at any time of year, even in winter, so its rosette stage is always very short and the plant never gets very big. The leaves are a paler blue-green than European Woad and its yellow flowers will continue to be produced throughout the year provided the plants are watered and taken care of. Once the plant starts to flower the larger rosette leaves die off leaving only small leaves on the plant which are probably no good for dyeing. According to the Handbook of Natural Colorants, indigotica will be triggered into flowering if the night time temperature falls below 5°C, which makes it almost impossible to grow the plant to any respectable size here in the UK. Even in Mediterranean climates the plant can only usefully be grown in the Summer. From my experience the plant will flower even if you just look at it the wrong way so I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not worth the effort. It does grow very quickly however and if you were to grow it en masse and harvest the leaves before it flowered it might just provide a return for your efforts.
Another problem with Chinese Woad is its susceptibility to pests. Caterpillars and aphids like it very much and can easily destroy your plants. And you guessed it, significant insect damage will also trigger flowering. In a mad moment I decided to see if Chinese Woad tasted any nicer than European Woad. But the taste test settled nothing, both plants are extremely bitter and fiery. I obviously don’t have the finer tastes of Cabbage White butterfly caterpillars!
Japanese indigo – Persicaria tinctoria
Long leaf variety of Japanese Indigo with curled leaves to protect itself the prolonged hot sun of 2018
This year we are growing the same three varieties as last year – Long Leaved, Broad Leaved and an Intermediate Leaved white flowered variety. There appears to have been no interbreeding from last year. This year the difference between the long leaf and broad leaf varieties is stark. The Long Leaf plant is very vigorous with dark green leaves. The Broad Leaf variety took a long time to get going as usual and suffered from its leaves turning red. I was initially confident that the red colour was partly due to the hot sunny weather we were having in early summer – the slow growing plants were getting roasted. But after a good feed (with chicken manure pellets) the plants started growing quickly with the new foliage a nice mid green despite the continued hot sunny weather. So a bit of a chicken and egg situation: was it the lack of fertilizer that caused the leaves to redden or simply that the young plant leaves, growing slowly, were getting a longer exposure to the hot sun? The Long Leaf variety reacted differently to the hot sun with leaf curling , something I had seen last year but only on plants grown in the greenhouse.
A bed of intermediate White flowering Japanese Indigo.
Newly planted out Broad Leaf Japanese Indigo with sun reddened leaves.
Thus far we have only harvested the Long Leaf variety and used it in a little experiment comparing Jenny Dean’s extraction technique with the more often used long soak in cool water. The results will be written up in a later post. What I have also noticed is that we are currently getting a considerably better production of indigo from Woad than the Long Leaf variety of Japanese Indigo. Woad is well known for giving better results when the weather is hot and sunny. If the climate change predictions are correct and we continue to have hot summer weather then I think we would be better to return to growing mostly Woad. The Long Leaf variety of Japanese Indigo produces the least amount of indigo dye of the three varieties (see comparison here) but it does produce larger plants so perhaps still produces an equivalent amount of indigo per square metre.
Madder – Rubia tinctorum
Once again this year the madder plants are producing masses of berries. This is the third year running. In the previous 10 years or so the plants produced only a few. I have no explanation as to why this is. I’ve grown plants in different soil, in planters and in the ground and all plants are doing the same. A result of the weather?
Madder plant obtained from Southwark Cathedral in early 2018.
This year we obtained a new madder plant sourced from Southwark Cathedral dye garden. The plant is quite different to plants I have been growing up to now (all of which were derived from a single seed over 10 years ago). This new plant has paler leaves with a different shape and it flowers about 3-4 weeks later. It will be interesting to see if the root yield is also different. I’m pleased to have been able to increase the genetic diversity of our madder as I’ve always propagated by root stem cuttings or from seeds from my own plants.
Wild Madder – Rubia peregrina
Wild Madder in flower – Early July
We’ve been growing this plant for nearly three years now. It’s an evergreen but the tops do not appear to be totally hardy in the UK climate and were damaged by the winter frosts. This is the first year in which the plants (originally obtained from a wild flower nursery) are starting to look a bit happier. They are putting out new shoots from underground stems and flowering for the first time. It remains however a very slow growing perennial and I think it will take longer than Common Madder to produce a good root harvest so we are leaving it for another year.
I was given some seed from a friend from some wild plants growing on the south west coast which nearly all germinated though it did take well over a month before the first shoots appeared.
Saw wort – Serratula tinctoria
Saw-Wort plants with yellowing of leaves.
A self seeded plant with dark green leaves growing next to the transplanted ones with yellow leaves.
This native plant continues to be disappointing. Not only do the plants remain small but about half of them suffer from bad yellowing of the leaves once planted out in the garden. I have tried practically everything to remedy the problem – fertiliser, Epsom salts and seaweed extract. There are some self-seeded plants which look very healthy so I do wonder if the roots are somehow getting seriously damaged during transplanting. It also remains likely that there is something wrong with the soil itself as other plants (Genista, a red scabious and a Purging Buckthorn shrub) are similarly affected.
A comparison of our main yellow dye plants. Top is Weld, Bottom Right is Genista and Bottom Left is Saw-Wort
We did try dyeing with the Saw Wort this year and obtained a good buttery yellow. We were hoping it would be a nice lemon yellow like Weld and Genista so were a bit disappointed with that too.
Bumble bee on single type dahlia grown from seed.
Dark Red Dahlia giving pinky purple and greens. Possibly “Nuit d’Ete” or “Black Cat”
The colour of Dahlia flowers has an effect on its dye but we did not appreciate by just how much until this year when we tried using some deep red flowers to dye with. We obtained nothing like our accustomed strong yellows with acid pH and strong orange with alkaline pH. This time we got green with alkali and blue/purple with acid indicating that the dyes in this dark red flower were the same as you find in red cabbage and some other red flowers. These dyes, although very pretty, are not light fast. Over the years of growing Dahlia we have narrowed down the varieties that produce the best results for the home dyer. These are yellow or orange double flowering pom pom types. The pom pom flowers are longer lasting and produce more dye – some pom poms are very large and yield a lot of dye but bees and pollinators are unable to assess the nectaries. We have tried to stay away from these but there’s no doubt they are the best for dyers.
Tansy – Tanacetum vulgare
Tansy needs regular watering for healthy plants.
Often used by Scottish dyers as a source of yellow dye this plant has been growing in our garden for several years now but largely unused because the plant wasn’t very vigorous. There was never enough plant material to harvest and the flowers were disappointing. This year we planted a bed of Japanese indigo alongside so the Tansy benefitted from being regularly watered. The resulting Tansy flowers have been lovely so if you’re growing them keep them watered for best results.
Perennial Coreopsis – Coreopsis grandiflora varieties e.g. Golden Joy, Sun Ray, Early Sunrise
Perennial coreopsis – plant breeders benefitting the plant dyer.
Bright orange on alum mordanted wool blanket.
These are double flowering perennials with deep orangey yellow flowers which produce a lot of dye. They are not as hardy as the growers would have you believe as half our plants died during the winter and only a few have recovered enough to put on a good show this year. However, many can be easily grown from seed so are not too expensive to grow. They make excellent bedding plants and produce a fabulous orange dye from the flowers. An example of the plant breeders unwittingly aiding the home dyer.
Dyer’s Alkanet – Alkanna tinctoria?
Alkanet root. Bottom tip has had thin outer black bark removed revealing the dissapointingly white root.
This is the third year of growing and though I have not tried to extract any dye from its roots I am deeply disappointed to find that the roots are not red as they should be. I was suspicious as soon as I started to grow the plant from seed bought from the German Company Rühlemann’s. The plant seemed too vigorous with over large leaves and not hairy enough, but I persisted with it until it flowered. The flower shoots were tall (up to about a metre high) and not at all like the creeping wild flower growing around its native Mediterranean. The flowers when they finally appeared were the only part of the plant that looked like the pictures of Alkanna tinctoria seen all over the internet but the roots? The roots were white!
Doing some reading around this ancient dye plant I find that its qualities as a medicinal plant derive solely from the coloured substances in the root which were used as a dye, cosmetic and bio stain so you can imagine the way I feel after lavishing attention on this plant for the last three years only to find the roots are white! Recently I discovered one internet comment on the plant that says the cultivated version of the plant does not produce as much dye as the wild type. Well that’s some understatement. Of course it is possible that lavishing attention on the plant was entirely the wrong thing to do and I should have left it alone but it seems more likely that the growers have simply selected the seed year after year from the largest prettiest plants and in so doing have bred out the qualities that gave the plant its historical value.
Just to confuse matters Alkanna tinctoria has been and is also known as “Anchusabracteolata, Alkanna tuberculata, Alkanna lehmanii, Lithospermum lehmanii”, and has been given various common names as follows Alkanna Radix, Buglosse des Teinturiers, Dyer’s Bugloss, Henna, Orcanète, Orcanette, Orcanette des Teinturiers, Orchanet, Radix Anchusae. Rühlemann’s who sell the seed are now calling it Alkanna tuberculata. There is certainly confusion on the identity of all these plants. Are they all the same or not. If there are any botanists out there who can get to the bottom of this please please get in touch!
Philip John and Luciana Gabriella Angelini – Indigo – Agricultural Aspects. Chapter 7 of Handbook of Natural Colorants Edited by Thomas Bechtold and Rita Mussak. Wiley Series in Renewable Resourses. (Available as free download).
Rühlemann’s This German herb plant and seed supplier has a number of dye plants for sale including Chinese Woad and Long Leaf Japanese Indigo but it is primarily interested in the medical properties of the plants it sells and I get the impression they know little about plant dyeing.
Woad (Isatis tinctoria) is a naturalised hardy biennial member of the Brassicaceae or cabbage family and was probably introduced into the UK from Europe. There are no close relatives in the UK but there is a similar plant from China called Chinese Woad (Isatis indigotica) which is primarily is grown as a medicinal plant but is also used as a source of indigo. Various web sources including Wikipedia assert thatindigotica and tinctoria are botanically indistinguishable. I have recently obtained some Chinese Woad seeds from a German company (Rühlemann’s) so intend to find out the truth of the matter next year. Woad will grow up to four feet high and here in Hertfordshire it flowers in May. The flowers, like so many dye plants, are yellow and make a terrific show in spring.
Unfortunately Woad is classified as a noxious weed in many western states of the US so if you live in one of these states please find out what the restrictions are before you even consider growing it. Here in the UK although it has naturalized and self seeds readily it is not invasive and only tends to grow in disturbed ground. Seeing it in the wild is a rarity. I have been reading about its invasiveness in the US and I now understand that it can invade wild areas of the West with ease probably because these areas are similar in habitat to its native eastern European and Asian plains. It is now classified as a noxious weed in the following states Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. I have not found any reports of problems in the East of the US so would appreciate it if anyone who has any knowledge of this could let me know. Many thanks.
More information can be obtained from this short online document here. For really comprehensive information see here.
The flat winged seeds of woad contain more than one seed
Woad generally produces masses of large seed “pods or cases” that are only viable for one year. These take a few months to mature and start falling or being blown to the ground by August. The seeds will then start to germinate as soon as the weather becomes wet (inhibitory chemicals in the seed case are washed away by rain). By late October/November new plants will have grown to a substantial size (big enough to harvest). Many seeds will not germinate until the following spring and a few of these will grow and flower in the same year. Those that do, will probably return to a rosette stage towards the end of summer which leads to the unusual sight of rosettes growing at the top of a long stem. Some second year plants will also survive flowering and also return to producing rosettes at the end of summer. These second year rosettes also produce indigo in the leaves.
Left a smooth edged leaf rosette and right a toothed leaf plant
A second year plant that survived its first summer and has returned to the rosette stage (sometimes called a “crown rosette”)
There appears to be a great deal of phenotypic variation between Woad plants. There are big differences in leaf colour ranging from blue/green to pale yellow/green and leaf shape from toothed to smooth-edged. Because of this variability, Woad seedlings can be easily mistaken for weeds at first, especially if they have popped up in unexpected places. However, all Woad plants have a highly distinctive aroma, once smelt never forgotten! It seems likely that plants also differ in the amount of indigo they contain, so there is probably scope for plant breeders to improve the stock.
The long white tap root of a two to three month old young Woad seedling.
Directly sown Woad bed. Really this bed could have used some thinning out, but it demonstrates that a dense planting will crowd out weeds very effectively.
Woad seeds are only viable for one year so make sure that your seed is fresh. If you buy commercially available seeds there will only be a few tens of seeds in the packet I don’t recommend that you risk them by sowing direct. Sow well away from slugs and snails indoors or outdoors in early April. There is no need to heat the trays. Each winged seed case actually contains more than one seed and so can produce more than one seedling. The plants will grow quickly. Plant them out on a warm day in early May. There’s no need to wait until the last frost as they are hardy.
I have only ever needed to buy Woad seeds once. The plants produce thousands of seeds which will spread around the garden and germinate in mid to late summer. I collect a carrier bag full on a dry sunny day in late summer when the seeds have fully matured. They store well if kept dry. I sow them liberally onto a prepared bed the following April, where they germinate readily and then may need thinning out.
At the beginning, to avoid having to buy the seeds two years running, keep a few seeds to plant in October. Depending on conditions, if you are lucky some of these late sown plants will stay in the rosette stage long enough to providing a useful crop for dyeing in the summer of your second year.
The young seedlings produce long tap roots that can penetrate deep into the ground, so the plants rarely suffer from drought. However watering regularly will encourage growth. The larger the plants the more water they need.
Care and Attention
Woad, like Japanese Indigo needs copious quantities of fertiliser to get a good crop. Animal manure is excellent if you can get it. This is best dug into the top few inches of soil before sowing or planting out and will last the whole season. Woad generally does not suffer from many pests and only a few diseases. As a cabbage family plant it may suffer from club root when grown in acid soils, but I have not heard any reports to that effect. It occasionally attracts cabbage white butterfly and flea beetle but the damage to leaves is seldom serious. When grown densely it does attract the attention of a few species of slug and snail but again these do not threaten the plant’s success so there is little need to take protective action. For more on pests see here.
The amount of indigo in Woad leaves varies according to the weather and the plant’s developmental stage. The plant produces more indigo when the weather is hot and sunny but once the plant has started to produce flower stems in early Spring the amount of indigo in the leaves rapidly diminishes, falling to zero when the plant is in full flower. For this reason Woad is invariably harvested in the summer of its first year while still in a rosette stage. The leaves at this stage are thick, fleshy and give off Woad’s characteristic smell when bruised. The smell is not pleasant but it has such good associations for me that now I have come love it. It is sometimes possible to trick the plants into returning to their rosette stage by cutting the flower stalks before the seeds form. Once harvested, the leaves need to be used the same day. When Woad was grown commercially in the UK the leaves were crushed in a mill and the resulting mass shaped into balls which were then set aside to dry. Woad stored in this way loses some of its indigo.
Further information on Woad and Woad products can be obtained from:
So far this month the weather here is how I remember April from childhood: sun and showers and no extremes of heat or cold. And I’m feeling enthusiastic about the growing season ahead.
We’re now well into the annual cycle of seed propagation. The windowsill in our front room has trays of Dyer’s Chamomile, Dyer’s Coreopsis, Japanese Indigo and a bee-friendly Dahlia. With the exception of the Dahlia, all these seeds are saved from previous years.
Japanese indigo needs a slightly longer growing season than our climate can offer. So we start seeds off in heated trays on our sunniest windowsill in late February or March. A home-made rig provides extra light for the plants during gloomy weather. From here, they move on to a cold frame in the back garden or the unheated greenhouse. We won’t plant the Japanese Indigo out until all risk of frost is past.
Dye plant seedlings indoors
Cold Frame near the house
In case you’re curious, we collect Woad seeds in early summer to prevent them spreading everywhere and sow direct into the soil the following autumn or spring. Weld (biennial) and Dyer’s Greenweed (perennial) are reliable self-seeders and not invasive, so we let these grow where they will and don’t usually bother planting them up in seed trays.
These last two photographs show the end of one cycle of indigo and the start of the next. I was amazed at the beautiful patterns in the mould on top of a forgotten Japanese indigo vat. For a plant dyer at least, there’s no happier sight than trays of lush green Japanese Indigo seedlings!
Patterns of mould growth on a forgotten indigo dyebath
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.