The schedule for our week at Château Dumas had Thursday down for a “woad workshop.” I knew that woad is a natural plant dye, and I think I vaguely knew that it was blue. It seemed kind of odd to have a day of dyeing in the middle of our sewing workshop, but I was curious, and game. On the first day after we arrived, as we headed out to explore Sunday flea markets in nearby towns, they suggested that we keep an eye out for vintage table linens and nighties to woad. I will admit that, as a very committed fan of indigo, I may have thought, “how good can this woad stuff be?”
Thursday dawned, and we headed up to the château’s picnic/dyeing area, where our woad master, Denise Simeon, had set up several large vats of murky woad soup. Each one had a flag of white cotton that had been dipped in the vat, to show the relative strength of the blue.
Denise knows her woad, and gave us a fascinating talk on its history. It is amazing to think that Napoleon’s army marched in woad-dyed coats, and that, centuries before that, the woad trade made vast fortunes in and around the city of Toulouse, in the heart of woad-growing country. The Church had the color red, dyed with madder; blue was reserved to the kings of France. The techniques for extracting and dyeing with woad were tightly held secrets, because they were so valuable. The knowledge dissipated when synthetic dyes were invented and people didn’t have to mess with fermenting woad patties and getting tavern patrons to pee in buckets anymore. (Peeing for the woad business was kind of a fall-back job in those days. You had to be male, and you had to drink acidic beverages. Today we use ammonia.) Another fun fact we learned was that the ubiquitous blue shutters of southwest France traditionally were painted with the leftover pigment from woad vats. Woad naturally repels insects, and people believed that bugs did not like the color blue.
Fun fact: one reason we in the United States are not as familiar with woad is that it is not native to North America. It is illegal to grow it in some parts of the United States, as it is viewed as an invasive species.
This was all very interesting, of course, but we were straining to get into the vats. Dyeing with woad was easy. The items to be dyed had to be soaked in plain water first, wrung out (so as not to dilute the vat), shaken out, and dipped. The dipping technique is gentle and kind of meditative: you want the item to slip into the vat, without splashing, and without trapping any air next to it.
(That’s Denise on the left, demonstrating broomstick skills.)
We got into the rhythm of slipping, lying the end of the piece on the surface of the vat, and then gently pulling at it from the bottom, with a deeply-blue broomstick, to submerge it entirely. A few minutes soaking, and then gently remove the item with the broomstick, and wring it out close to the surface of the vat, disturbing the vat as little as possible. Once removed, quickly shake out the item to expose its entire surface to air (let it “take a breath”), and watch it go from lurid yellow-green to beautiful mottled blue, and then solid blue. Subsequent dips deepen the color.
(The sheer silks took the color beautifully.)
I went kind of nuts. I was not the only one who kept running back to my room to fetch more of my clothes to dye.
(My old striped Euroflax pullover, before woad.)
(My old striped Euroflax pullover, fully woaded.)
The blue of woad is different from the blue of indigo. It’s warmer and more luminous. When indigo items are dyed pale blue, they can seem under-dyed; with woad you can get a gorgeous pale blue that seems like a real color and not a wash. Woad also has a teal undertone to my eye. It was easy to get an even color, but it always remains a vibrant blue with no black overcast.
It was a beautiful day of dipping, wringing, and hanging. They left the vats out overnight, and at least one person (not me! I swear!) got up early the next morning to dip a few more things before they were gone.
I have a lot of blue clothes now.