Woad – isatis tinctoria
Biennial herb, its leaves creating dye from dark blue to lighter blue and green
I found a great book in the library (March and Wisbech both have a copy, see below for reference) and also some photographs I think are related to Woad growing, in the Lilian Ream collection (no references available) as well as at The Wisbech and Fenland Museum, referred to in the book. They are of Woad farming in Parson Drove, on the edge of our Ouse Washes area. It is an interesting subject as it was a crop mainly grown in this region, north through Lincolnshire, but also Somerset, a similar landscape to the Ouse Washes fenland area. It was grown and sold to the rest of the country and abroad for centuries, losing out to indigo in later years, which was a stronger colour and cheaper to produce – and then was produced chemically negating the need for plants. However, as with many of the crafts, ideas and practises I have investigated, it still has a niche and I hope its use will continue with individuals and small growers.
I have a woad plant myself, and have given a couple away to friends, so we’ll see later in the year if I can indeed produce the dye. I will add photos to this section as I get permission from the owners (Wisbech and Fenland Museum, and the Lilian Ream Trust), here’s one of the plant I’m nurturing!
It is a labour intensive process, as much of farming was, with expertise in growing, picking, storing and then creating the dye balls.
First, the leaves were picked (down to 3″ of the ground – so regrowth could occur and be picked again) and carried to the farm buildings in willow baskets (skeps). There they were crushed using special milling equipment, then “balled” into 6″ diameter balls; dried, crushed again, couched (fermented), casked and carted off to the railways. For Parson Drove, the process ended there, the woad was sent by railway to other parts of the country to be used in various dying techniques – the colour would range from dark to light blue and green. Lincoln Green was created by adding Weld, and Madder created a deep purple with the addition of a little Woad. It became known as the universal dye as it was the base for all the colours produceable in its heyday. It was also used to fix Indigo, which later replaced it.
The people working in this industry ranged from small children to adult men. Mr T Stone in 1794, said, of seed drilling – “use can be made of the infant poor for hand-weeding” (Wills, N. 1970). The men had their skin dyed from the juice of the leaves dripping down their necks as they carried the balled woad on boards over their heads to the drying ranges.
(note: while I was viewing part of the Lilian Ream photographic collection I thought I spotted one where two men had made what I thought may be woad balls, but there was no reference. I couldn’t find the photo or a reference in the library or online version of the collection either. However, a website of a Woad supplier has the same photo, via the Wisbech and Fenland Museum, so I was pleased that I guessed right! I will not reproduce it here without permission, but will do when the Lilian Ream Trust respond).
Reference: “Woad in the Fens“, Wills, N T, 1975 (2nd ed) pub: Industrial Archaeology Sub-Committee of the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology
Available from Cambridgeshire Libraries
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