Saturday, March 21, 2009

Woad in North America

Woad was brought to North America by the early European settlers. Seeds were imported from Britain for household use. In the 1830's, woad was listed in the seed catalogues in Ontario, as the plant was common in household gardens.Commercial dyers also used couched woad imported from Europe, and the working of the woad vat was considered the accomplishment of a Master Dyer. Indian Indigo was also used but as it was more costly, it was not as common for household use.

A first year woad plant. Although the woad plant contains indigo precursors at every stage of development, the first year rosette has the highest indigo precursor level, and is the part of the plant most commonly used for commercial production.

Woad is being grown today for oil seed production, a wood preservative, artist pigments and artisan dyeing. Very little commercial production of woad-indigo is being done today, however two enterprises are attempting a revival of woad production in UK and EU.
The European woad growers recognized 2 distinct types of Isatis tinctoria. One, which the French called "Pastel," has smooth leaves (microscopic hairs can be seen), high indigo content, and was valuable for cattle fodder. A second type, which was referred to as "Bastard woad" was contientiously rogued out of the pastel patch.It had coarse, hairy leaves, a low dye content and was unpalatable to livestock. (Chaptal, John Antony. (1839) Chemystry Applied to Agriculture.- available in google books)
It is the "Bastard woad" that came to the USA and threatens to overrun Western range land. It began in a 1900 contamination of Alfalfa Seed in Calilfornia, which got away.
This is the woad being used today by natural dyers in North America. Its indigo yield is low and the hairy leaves contaminate the dye bath with soil and other impurities which inhibit the extraction of indigo from the leaves.

1 comment:

  1. Way to go, Sarah! I'm rootin' for ya. (Pun very much intended.) I had such fun last year with woad that I grew in my garden (with your seeds) that I'm trying again this year. Thanks so much for all your helpful notes.


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