Dyeing with Bolted Woad

This summer I am working on a very exciting project in conjunction with the Botanic Garden of Smith College. They are putting together an exhibition about dye plants called The Art and Science of Dyeing, and I am dyeing the cloth that will be featured in the exhibit! It is an incredible honor and I am thrilled to be part of it. Woad is one of the plants we are featuring, and so my investment in my woad plants is especially high this year.

Last month I described the odd behavior of my woad, which bolted (sent up a flower stalk) and went to seed in its first year. Normally, woad is a biennial. The first year plant grows a basal rosette, which is a clump of leaves that radiate from the center and stay pretty low to the ground.

By July, the plants were getting big, despite their flowers. Small green seeds were beginning to form. I figured it was now or never to use them. Usually when woad goes to seed, the leaves are small and clasp closely to the stalks. In contrast, these leaves were still large and wavy, and seemed plump, lush, and happy. So, I felt optimistic.

On July 10th, the day I ran the woad vat, Sarah Loomis, Manager of Education, and a student intern named Hannah came to help out and do the photo-documentation for the exhibit.

We harvested the woad together at Bramble Hill Farm around 8 am, since it was going to be a hot day. We cut about four and a half pounds of leaves. I estimate it was half from bolted plants and half from plants that hadn’t bolted, but I didn’t separate them.

Here they are washing and shredding the leaves while I ran around heating up pots of water:

Once the water boiled, I did my usual routine of pouring just-boiled water into the five gallon bucket full of leaves. I fill it right up to the rim with just-boiled water, and press on the lid so that there is no additional air at the top of the bucket.

My typical method is to let the leaves soak for 45 minutes with the lid pressed on tightly. Recently I have read that for the maximum color when extracting indigo, it’s better to heat briefly at a high temperature, then cool the bath quickly. I haven’t tried this yet.

When you’re waiting around for 45 minutes you find something else to do. This time of year I commonly string up marigolds to dry, so that’s what we did. Sammycat watched over everything and was her usual charming and attentive self.

After the leaves extracted, I strained them, then added ammonia to get the liquid to pH 9. Then we aerated the vat. Normally I have to do this process by myself, which is kind of tiring. I pour the liquid back and forth between three buckets for ten minutes or so. It was nice to have help!

I was very excited to see a deep blue color emerge as we were aerating. I have read that second year leaves will give less color than first year leaves, so I was expecting a weaker vat than usual. At first I was optimistic that it would be a strong vat.

For a reducing agent I used RIT Color remover, which contains sodium hydrosulfate. We let the vat reduce for 45 minutes.

It looked pretty good, and the Smith folks were on the clock. I dipped in a length of linen cloth for a very short dip, then a length of silk, so they could see the color change. Linen is on the left, and silk on the right in the image below:

Things looked very typical and blue at first. Yay.

I let the cloth oxidize for a while. But since I usually put in my fiber for much longer dips, I decided to re-dip both the linen and silk several times. Some people recommend letting the fiber oxidize for the same length of time as the dip. Normally I dip a skein or piece of cloth only once per woad vat, and I dip for at least ten minutes. I feel that the color needs a long time to oxidize, and I let the fiber air-dry completely before rinsing and neutralizing. I normally wait until I run another vat to dip a piece of fiber again.

Nevertheless, I re-dipped several times in the same day this time around. Here were the lengths of cloth at 12:09. Silk is still on the right.

And again at 2:29. Fibers are always darker when wet, which is part of what’s going on in these photos. Silk is on the right but it’s wet.

After several dip-and-air cycles, I did not seem to be gaining any additional depth of color. My usual way to test whether a vat is really done is to throw in some wool. Wool will slurp up color like nobody’s business. If the vat is really dead, then the wool will let me know. If not, then I know it’s something quirky with the cellulose.

Behold the totally feeble color on wool skeins.

The weird mustard-yellow skeins were previously dyed with marigolds. The grassier greens were previously dyed with bronze fennel. For some reason marigolds and dahlias often act funky with woad. I will find out more about that some day.

So, I figured the vat was done, and I let the cellulose fibers dry out completely. The next day, I rinsed them with a vinegar solution to neutralize the pH, then a mild laundry detergent rinse, then several rinses in plain water. After the vinegar rinse, the light blue silk turned gray. What?!

With woad I do not tend to lose a lot of color when rinsing, so this color shift was a surprise to me. After all the rinses, I hung up the cloth to dry and you can see they gray for yourself (silk on the right):

The same week I also ran madder and weld dye baths, which I will write about later. But you can see the pale silk on the line with the other comparatively more vibrant colors (it’s second from the left):

Yikes! I will over-dye the silk later this summer. The dried linen is light, but typical of a woady blue. I feel it is representative of what woad can do on cellulose fibers. Color is almost always lighter on cellulose fibers, even though woad can make very rich, dark blues on wool. The pale color may be due to the weaker vat, due in turn to the reduced color available in the bolted plants. But the dried silk is so pale and gray that I can’t even understand what is going on.

I have been wondering how to think about this gray-silk-bolted-woad thing. It’s a multi-faceted problem. It has made me wonder what the difference is between a “lesson” and an “experience”. Did I learn a lesson about bolted woad? Learning a lesson has a sort of bossy and authoritarian insinuation. “I hope you learned your lesson.” “Let that teach you a lesson.” On a more positive note, it implies a principle or rule that one can refer to in the future to guide one’s actions. If I did learn a lesson, what was it? Don’t bother with bolted woad, at least not on cellulose fiber?

If it was just an experience, how much weight should I give it? I don’t feel like I can ignore it. “Chalk it up to experience” is a comforting saying, but I like to feel that I’ve learned something from my experiences, even if they aren’t a “lesson” per se. Will bolted woad always give disappointing color? Is there more to know about second year woad? Undoubtedly, yes. Is woad just weird with silk? Did the vinegar solution make the silk unhappy for some reason unrelated to woad?

One thing’s for sure, I always seem to find more questions than answers.

What Is Up With My Woad?

I have been growing woad for many years. I love it. It’s got some enemies, such as cabbage white caterpillars, and can get some diseases, such as clubroot. But mostly it’s easy going and reliable.

The second year woad at the dyeplant garden has been doing just fine. It started to bolt in April:

It got merrily taller:

It flowered prettily in May:

It set lots of seeds, and the seeds are maturing nicely now that it’s June:

The new woad that I planted this spring started out very well, too. I planted on April 24th. Here’s the bed on June 9th:

Here’s a particularly lush plant on the west end of the bed:

However, I noticed on June 8th that some of the plants were sending up little flower stalks already. Just a few of them, maybe two or three. This happens sometimes, so I made a note of it but I wasn’t too worried.

However, when I went to check on things yesterday I was baffled to discover that a lot of the plants have decided to make flowers. You can see that woad is a brassica by the distinctly broccoli-looking buds in this photo:

The plants are still short, but their growth habit is definitely changing. Here’s another view that shows the small leaves clasping the stalk, rather than just laying flat in a basal rosette:

Woad is a biennial and normally doesn’t bloom in the first year, hence my surprise. I have big plans for the woad this year, so I’m a little bit anxious about how this will all turn out.

March in the Dye Plant Garden

On March 15th I did a little spring cleaning in my school’s dye plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. Here is the “before” picture:

That morning I pulled up the dead marigolds (bed furthest to right) and orange cosmos (bed furthest to the left).

The woad was up, but something had been nibbling it. I suspect rabbits, but I can’t be sure.

I checked back on things on March 27th. I noticed that one of the woad beds was faring a little better than the other (longer leaves) but was still suffering from some chomping:

Here was the bedraggled stand of amsonia on March 27th:

I didn’t get back over there until March 30th. I cut down the amsonia, which I grow because it is a bast fiber plant. Some years I cut it down earlier in the fall or winter, but this fall I obviously didn’t get around to it. Yay, the Amsonia fit in the back of the car. Barely!

I also cut down the dead bronze fennel, which was not worth saving at that point. Once I cut away the dead stalks and cleared away the fallen leaves, I was excited to see that there was already new growth!

If you bought some of the bronze fennel plants at my plant sale last summer at Sheep and Shawl, check to see if they’re up!

One of the things I love about gardening and dyeing with plants is the way that it requires me to look closely and be attentive. Close up, you can clearly see the new growth. It is eye-poppingly bright and practically shouting its presence. You can also see the architectural ruins of the old stalks, some darker blotches on the fresh fronds, which I think must be frost damage, and so many other intriguing details. At every stage of its growth, the fronds of the bronze fennel are just so soft and feathery.

However, from the view point five feet off the ground, there’s nothing that would catch the eye or demand that you stoop to look more closely:

On that last remaining stalk in the bronze fennel bed, I found an egg case. I think it’s another praying mantis egg case (ootheca!) so I didn’t cut it. Here’s the close up:

Welcome, spring!

November 21st 2018 Woad Vat

Yesterday I ran a woad vat! This is worthy of an exclamation point because all day yesterday, I was sure that it was the latest date I had ever run a woad vat.

Normally by this time of year, all the dye plants have been killed by frost and the gardening season is over.

As I started writing this post, I decided to consult my records regarding late-season woad vats. It turns out I was wrong about the latest date of my woad vats in years past. Here’s the proof:

Continue reading “November 21st 2018 Woad Vat”

Green Yarn

This has been an extremely prolific year for Queen Anne’s Lace, also known as wild carrot or Daucus carota. It is absolutely everywhere!

Back in July I ran two dyebaths with fresh Queen Anne’s Lace flowers. Since it’s so abundant, I decided to just use the flowers this time, though you can use the whole plant. For the first dyebath, I had no trouble collecting 30 oz. of flowers from various spots around Amherst, including the sides of parking lots, the side of the road, and next to bus stops.

The flowers are incredibly fragrant and sticky, and consequently they host a huge range of insects. When you pick the flowers, all the insects come along, too. This fact gave rise to a new house-hold rule:

I weighed the plant material outdoors! I also made the first dyebath outside on the portable electric stove outdoors. We had some rainy weather after that, so I made the second dyebath indoors using 24 oz. of flowers that I picked in Hadley. Continue reading “Green Yarn”

Gleeful Woad Vat

On July 18th and 19th I ran a woad vat! This is exciting because last summer I planted woad, but didn’t have time to use it for dyeing. That made me sad, and I vowed to rectify that this summer. This summer I planted two beds about a month apart, so that the leaves will mature at different times. I ran this first vat of the summer with much glee and happiness.

I stuck with my tried and true but not truly “sustainable” chemical vat, using ammonia and RIT Color Remover. One of these years I will learn how to precipitate my own woad powder and master a natural fermentation vat (maybe even the urine vat!). Meanwhile I dyed some fiber blue with my own woad and it made me happy. Continue reading “Gleeful Woad Vat”

Woad, Weld, Rain and Humidity

It is now mid-July, a time of year which is inevitably humid here in Massachusetts and often rainy. It is also a peak time of year for harvesting many dye plants. The problem is, when it’s humid and/or rainy, where do you hang them up to dry? Not outdoors….

Here are the woad seeds I saved from the dye plant and fiber plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. This was from just two or three plants, harvested on July 2, 2015. We had been having a dry spell and they had almost entirely dried on the plants before I cut them off. Yes, I do already have a lifetime supply of woad seeds, and yes, they stay viable for a pretty long time. But here’s my crop of woad seeds for 2015. They are very beautiful, in my opinion.

July 2 woad seed harvest Continue reading “Woad, Weld, Rain and Humidity”

Bookmark Success!

After I wove off that pink warp, dyed with madder, I finally put a new warp on the loom. It’s a blue warp, dyed with woad, for more “Jack Frost” pattern bookmarks. Amazingly enough, the first three came out exactly the same length! This is a feat of consistency of which I am rarely capable, so I was pretty happy. Here they are:

consistent weaving

What I have been aiming for in my bookmarks is a woven length of 10 inches, with 1 inch of fringe on each end. This allows them to fit exactly into the stylish wrappers Matthew designed, which are 12 inches long. Continue reading “Bookmark Success!”

First Woad Vat of 2014

Due to one thing and another, I am not growing a lot of woad this year. I’m a little bit sad about it, but there it is. Nonetheless, I ran my first woad vat of the summer on Friday August 8th and had some interesting results. In the morning I picked 3 and a half pounds of leaves, which I did not expect to make a very strong vat.

Some blue color appeared in the stems as I ripped up the leaves, which was a good sign.

blue woad stems

Continue reading “First Woad Vat of 2014”