Fisherman's House, Moesgaard, in December

Fisherman's House, Moesgaard, in December
Fisherman's House, Moesgaard, in December

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Dyer's Woad/ Farvevajd

Isatis tinctoria

Flora and Fauna


seeds from woad (wikipedia)
Woad/Farve-vajd (Isatis tinctoria) is a biennial plant of the cruciferous family . It grows wild in beach banks in the southeastern parts of Denmark. It was earlier cultivated and from here it went feral in nature. It is commonly called Farvevajd (Dyer's Woad) and is occasionally known as Asp of Jerusalem.

Woad is also the name of a blue dye produced from the leaves of the plant.

Woad is found along the coasts of the Baltic, in Central and Eastern Europe and in Central Asia.  In Denmark it was long known in Bornholm but the spread has expanded since 1960 and also includes the eastern coast of Sjælland (Zealand) and the coast of Amager, with some occurence at the coast of Storebælt.


Woad in Denmark:

Woad in the first year. (wikipedia)

Woad/ Farvevajd was used for dyeing fabrics blue in the North. The cultivation of woad stopped in Denmark ab. 1800 due to the import of indigo. Woad contains a lightfast and colourfast dye.

In the first year the woad forms a 20 cm high rosette of green leaves - if a leaf is crushed with the fingers they turn blue. The leaves from the first year are used for the dye  The colour is extracted by letting the leaves ferment in urin for ab. 5 days. In the second year the plant puts an inflorescence with yellow flowers in June, then puts seeds and wither. Today the colour from both woad and indigo are virtually outcompeted by the anilin colours.

The name vajd (1672) (weid) comes from old German weit, common German waida. It is possibly familiar to Latin vitum = glass. It was in 1670 also called glass herb, maybe because of the old name glastum.

The seeds of farvevajd was found in a house from before Roman Iron Age (400 BC)  in Ginnerup in Thy (Jutland); the plant was cultivated in Jutland in Roman Iron Age (1-200 AC). At that time no other lightfast and colourfast dye was known, until indigo ab. 1600 became a commodity in Europe. In 1792 woad plantations are mentioned at Copenhagen, outside Nørreport, where Holmblad and Son (dyers at the royal textile factory) cultivated both woad and krap (madder).

The woad was distinguished after sowing seasons, either winter- or summer woad . The leaves were cut when they were yellow headed, this could be done twice or three times during summer. After being washed the leaves were laid out to wither, and then  they were crushed with a stone on special mills or in an oblong curved trough. From the lot were formed little lumps, which after being air-dried were sold as "vejd" or "pastel"  and were used for dyeing without or with indigo. i

The plant could also dye a yellow-brown colour, and an oil could be pressed from the seeds. In ab. 1805 the woad-cultivation in Denmark had almost stopped as a result from the import of indigo. Still in 1900 woad was used for dyeing in Denmark, but the material was imported from France. In France and Germany the plant is still used for cultivation.   

In an old folk song about the knight Ramund is referred to blue yarn, which means clothes dyed by woad.

The main biotope of woad is a stony, gravelled soil along the coasts, often where is brought extra nutrients from rottening seaweed, but the plant is seldom found at the edge of roads, ruderates etc. It is possibly still cultivated as a decorative plant. It is not certain if the plant originally was spread feral from cultivation, or if the appearance at the Baltic coast is a Late Glacial relict. It is often found at the coasts of Bornholm and Sjælland, esp. East Sjælland (Zealand), where it is rare, but might be frequent in local places. It is undoubtedly under spread. In the other Danish districts is woad still very rare.


European History of Woad (from wikipedia)
Dyer's Woad/ Farvevajd  (wikipedia)

















Woad was long important as a source of blue dye, it has been cultivated throughout Europe, especially in Western and southern Europe since ancient times. In medieval times there were important woad growing regions in England, Germany and France, and towns such as Toulouse became prosperous on the woad trade. Woad was eventually replaced by the stronger indigo and then by synthetic indigoes.

The first archaeological finds of woad seeds date to the Neolithic and have been found in the French cave of l'Audoste, Bouches-du Rhone, France.  Named Färberwaid (Isatis tinctoria L.) or German Indigo, of the plant family (Brassicaceae), in the Iron Age settlement of the Heuneburg, Germany, impressions of the seeds have been found on pottery. The Hallstatt burials of Hochdorf and Hohmichele contained textiles dyed with Färberwaid (woad dye).

Historians Melo and Rondão write that woad was known "as far back as the time of the ancient Egyptians, who used it to dye the cloth wrappings applied for the mummies."  One of the early dyes discovered by the ancient Egyptians was "blue woad (Isatis tinctoria)." Lucas writes, "What has been assumed to have been Indian Indigo on ancient Egyptian fabrics may have been woad." Hall states that the ancient Egyptians created their blue dye "by using indigotin, otherwise known as woad." Julius Caesar tells us (in de Bello Gallico) that the Britanni used to colour their bodies blue with vitrum, a word that roughly translates to "glass". Many have assumed that vitrum refers to woad, but other modern authors regard this as a misconception, possibly repeated for political reasons; Caesar may also have described some form of copper- or iron-based pigment. The northern inhabitants of Britain came to be known as picts (Picti), which means "painted ones" in Latin, and may have been due to these accounts of them painting or tattooing their bodies.

Woad was one of the three staples of the European dyeing industry, along with weld (yellow) and madder (red).  Chaucer mentions their use by the dyer ("litestere") in his poem The Former Age, among other cultural inventions that were previously absent
No mader, welde, or wood no litestere.
Ne knew; the flees was of his former hewe
Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry (wikipedia)
The three can be seen together in tapestries such as the Hunt of the Unicorn (1495–1505), though typically it is the dark blue of the woad that has lasted best The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry, dyed with weld (yellow), madder (red) and woad (blue). 













Jean de Bernuy's house in Toulouse.
In Viking Age levels at archaeological digs at York, a dye shop with remains of both woad and madder  dating from the 10th century has been excavated. In medieval times, centres of woad cultivation lay in Lincolnshire and Somerset in England, Jülich and Erfurt area in Thuringia in Germany, Piedmont and Tuscany in Italy, and Gascogne, Normandy, the Somme Basin from Amiens to Saint Quentin, Britany and above all Languedoc in France. This last region, in the triangle created by Toulouse, Albi, and Carcassonne, was for a long time the most productive of woad, or "pastel" as it was known there, one writer commenting that "woad... hath made that country the happiest and richest in Europe." The prosperous woad merchants of Toulouse displayed their affluence in splendid mansions, many of which are still standing. One merchant, Jean de Bernuy, a Spanish Jew who had fled the inquisition, was credit-worthy enough to be the main guarantor of the ransomed King Francis I after his capture at the Battle of Pavia by Charles V of Spain. Much of the woad produced here was used for the cloth industry in southern France, but it was also exported via Bayonne, Narbonne and Bordeaux to Flanders, the Low Countries, Italy, and above all Britain and Spain.



A major market for woad was at Görlitz in Silesia. The citizens of the five Thuringian Färberwaid (dye woad) towns of Erfurt, Gotha, Tennstedt, Arnstadt and Langensalza had their own charters. In Erfurt, the woad-traders gave the funds to found the University of Erfurt.. Traditional fabric is still printed with woad in Thuringia, Saxony and Lusatia today: it is known as Blaudruck (literally, "blue print(ing)").

woad mill in Thuringia (wikipedia)
Other use: 
Medieval uses of the dye were not limited to textiles. For example, the illustrator of the Lindisfarne Gospels used a woad-based pigment for blue paint. A method for producing indigo dye from woad is described in the book The History of Woad and the Medieval Woad Vat (1998) In Germany, there are attempts to use woad to protect wood against decay without dangerous chemicals. Production is also increasing again in the UK for use in inks, particularly for inkjet printers, and dyes, as woad is biodegradable and safe in the environment, unlike many synthetic inks. The plant's presence has its problems, however, since Isatis tinctoria is viewed as an invasive species in parts of the United States.

Indigowoad Root  is a traditional Chinese medicine herb that comes from the roots of woad.







Source. Brøndegaard, folk og flora 2, Danmarks natur, Felthåndbogen, wikipedia. 
photo: borrowed from wikipedia.