Woad in the UK by Sarah Corbett

Woad is a flowering plant of the Brassicaceae family which produces blue colouring. It has been produced since the stone age, with two distinct varieties, the European (Isatis Tinctoria) and the Asian ( Indigofera Tinctoria).
Woad is one of the main plant dyes of the European dying industries along with weld which produces Yellow dye and Madder which produces red dye.

There is a long association between woad and East Anglia. The Iceni tribe, led by female warrior Boudicca are said to have used the blue pigment to adorn their faces to prepare for battle. The Picts in the North of the UK also used the pigment for this purpose, the word ‘Pict’ is Roman for painted. As a means of adornment in this instance the designs created with the woad were associated with a vow to enter battle, the woad would last for up to 10 days upon the skin, so this set a time frame within which battle would commence, thus the application of woad was a visual statement of the intent. The symbols used within the adornment would be perceived by the wearer as protective and as such the power attributed to them was transient. This pagan practice was not something which was accepted by the Christian faith, and the use of woad ceased to be practiced with the onset of the new religion.

Woad production continues in East Anglia and I was most fortunate to be invited to visit Ian and Bernadette Howard at their beautiful Woad centre in rural Norfolk. Ian is clearly extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the development of products derived from woad, and in making steps to improve the colour intensity of the dyes which he produces. The examples on display at the centre of early pigment shades achieved, of a pale blue to the more recent crop shades with increased intensity of colour. The latest pigment shades are a stunning dark blue. This commitment to advancing the science of growing woad is very apparent once engaged in conversation with Ian.

The products which had been produced at the woad centre were diverse and all were firmly rooted in an ethos of natural materials and Purity of design.

Ian explained to me the basics of the production processes, which involves; harvesting the plants, steeping the leaves in hot water, draining the water from the leaves, filtering the resulting liquid until just a blue sludge remains from which, once dried come the precious blue rocks which will be ground to produce pure pigment.

Oil is extracted from the seeds, which is then used in natural beauty products.

Such is the quality of the plants which have been carefully nurtured and developed by Ian and Bernadette, the seeds are now in demand throughout Europe. And the seeds from a recent harvest were in the process of being hand sorted when I visited the centre.

The range of goods which are made using woad is wide, from slick designer garments to stunning polymer clay beads which have been coloured by woad.

A resurgence of interest in woad as a medium for body art has taken place in recent years, with an in depth study carried out by Catherine Cartright Jones and useful tutorials and design ideas too.

To learn more about woad as a body adornment visit www.hennapage.com

To experience the processes of woad production and dyeing visit click here  to book a workshop place.


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