The King of Colors
With the increasing trend for all things earthy and natural, chemical free dyeing has been making a resurgence in recent years, bringing with it not just some beautiful patina, but also a clearer conscience for both manufacturer and consumer. Of the many different ancient natural based dyes out there, Woad, a lesser known plant relative and weaker strain of Indigo, is playing an increasing role in that revival.
The Woad, or “Dyers’ Woad”, is a flowering plant that looks like a kind of cabbage and has been cultivated since ancient times, possibly as far back as 1000 B.C. The green leaves can be harvested six times in a year, but it is only the first year the leaves can be used for dying. The process is labour intense and it takes about 1000 kilos of leaves to make 1 kilo of dyestuff. When the pigment is extracted from the leaves you get a green liquid, as the liquid is gradually reduced into sludge it turns blue. Fermentation of these leaves can produce a fairly foul odor, probably because Woad has sulfur-containing chemicals in the leaves. During Queen Elizabeth the first’s reign, she decreed that no Woad processing would be allowed within five miles of her residences based on it’s invasive smell.
The sludge is then dried to rock hard lumps of intense blue dyestuff, later made solvent in a mixture of soda and water. Garments initially lifted up from the dye bath will be yellow, but when the solution reacts with oxygen the color migrates to green, finally ending up blue as the process neutralizes. The length of time yarn, cloth or whole garments are left to soak in the dye baths to achieve complete saturation, depends on the thickness and absorption rate of the fabric. The resultant color left by the Woad, although not as dark as that achieved by Indigo dyeing, is a beautiful classic blue. It’s no surprise then that menswear is increasingly becoming a fan of all things Woad…