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Do you have any idea what “woad” is? Don’t worry, I didn’t either. That is, until I was generously invited to spend a sunny Saturday with about 45 other women at the Woad Workshop produced by Kaari Meng of French General. They have been holding Woad Workshops for the last couple of years during their annual “Chateau Getaways” to France, but this is the first year it has been offered in the states–and lucky me, it was happening in Los Angeles! Read on to find out more about this amazing plant and what it can do.
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After meeting up at the lovely French General storefront and workshop, we all caravaned over to nearby Elysian Park for a day of hands-on education en plein air. Kaari flew in woad master Denise Lambert and her daughter Miriam from the South of France to give us all some background on woad’s history and uses.
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Woad is a plant that looks a lot like spinach (at least in the first year it grows– during year two it flowers and looks more like mustard). Woad was widely used in ancient times as a textile dye and painting pigment. The use of woad is completely responsible for what we now think of as that classic “French blue” color–Napoleon even used it for his military uniforms. During the Middle Ages, woad merchants were positively rolling in dough, at least until indigo started being imported from the tropics. This made woad farmers so nervous they got the French government to ban the use of indigo for a time in the early 1600s. As we all know, synthetic dyes eventually replaced natural ones.
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Denise is very passionate about woad, understandably so as her family has made it their life’s work to resurrect and reinvigorate it as a crop and as an industry. They use it to create custom fabrics for fashion designers, to manufacture art supplies, even to paint cars and airplanes. In the photo above, she shows us the difference between indigo pigment (L) and woad (R). She explained that while indigo is very dark–almost purple in some lights–woad also contains elements of yellow and red, which produces a more balanced color.
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Here’s one of the many dye vats Denise prepared for our use. The liquid itself is bright green, with an intensely colorful blue scum floating on top (which has to be scooped out from time to time). In Ye Olden Days, vats of woad were placed outside taverns and the drunkards were encouraged to urinate in them to create the proper pH levels necessary to produce the dye. I was very relieved when Denise explained that these days they use ammonia and lime wash to produce the same effect.
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The most surprising thing to me was that the liquid itself was not blue. After submerging your fabric (pre-soaked in water) into the vat, you will pull out a yellowish-green piece of material. Only as the dye oxidizes with the air will your fabric begin to turn that rich, beautiful blue. It’s pretty amazing to behold, and you only need to soak the fabric for a few minutes. Repeated dips in the vat will bring even more depth of color.
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People brought all kinds of things to dip in the dye vats, from clothing to doilies to tablecloths. Most people brought white or cream-colored fabrics, but you can dye just about anything. Above you see a variety of patterned quilting fabrics my friend Linnea brought along, which she hadn’t yet been inspired to use in any sewing projects. After a quick soak in water, she gave them the woad treatment.
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These are the same fabrics after being dyed with woad. Seeing how beautiful the effect of overdyeing colored and patterned fabrics can be made me jealous that I hadn’t brought along some of my own to try out! Linnea could easily use all of these fabrics in a quilt, and the various blues produced by the woad would unify the swatches in an unexpectedly pretty way.
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It was also interesting seeing the effect woad had on items with different fiber contents. This vintage sack covered in lace and trims is a perfect example. Different textiles pick up the dye in different ways, producing various hues from one vat of woad. Each vat might also produce a slightly different shade of blue. Being an OCD kind of person in many ways, I found the “imperfect science” aspect of woad dyeing to be very freeing.
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Figuring I’d give it some new life, I brought along my wedding dress–a simple white cotton eyelet sundress–and gave it two dips in a lighter-toned woad vat. After letting it dry for a bit, I dipped only the hem into a darker vat for a third time, and achieved this ombré sort of effect.
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It didn’t take long for the group to come down with a serious case of WOAD FEVER. Denise and Kaari told me about past workshops held in France, where participants actually took off their jeans or threw their bras into the vats at the end of the session, because they just wanted to keep on dyeing! And with just a short break for a delicious Mexican lunch, keep on dyeing we certainly did!
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I was actually persuaded to take off the cream-colored knitted cowl I was wearing, and throw it into one of the specially designated wool vats. Wool must be dyed separately from other fibers as the lanolin will affect the dye. I liked my little homemade cowl before–but now I love it!
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The enthusiasm at this event was seriously palpable, and learning about woad’s history from one of the few true masters of the technique was a very cool experience. They have already added a second session of this workshop for September 2011 (visit the French General site and click “Workshops”) and if you have the opportunity and a hankering to make over some old clothes or fabrics in a truly unique way, I absolutely recommend checking it out.
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About the Author:

Jenny Ryan is an artist, crafter, and maker of things. She lives in Los Angeles with a pack of various animals (including her husband) and writes about her adventures in creating at Exit Through the Thrift Shop.


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