eco-printing with woad plant

animated video depicting opening process

What is a woad you ask. The scientific name is Isatis tinctoria, or dyer’s woad. It is a biennial plant with low-growing clusters of leaves and yellow, fragrant flowers. Bees are attracted to the flowers. Woad has been cultivated throughout parts of Europe since the ancient times for its natural blue pigment for dyeing. History has it that the Celts painted and smeared the blue dye on their faces and bodies to frighten their enemies at war. Not only woad is beneficial to the western world, it is widely used in ancient Chinese medicine. The Chinese name is Da Qing Ye (大青叶).

The Woad plant is grown for its natural blue color dye, which is extracted from its leaves. The leaves contain the same dye as Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), in a weaker concentration. The colorants from woad is a light and subtle shade of blue. The dye can only be extracted from the leaves during the first year of growth. In its second year the plant grows tall, flowers, seeds, and dies, but it is difficult to extract the dye.

I have a small patch in the garden where I had planted some woad last year. I was busy last summer and had forgotten to harvest the leaves for woad extraction. According to some of my dyer’s friends, the leaves yield little or no color when the plant reached its second year of growth.

woad plants in our garden

The plant in my garden now has grown tall and lanky, with flowers that are already starting to seed. Over the weekend, I harvested most of the leaves and flowers, and kept in a cool place to dry. I was curious to see if this plant would yield color or print when expose to heat.

In this post, I have bundled the woad with a piece of stretchy Lycra fabric and boiled it in a pot of simmering water. When the bundle had cooled down, I unwrapped and removed the soggy plant materials carefully. I was astounded to see a beautiful variety of colors had been transferred to the material. The results were surprising gratifying. It reminds me of the quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, curiosity is lying in wait for every secret. I now have another plant to add to my eco-dye repertoire.

Below are detail images from this experiment. It prints beautifully and the colors retains its original hue after washing.

woad leaf

strong print of light to deep green from woad leaf

revealing the entire woad plant

pinkish brown, almost mauve from stalks, and greens from stem and leaf

the prints from flowers resembles clusters of dainty mauve beads surrounded by small green leaves

beautiful colors and strong prints from flowers and stem

entire piece displaying mirror image of prints on either side of fabric

close up view of left side of print image

close up view of right side of print image

spent woad and flowers, ready for the compost

*Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melinda Tai and Obovate Designs with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Thank you for visiting, I welcome all your comments.

“A smile is worth a thousand words, live happy, dye happiest.”

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