Slow Dyeing with Woad

Our woad adventure began in May 2020 when twelve small plug plants arrived in the post from Plant Wild. By June they were ready to be transferred to my wee dye garden that I had created with my younger son during the first covid lockdown.
Woad (Isatis tinctoria) is a biennial plant. In its first year, the leaves which contain insoluble indigotin can be harvested and used to make a dye vat. The second and final year sees it flower and produce seeds. Archeological evidence from the Mesopotamia area shows that blue dye vats have been used since the 6th century BC. Woad was used in Europe until the 16th century when imported indigo took over.
I left my plants until their second year of growth then dug up a healthy specimen to give to my friend, Fu. She then planted it on her organic farm in East Lothian, allowed it to flourish, then flower and collected the seeds in late autumn 2021. These were carefully stored before planting out in a long bed. And then we waited!
2022 arrived and by the summer it was obvious that the woad loved residing at Fu’s farm! Harvesting of the first-year leaves began and we tentatively made our first dye vat. We researched so many different vat methods including those mentioned in “Natural dye colours from Shetland” by BT Casey and “Wild Color” by J Dean; and on various websites including MAIWA and Wild Colours

Making a fresh woad vat is not a quick process, taking a full day of preparation and dyeing with the temperature and pH of the dye liquid carefully regulated and adjusted throughout:
  • Pick the leaves
  • Tear the leaves into small pieces
  • Pour boiling water over the leaves
  • Leave to soak for at least an hour
  • Strain to remove the leaves
  • Shift the pH by adding an alkaline agent such as soda or wood ash
  • Oxygenate the water by pouring between two vessels or by whisking
  • Leave for a couple of hours to allow the oxygenated froth to subside
  • Heat and add a reducing agent to the dye liquid
  • Leave for an hour
  • Vat is ready for careful use!
Over this summer, Fu made many more dye vats in her dye studio to dip our organic Bearford Originals yarn. The resulting various blue hues were stunning. She also used the vat to overdye a range of yellow dyed yarns to give a medley of green shades.

For our final fresh vat making session of 2022 in early November, I took some skeins of scoured undyed Jamieson’s of Shetland wool out to Fu’s farm. We dipped them to produce a beautiful pale blue shade. It was quite chilly by now so I needed to wear all my plant dyed woollies! It was amazing how even so late in the year, the woad leaves some of which may have been second growth were still producing enough indigotin to dye our wool. Once dried, I knit up these skeins on my knitting machine in my Scots Pine design with a dark brown undyed Shetland wool. This fabric is currently being made into Woolly Originals project bags!
Next year, we will continue to dye our Bearford Originals yarns and the Jamieson’s wool for my Woolly bags. It was always our aim to produce the three primary colours as they were done in the past. With reds from madder and yellows from weld, we are so pleased that we are now using woad to produce the blues.
Thank you for reading.
Sarah & Fu x


Photo taken at the Herbarium, included by kind permission of the RBGE, shows a pressed specimen of presumably year-two woad from Catalonia, Spain in 1909
  • Casey, BT, 2019, Natural dye colours from Shetland, Spindrift Crafts, Shetland
  • Dean, J, 2010, Wild Color, Octopus Publishing Group, New York
  • Howard, I, 2019, Woad Field to Fashion, Barnwell Print
  • Kirby, J et al, 2014, Natural Colourants for Dyeing and Lake Pigments, Archetype Publications, London
  • MAIWA, 2022, How to dye with indigo,
  • Wild Colours, 2022, Indigo Dyeing,

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