Natural dyes indigo and woad

Natural dyes indigo and woad

There was a time when all the synthetic products being made were considered to be progress and automatically assumed to be better than their natural equivalents.  Now I think the pendulum has swung back and we are all looking for natural products.  That certainly seem s to be the case in crafting with lots of people using natural dyes again.  The original blue dyes are indigo and woad.

Natural blue dyes – indigo

Have you noticed how many fabrics are labelled indigo these days?  In my ignorance I used to think that indigo was just the name of a colour – after all it is one of the named colours of the rainbow – so I was pleasantly surprised to find that indigo is a plant giving a natureal dye and its use has a very long and illustrious history.

Indigofera is a legume plant (peas and beans and such like) that looks a bit like alfalfa.  The natural indigo dye is prepared using the fresh plant.  there are several different varieties of indigofera with different varieties thriving in different climates.  the dye is made through a fermentation process taking about a month which makes it very different from most natural dyes, but the end product is a dark blue cake that can then be used for dyeing.  It can now be produced synthetically from petrochemicals, but the synthetic product cannot give the rich tones and variation that the natural dye can give.

The first denim fabric was dyed using indigo as it is not only a lovely colour but also more colourfast than many natural dyes.  There is evidence that indigo was used for dyeing as far back as the Iron Age – around 1.000 BC.

Nowadays there are many ranges of indigo fabrics.  the Japanese fabric ranges very often include indigo selections and many of the African fabrics are dyed with natural indigo.

Natural blue dyes – woad 

At school I remember learning about the Ancient Britons using woad as warpaint, so it was quite a surprise to learn that woad is still being used today where a natural blue dye is required.  The amazing thing is that the dye produced from woad is actually the same indigo as is produced by the indigofera plant, but just in lower concentrations.

woad is a brassica (cabbages and such like) and grows for two years.  The leaves only have the required colour in the first year so any dye must be made in that first year.  The seeds can be squeezed for oil to make soap and the leaves also contain glucobrassicin (thought to have anti cancer properties) so it really is a versatile plant.

Woad was used as the preferred blue dye in Europe because the woad plant could grow there more easily.  At the beginning of the last century there was quite a backlash against indigo in order to protect the local trade.

I rather like the idea that the blue fabric in my quilts could have been made using the same dye that was used over 3,000 years ago!

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