Hello fellow plant dye enthusiasts! I’m here today to tell you about a use for your 2nd year woad leaves (other than waiting for seeds, chicken feed, or compost additive)!
As we know, woad (Isatis tinctoria) is a rather plain looking plant from Europe that has a long history as a source for blue dye. Think Celts and medieval European tapestries. Only the first year leaves are a good source for blue (usually, unless one is extra lucky), but the plant is a very hardy biennial. (Too hardy sometimes – it is labelled as a pernicious weed in some Western US states). I have grown woad in my Minnesota (zone 4b) garden for the past 4 years, and it reliably overwinters despite cold snaps of -50F. In its second year the plant sends up a flower shoot that will burst into yellow blooms. I’ve heard that the flowers can give a yellow in the dye pot… but to be perfectly honest enough plants will make yellow; I’m after a beautiful, dusty rose type of pink.
I like to harvest my second year plants before they flower – really anytime after they start growing again which seems to happen as soon as the snow melts. This is a good time to decide which plants get to stay to produce seed and which plants need to go. You really don’t want all of your plants going to seed or you will end up with “woad woes”, to quote Rita Buchanan, writer of the excellent A Dyer’s Garden.
So on to the dyeing process itself! I fill up a big stainless steel dye pot with leaves – I take the whole plant from rosette to flower stalk, stuff it in the pot, give it a few snips with the kitchen shears, and fill with water. I don’t tend to weigh the dye stuff here, but as a guess it is about 3ish pounds of leaves per batch? This goes onto heat to simmering (I honestly don’t think a light boil would hurt anything, but I’m a baby and don’t like to boil my dyes) for about 1 hour. Let the leaves sit and steep until you get a nice rich sherry-colored liquid, usually an additional hour. In the meantime you can dig the roots of the harvested woad (I chuck ’em in the compost), and pre-soak your fiber.
And here is a cool part of pinks from woad; I have had fantastic success (both depth and longevity of color) on protein fibers WITHOUT mordant. Cotton not so much (needs more experimentation!) but really couldn’t be easier with wool and silk; just make sure it is well cleaned of course. I get reliably pink results using a ratio of about 3:1 fresh plant matter to fiber. Fortunately woad is a bulky, heavy plant so a little goes quite a long way.
After you have a nice looking color in the pot and you bath has cooled just a little, strain the leaves (also great for compost!) and add your fibers. Give the whole thing another simmer of about 1 hour and then (this is important) leave them to soak overnight!! In the morning do your typical rinse. I like to use my rain barrel water to cut down on water usage, and perform a final rinse with a wool wash like Eucalan. Spin or squeeze and hang up to dry! You are done!
A few random thoughts and notes.
- You may be thinking, wait! This is very similar to Jenny Dean’s process for pinks from first year woad leaves that have already had the blue extracted! You would be right – we are just using a previously underused dye potential in second year leaves!
- This is a really nice way to scratch the post-winter fresh leaf dye pot itch. It is a great and efficient way to get a double use out of a dye plant and your garden space.
- I have not specifically light-tested these fibers, but I do have several skeins that have been in and out of tubs for 3 years that still look great.
- Learn more about general woad cultivation HERE, or purchase seeds HERE! Looking for some beautiful pink woad-dyed yarn? Click HERE!
- A disclaimer – other than the woad seeds and yarn I do not profit from any links on this page 🙂
And there you have it! Beautiful dusty pinks from second year woad. Any questions? Have you tried this or want to try it? Drop a comment here or come visit me @knittyvet on Instagram or in my Etsy shop! While you are here feel free to check out some of my other dye and dye plant tutorials. Be well!
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