Apart from it being an obvious link between my two favourite activities (gardening and feltmaking), the colours are exquisite. Extracting dye from plants is as ancient a craft as feltmaking itself, and is a skill that needs to be kept alive. Besides I get an awful lot of enjoyment from gathering leaves and flowers.
As a partner in Vallis Veg Boxes – an excellent local veg box scheme! – I have easy access to plenty of vegetable waste and I had already tried my hands at dyeing with onions skins and other vegetable matter. But I was really intrigued by woad because of the lovely blue colour,
although slightly put off by what appeared to be quite a complicated process. At school, science was never my strong point and this seemed too … well… scientific!
Via a friend I heard about Caroline Griffiths, a local woad enthusiast and experienced dyer. I attended some of her dyeing demonstrations, which made the process seem much more accessible. Caroline kindly gave me plenty of pointers and advised me to grow “quite a few” plants to make sure I had enough for my needs
So, in spring 2011 I sowed 2 lots of seeds at an interval of 3 -4 weeks and ended up with 50 plants that were ready at different times, hoping to have at least 2 days to get to grips with the dyeing. The woad was very easy to grow and most unfussy about soil or other conditions; I grew them in quite compacted, clay soil with fairly generous addition of well rotted manure, on a very exposed and windy site. After initial watering in I hardly did any watering at all, and the rosettes quickly grew big enough to self-mulch. Had I grown them a bit closer together I reckon I would have had even fewer weeds to deal with.
On 25 July 2011 the time came for my first woad vat and my son Arran and I spent a beautiful sunny day making fire, gathering leaves and experimenting. All in all we harvested 7.7 kg of leaves with which we dyed 1kg of Shetland fleece and 0.7 kg or Romney fleece. We could have picked more leaves, but we ran out of wool to dye!