The quest for woad (T.I.D.S.)– an excursion to the Highland Farm

Taiwan Indigo Dyeing Society in November 2006 attended the International Symposium on Natural Dyes held in India and learned that in Europe the Isatis tinctoria dyeing was an important cultural industry from the medieval times. Isatis tinctoria, primarily used in wool dyeing, had long been a major dye for blue across countries of Europe before indigo was introduced to Europe. Defeated by the Indian indigo and later by the synthetic indigo in the early 20th century, it was banished as nothing important for almost over one hundred years. Now it is being re-cultivated in small amounts in Germany and France.

In August 2007, Taiwan Indigo Dyeing Society has secured seeds from La Rochelle and Montpellier in southern France. As woad can only grow in temperate weather, the society has collaborated with the Highland Experimental Farm of National Taiwan University to experiment the cultivation of woad in Taiwan. The seeds sprouted and grew well in the mid-altitude, temperate environment of the mountains, and the leaves were successively harvested after a six-month period. The results of the experiment were made public on May 25, unveiling the seeming mystery of the plant to people here, some of whom have never heard of or seen woad.The project host Professor Lee Jui-tsung has pointed out that woad can grow to a height of around 1.5m to 2m with large leaves that resemble those of spinach. It flowers in April and May every year with yellow blooms, creating a pleasing sight. As the leaves would become smaller during the blooming season, they must be picked before flowering and made into dry woad balls for storage.

To produce woad balls, the leaves are first crushed, and ground in a grinding bowl or a mortar with a stone or wooden pestle. Then the crushed leaves are kneaded with hands into balls, each of which weighs around 500g. After the balls have completely absorbed the excess of the sap left in the bowel, they are left to rest for 14 to 20 days in the sun to be dry through. Each dry woad ball weighs around 60g.

To build woad vats, 700g of woad balls are again broken into small pieces, 5 liters of lye (pH9.5) or cow urine is added and also 50g of glucose and 25g of sake. All the ingredients are mixed well and left to set for 5 to 7 days. When the surface of the vat hast turned shining with blue bubbles floating, the vat can be used.

The Woad Dyeing Presentation staged at National Taiwan University’s Highland Experimental Farm on May 25, 2008 provided a comprehensive view into the European traditional hand-crafted woad dye production process, beginning with woad cultivation, then woad ball making, and finally vat building and dyeing. Woad dyeing distinctly differs from the indigo dyeing in Taiwan. The former is mainly used on wool yarns and the latter is on cotton or linen fabrics.

The cow urine was supplied by National Taiwan University Livestock Farms, the strong smell of which was really hard to stand. Besides, when kneading the woad balls, they sent out a pungent and distinct smell. However, as everything is new to the audient, they enjoyed themselves very much, especially children. Ms. Chuang Ya-fang of National Taiwan University Highland Farm, National Taiwan University said that the wool used for dyeing came from the adorable sheep at nearby Cingjing Veterans Farm.

The successful experiment on the cultivation of European Isatis tinctoria in the Highland Experimental Farm suggests that the mid altitude mountainous areas of Taiwan is ideal for the growth of woad, which has opened up a new managing way to the mountainous recreational farms. For the people who are fond of indigo dyeing and eager to learn more of this ancient dye, the National Taiwan University’s Highland Experiment Farm will be a good place to visit.

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