What is Woad?

Woad is a native of Southern Europe and it belongs to the family Cruciferae (the brassicas), as do broccoli and rape seed.

The neon yellow flowers, which appear in May, have a wonderful fragrance and attract plenty of bees. The black seeds are winged, resembling small tongues, and can produce an olive dye. The seed stalks are also used in flower arranging.

History of Woad

Woad has been used since pre-historic times. Julius Caesar reported that the Picts used woad to paint patterns on their bodies during warfare, although the evidence for this is uncertain (see Links). The popularity of re-enactment societies and of recent films featuring Picts, Celts and Romans have, however, generated a considerable interest in the use of woad as a body paint (see Links).
Woad was however in widespread use for textile dyeing throughout Europe from the 6th Century BC through to Medieval times. By the time of Charlemagne (c. 800 AD), woad was cultivated in France and Germany.

In Germany of the Middle Ages, the very wealthy merchants with the fanciest houses in town were called waid herren (gentlemen of woad). In 1392, the Saxon town of Erfurt, Germany, had gained enough wealth through the woad trade to establish its own university. Woad produced the only light-fast blue in Europe until the introduction of indigo from Asia (in the mid-1600's). 
The last woad mill closed in England in the 1930s'. Recently woad came back into production in Norfolk (see Links).

Website and photos by Mike Roberts                 © 2006-07