“Woad Is Me” & Dyeing With Herbs?

By Jackie Bush – Norfolk, England

Diary of a Saxon Weaver

You can rely on the UK weather……..?  What an awful Spring we had this year.  Everything got off to a very late start including my woad which I am relying on to use in some of the dye recipes from the Stockholm Papyrus. I fear that along with the cold start, the mole that uprooted them and the two different caterpillars that have tried to eat them, I may, just may, have to bite the bullet and order some powder in.  All is not lost, yet, and I live in hope that I can harvest enough for at least one recipe but I’m still pulling wee beasties off my leaves!

The depleted Woad patch.

With great enthusiasm I originally signed up for at least 5 dye recipes from the very vast list of recipes in the Stockholm Papyrus.  Reality is dawning and I may have to narrow my choices as my research sends me further down various rabbit warrens and the ability to obtain some quite spurious and often obscure ingredients is proving very difficult indeed.  What might have been obvious to those writing the recipes during the Roman occupation of Egypt (30 BC – 349 AD) certainly is not to me.  

My thoughts had to turn away from woad and on to recipe number: 

113. Another (Recipe) Dyeing in purple with herbs: Take and put the wool in the juice of henbane and lupines. The juice should be brought to boiling in water, which thereby becomes sour. This is the preliminary mordant. Then take the fruit clusters of rhamus, put water in a kettle and boil. Put the wool in and it will become a good purple. Lift the wool out, rinse it with water from a forge, let it dry in the sun and it will be purple of the first quality. 

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) was my first stumbling block.  A poisonous plant, not readily available.  My first thoughts were to grow it. I managed to obtain some seeds surprisingly easily and proceeded to cultivate them in the greenhouse.  Sadly, either due to the weather or my  poor practices, none of the seeds germinated.  My research then turned to what this particular plant may contain that made it so special to the recipe and what I could use as a substitute.  It is in the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family, and I have another species in this family in the garden – possibly Solanum ptychanthum (Common Nightshade).

Lupinus albus.

Then there were the lupines. The recipe called for the ‘juice’ of lupines and henbane.  Was this the whole plant, the leaves, the stems, the berries/beans/seeds? I read an article where it said, “Lupins have been grown for consumption since the Egyptian times and were also grown by the Romans”.  This led me to research different varieties and I ended up with the white ‘edible’ lupin, Lupinus albus.

Then on to the fruit clusters of rhamnus.  It is the Buckthorn species of shrubs and trees that produce these.  The closest I had to these was the fruit of Prunus laurocerasus, the cherry laurel (by close, I don’t mean taxonomically/biologically, just close in terms of similar looking/coloured fruit).  I happened to have an abundance of these as the tree was having to be sacrificed.  It was far too large to be next to the house. I read that these berries can be used for dyeing, producing anything from pink, to green, to blue!  It just had to be done. The water from the forge had to be made by using a solution of purchased ferrous sulphate… no forges here either.

Prunus laurocerasus fruit.

I soon realised I was attempting this recipe without one single original ingredient apart from, possibly, the lupines. Even then I wasn’t sure what part to use.

Solutions were prepared and different mordants were used to compare. Preliminary results were looking promising. I dyed two different shades of wool, white and brown plus some cotton and linen both natural and bleached. A control batch with no mordant was also included. But then it was time to visit the ‘forge’ (i.e. my ferrous sulphate solution!).  As suspected, iron will sadden colours and the delicate pinks and yes, purples were quickly turned to shades of grey and to my surprise, blue!  

Some surprising and unsurprising results along with plenty of questions, including did the lupine and nightshade mix actually add anything to the mix? What difference will it make to use an actual Rhamnus species, given that we know many of them contain very reliable quinone dye compounds? I have my thoughts. Currently all samples are undergoing a lightfast test and I’m considering a rematch with some bought in Rhamnus berries! So, watch this space and wait for the final results. But we did get some purple!

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