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Woad plants in their first year
A natural blue dye can be produced from the woad plant (Isatis tinctoria).

Table of contents
1 Distribution
2 History of woad cultivation
3 Woad and indigo
4 Present use of woad
5 External links
6 Further reading


Woad is native to the steppe and desert zones of the Caucasus, Central Asia to eastern Siberia and Western Asia (Hegi), but is now found in southeastern and some parts of Central Europe as well. It has has been cultivated throughout Europe, especially in Western and southern Europe since ancient times.

History of woad cultivation

Until the
19th century woad, the indigo plant (Isatis indigotica), source of the indigo, dyer's knotweed (polygonum tinctorium) in Japan and Korea and Strobilanthes flaccidofolius in mainland Southeast Asia were the only blue dyes available in Europe and Asia.

The first finds of woad seeds date to the Neolithic and have been found in the French cave of l'Audoste, Bouches du Rhone (France). In the Iron Age settlement of the Heuneburg, Germany, impressions of the seeds have been found on pottery. The Hallstatt burials of Hochdorf and Hohmichele contained textiles dyed with woad. Caesar tells us (de Bello Gallico) that the Britanni used to dye their bodies with woad (vitrum), which made them look terrible in battle. The Picts got their name (Latin Picti which means painted folk or possibly tattooed folk) from their practice of going into battle naked except for decorations made with woad war paint.
In Viking age levels at York, a dye shop with remains of both woad and madder dating from the 10th century have been excavated.
In Medieval times, centres of woad–cultivation lay in Lincolnshire and Somerset in England, Gascogne, Normandy, the Somme, Toulouse and Britanny in France, Jülich, the Erfurt area in Thuringia in Germany and Piedmont and Tuscany in Italy. The citizens of the five Thuringian woad-towns of Erfurt, Gotha, Tennstedt, Arnstedt and Langensalza had their own charters. In Erfurt, the woad-traders gave the funds for the foundation of the University Erfurt.

Woad and indigo

The blue pigment in woad is the same as in indigo dye, but the concentration of the pigment is greater in indigo. With the European discovery of the seaway to India, great amounts of Indigo were imported. Laws were passed in some parts of Europe to protect the woad industry from the competition of the indigo trade, indigo was proclaimed to rot the yarns as well. With the development of a chemical process to synthesize the pigment, both the woad and natural indigo industries collapsed in the first years of the twentieth century. The last commercial harvest of woad occurred in 1932, in Lincolnshire, Britain.

Present use of woad

Formerly cultivated, Isatis tinctoria is now viewed as a noxious
weed in many parts of the United States. In Germany, there are attempts to use woad to protect wood against decay without dangerous chemicals.

External links

Further reading