Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life

Colour to dye for


This month I’ve been doing some investigation into dyeing for the One Outfit One Year challenge.

I’ve decided to take a similar approach to that used in my earlier post Wool in the West Country, looking at what the people in England used traditionally. I’m hoping that will lead me in an interesting direction for the challenge.

European dyeing dates back to about 1400BC. International trade in dyestuffs and dyed cloth in Europe dates from around the 9th century.

A dye with a particularly a long history in this country is Woad, a blue  from the Isatis tinctoria plant. It was associated with the Iceni tribe and its leader Boudicca who used woad to colour their faces before going into battle. Vegetative remains of woad plants were found in Viking age York dating from the 9th/10th century.

I couldn’t resist putting in a picture from the ridiculous and historical inaccurate Brave Heart, with Mel Gibson painted with woad (1,000 years too late) in a tartan kilt (500 years too early), see wikipedia for the complete slating.

Brave Heart

Get with the times, blue just isn’t in at the moment!

Surprisingly, despite the long association with the British Isles, woad is not even an indigenous plant. It is native to the steppe and desert zones of the Caucasus and Siberia. It has been cultivated in Europe though since ancient times. In medieval times, Glastonbury, in Somerset was a centre of woad cultivation in the West Country, although a great deal was still imported. The port records in Bristol show that 255,360 lb of woad was imported in 1613.

Another dye with a long history in this country is madder, a red dye produced from the roots of the Rubia tinctorum plant. The plant is native to Mediterranean Europe, but was later grown in Northern Europe. The Roman Army battledress is supposed to have been dyed with madder.

Weld was also a core dyestuff in Europe and is said to give the most beautiful colour on wool and silk. It grows in the wild in most European countries and was grown as a crop from the early medieval times in England. Yellow can be obtained from dyeing with weld, but it can also be used to create green when overdyed with woad. This process was used to create “Lincoln Green”, the colour of dyed woollen cloth associated with Robin Hood and his merry men in Sherwood Forest.

Dyeing Wool Cloth

Dyeing wool cloth (1482)

I have found a few places that supply these traditional dyes:

The Mulberry Dyer

Based in Leek, Staffordshire. Specialises in historically accurate dyes, cloths and embroidery supplies.

All About Woad

Based in Birmingham. Supplies specifically woad and woad-dyed products.

The Woad Centre

Based in Norfolk. They have dyeing workshops as well as woad dye kits.

Nearer to home in Bristol, I discovered that Botanical Inks are running a workshop on Shibori tie-dyeing using natural dyes. The dyes are all made from locally foraged wild dye plants. Of course, I signed up for this workshop straight away! I noted that you could bring along your own yarn or fabric to dye. Alternatively, they have British silk available for use in the workshop. I’m curious about this British silk, since silk production is not normally associated with  England! Can’t wait!

Author: steelyseamstress

Sewing a new wardrobe

7 thoughts on “Colour to dye for

  1. I know that Braveheart is wildly inaccurate, but I do still love it for being entertaining. Sigh, I shouldn’t, I know!

    Looking forward to the results of your woad experiment! I seem to remember reading somewhere that they originally would set woad with sheep urine, but I hope we have better options now!

  2. Fascinating blog post! Thanks!

  3. I really like your approAch and am looking forward to seeing what your workshop yields!

  4. Pingback: #1year1outfit –  ostriches and slow begginings  | this is moonlight

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