Dyed in the wool

Following on from last week’s post about the mediaeval wool trade, we now look at some of the plant-based dyes that have been used since ancient times to colour wool – woad, madder and weld were often described as the ‘holy trinity’ for dyers.

The leaves of woad (Isatis tinctoria, a yellow-flowered member of the mustard family and also a medicinal plant) produce blue. It is a biennial that flowers and seeds in its second year with the leaves of plants grown in fertile soil apparently producing the bluest colour. The term ‘Pictish’ to describe the ancient inhabitants of northern Britain comes from the Latin term for ‘painted’, which is how the Romans described these people who used woad on their skin.

This illustration of a woad mill in Germany is from a 1752 book by Daniel Gottfried Schreber’s. Image: Wikipedia

In mediaeval times there were important woad-growing regions in England, Germany and France, where Toulouse became prosperous from the woad trade. Woad was eventually replaced by the more colour-fast indigo and in the early 20th century, both were replaced by synthetic dyes. Read more about woad in Britain. Or go here to read more about woad in France.

Featuring the colours of woad (blue), madder (red) and weld (yellow) is The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle, one of a series of seven tapestries making up The Hunt of the Unicorn, woven between 1495 and 1505 (about). The tapestry is at the Cloisters Museum, New York. Image: Wikipedia

The leaves of the indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria) are soaked and fermented to produce the brilliant blue dye that has been popular for some 4,000 years. A legume plant (nitrogen-fixing), Indigofera tinctoria may be an annual, perennial or biennial, depending upon the climate. Dyeing with indigo is an intriguing process as cloth removed from the dye pot looks yellow, but rapidly turns blue when exposed to the air.

Skeins of wool dyed with varying shades of madder. Photo: Wikipedia

Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is a hardy perennial that spreads easily, so should only be grown with care and in confinement. The plant should be left for 3 years before roots are harvested. Apparently, adding lime to the soil in autumn or winter will produce a deeper red from the root. Cloth dyed with madder tended to fade so the European discovery of cochineal insects in Mexico, and the red dye they produce, was a revolution.

Wool dyed with weld for tapestries woven at the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre, Giza, Egypt. Photo: Wikipedia

Weld (Reseda luteola, dyer’s weed) is another ancient dye, this one producing yellow from its leaves – brighter from fresh leaves and softer from dried leaves. The Romans used weld to dye the tunics of the Vestal Virgins. When over-dyed with woad, it produces ‘Lincoln Green’, which is supposed to have been used to dye the clothes worn by Robin Hood and his band in the 13th century. Used with madder it produces an orange. The biennial plant prefers to grow in limestone or chalk soil.

Just to note that ‘Lincoln Grayne’ originally referred to a high-quality red cloth, the word ‘scarlet’ then meaning not a colour but a cloth, while the ‘green’ was cloth of a lesser quality. Since at least the Elizabethan period, however, ‘Lincoln Green’ has meant a shade of green.

Other English towns also had specialty dyes, including “Coventry blue”, with the renowned permanence of the colour leading to the phrase “as true as Coventry blue” or “true blue”. Sadly, the recipe for Coventry Blue was apparently lost in the 17th century during the reign of the Puritans.

On the back of a sheep

It’s easy to forget what a role wool has played in the world’s development, partly perhaps we’re all so used to the many fibres, man-made and natural, that we have access to today. But, make no mistake, fortunes were once built on wool.

The impressive Cloth Hall in Ypres is today home to the In Flanders Fields Museum. Photo: Sandra Simpson

One illustration is the town of Ypres in Belgium, more famous today for its proximity to World War 1 cemeteries and the nightly Menin Gate Last Post ceremony. However, the Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle in Flemish, ‘laken’ being a type of high-quality woven woollen cloth) that faces the Market Square shows just how wealthy wool once made this place. The huge building was constructed in the 13th century – and reconstructed in the 20th century after the devastation of World War 1.

The ground floor consisted of halls with vaulted brick ceilings that were used for the sale and storage of goods and produce. Until the mid-1840s a small river flowed past one end of the building and small boats could make their way right up to the Cloth Hall from the Yser Canal to load and unload.

Detail from the window by Arno Brys showing dyeing and finishing processes. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The upper floor halls were used by merchants as a banqueting hall, warehouses and meeting rooms. At the eastern end is a 17th century addition (again reconstructed in the 20th century) which contained a chapel, frescoes, stained glass windows and a fireplace, murals and a frieze illustrating the Counts of Flanders. Today, this is the Ypres Museum and includes an extraordinary modern stained-glass window by Arno Brys that pays tribute to the town’s mediaeval history, including the wool trade.

The English surname Fuller is associated with the production of wool, as are Weaver, Tucker and Walker. Fulling involves two processes: Scouring and milling (thickening) and was originally carried out by pounding the cloth with a club, or by the fuller’s hands or feet (hence Walker). In Roman times, Wikipedia tells me, fulling was done by slaves working the cloth while ankle deep in tubs of human urine (a liquid so important to fulling that it was taxed). For a demonstration of fulling (thank goodness it’s not smell-o-vision) English actor and keen historian Tony Robinson mastered his stomach and got into a vat (5:50).

From the medieval period, fulling was often carried out in a water mill, with the next step being to stretch the cloth on large frames known as tenters. It was attached to the frame by, you guessed it, tenterhooks, the origin of the expression ‘being on tenterhooks’.

Construction on St John the Baptist in Burford, Oxfordshire began in the 12th century. It was completed in the 15th century as a ‘Wool church’. Photo: Sandra Simpson

England’s so-called Wool Towns, a title particularly applied to places in Suffolk and north Essex, came to prominence when weavers from Flanders settled there to escape The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). The wealth that then flowed in has left these villages and towns with beautiful buildings. Other places known as Wool Towns can be found in the Cotswolds and Yorkshire, among other areas.

From ancient times, people have wanted to add colour to their clothing and next week’s post will feature some of the plant dyes that have for centuries been used with wool: Woad (blue), indigo (blue), madder (red) and weld (yellow).

From the world of plants

The 2-day Auckland Garden DesignFest is returning after Covid-layoffs, on November 26 and 27. The self-drive tour allows attendees to rub shoulders with some of New Zealand’s elite garden designers and visit up to 18 gardens. It’s also an opportunity for visitors to ask questions, take advice and be inspired by ideas for enhancing their own gardens and outdoor spaces. The earlybird ticket offer of $55 (normally $65) is available until October 31, and there’s also a three-garden ticket for $25. Read more about the event here.

Brie Langley works at Kew Gardens and in the Palm House looks after what is thought to be the world’s oldest pot plant – a giant cycad (Encephalartos altensteinii) native to the Eastern Cape province of South Africa and brought to Britain in 1775. Read her first-person accounty here.

Only one Wood’s cycad (Encephalartos woodii) has ever been found in the wild, in South Africa in 1895 by English botanist John Medley Wood. Today, all Wood’s cycads are clones of that one tree and all are male. Kew’s specimen arrived in 1899 and was placed in the Palm House, but was moved to the Temperate House in 1997 and astounded staff by coning for the first time in 2004. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A new eucalyptus species has been discovered in suburban Sydney with an estimated total of 700 trees. It is believed Sydney is the only place where what is currently known as Eucalyptus sp.Cattai is found. The species was first listed as endangered in 1999 before it was upgraded to critically endangered in 2005. Now it will get its own name and formal description which scientists hope will boost conservation efforts. The Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan is growing seedlings to plant in secret locations. Read more here.

If you’re back travelling, there are some new gardens that may be tempting. Newly opened is a temporary garden along the historic Castlefield Rail Viaduct in Manchester, England, the 330m park inspired by New York’s High Line public park.

Featuring 3,000 plant species in gardens created by architects and community groups, the 12-month £1.8million pilot project aims to explore Manchester’s history and introduce some greenery into a post-industrial landscape. Read more about the viaduct here.

Hall’s Croft, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Wikimedia

A 17th century herbal healing garden is being re-created at the historic 1613 house that Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna shared with her husband, John Hall, a physician who is believed to have advised his father-in-law on medical ailments. The home, Hall’s Croft in Stratford-upon-Avon, and its other gardens (behind the building) are already open to the public.

Documentary evidence shows that the vast majority of Hall’s patients were women, and the herb garden at Hall’s Croft will be filled with the sort of plants that he used in treating them. The garden is scheduled to open next year. Read more here.

Trees of the Moment

Native to China, Vietnam and Myanmar, Illicium majus was pointed out to me in a Te Puke garden recently and I was immediately won over.

Illicium majus has sweetly scented flowers, while the crushed leaves are also perfumed. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The garden owner has several of these evergreen trees, which nectar-eating birds, bees and butterflies love, but has been surprised to find the flower colours have all been slightly different, ranging from a creamy white to this blush-pink, deducing the batch must have been seed grown.

Although this tree is purely ornamental, its cousin, Illicium verum, bears the spice we know as star anise and others are used in making perfume. Illicum were originally considered to be part of the magnolia family.

In the same garden was a line of Drimys winteri trees, also attractive to nectar-eating birds, bees and butterflies. I have posted about this tree from South America before, read that here and please be sure to read the comment posted by a member of the Winter family.

Drimys winteri in flower this month. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Architectural Plants website points out an unusual habit this tree has if it gets dry when young – the branches droop, and stay drooped even after it gets enough water. Read more here.