Woad Harvest

Little Woad Field

It was a wonderfully blue weekend (not emotionally, or musically, but colour-wise!). Autumn has suddenly arrived here in Conestoga and with it the possibility of a frost that would ruin my crop of woad. With cold nights predicted in the new week, I decided it was time to harvest.

It wasn’t just me making blue this year—the whole family got involved. Over the afternoon there were kids picking bucketfuls of leaves, running between stations, washing, etc.. While the clammer of questions (“Is this woad?”; “Can I wash now?”; Where’s the blue?”) was different from my previous experiences of quietly focusing on each step of the process, but so began the harvest of my favourite blue. And, the end results were as big as all the noise!

Washing Woad LeavesThe woad grew well enough this year. The plants did required the odd watering because of the extreme dryness this summer. Most of the plants weren’t as big as I’ve seen in previous years, but I also had a lot more of them! We picked the woad leaves plant by plant, filling buckets before we washed the leaves. By the second batch we realized that it was worthwhile to wash them twice—this produced a much cleaner liquid at later points of the process.

Boiling Woad LeavesWe filled our family’s biggest pot with water and added a ¼ cup of vinegar to compensate for our hard water. Once it was boiling, we began to added leaves a hand-full at a time, each time allowing the water to boil again before continuing. Once the pan was completely full of green matter, we let it boil for about a minute longer before removing it from the heat and onto the next step.

Cooling PotAfter the steeping of the leaves was finished, I needed to cool down the water quite quickly. For the first batch, I put the pan into a sink of cold water and ran back outside to help. After 20 minutes the water had reached 55°C. But, for the second and third batch I stayed with the pot—stirring the hot water and replacing the sink’s warmed water three or four times. Over the same duration, this got the temperature down to 35°C. The results in pigment captured was amazing! By cooling the water more quickly, it looks like I almost doubled the amount of pigment in the second and third batches!

Aerating waterFrom here I got ready to aerate the liquid. I removed the leaves (making woad balls from the leftovers just for fun …); poured it from pot to a plastic bucket; and added enough soda ash to raised its pH to 10. Using a paint-mixer I churned the water—creating bubbles and froth. In previous years this foam has dramatically changed colour from yellow, to green, to blue, and back again but this year the colour oscillated primarily between yellow and green. However, in the last batch, a bright blue dot appeared to great excitement …

Washing WoadI let each of these buckets rest over night before decanting off the dense, green liquid. In each case, once it was poured off, a beautiful, indigo blue was revealed. I’m currently continuing to wash this pigment by replacing the water in each jar nightly. Once the water is clean, I’ll dry out the woad-indigo and use it to create a Maya Blue for an upcoming work.

3 thoughts on “Woad Harvest”

  1. I accidentally came to your site and I am finding it fascinating! I really love the idea of making paints from your surroundings. I am feeling inspired! Thank You. I live on Vancouver Island and collect rocks from every place I go…. I may take up “pigment collecting” too.

    • Hi Becky—I’m so glad to hear that you’ve been inspired. I understand that there are some great, colourful rocks on Vancouver Island. Let me know what you find!

  2. Seasons Greetings Symeon, your woad crop looks wonderful and I am envious, makes me miss my garden. I have been busy collecting more pigments just in the Kamloops area and have made some incredible finds not to far from my place.
    It’s been amazing as people are now bringing me pigments from areas that they have visited.
    I continue to make crayons but have yet to play on a canvas with painting pigments. Possibly for fear of it, wrong combinations. Will try soon. Sorry I missed you and your family this summer, but I am sure our paths will cross again. Give my greetings to your family and may you find many more pigments in the new year.


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