Newtonville: Making Indigo Blue

I was very excited to receive in the mail my package of seeds from the Cottage Gardener this spring. Mary and Dan Brittain, the owners of this wonderful organic seed company, are one of the sponsors of the 100 mile ART Project. They had very kindly shipped me 360 woad seeds!

Woad (Isatis tinctoria) makes a beautiful blue colour and is one of the rare plants that can make a reasonable lightfast pigment colour – especially when worked in tempera or kept beneath varnish. It is one of my favourite blues (but, to be honest, I seem to find whatever blue I’m looking at my favourite for that moment). On a small scale I have worked with woad, and produced some very nice pigment; it will be very interesting to work with this many plants!

By the way, if you’d like to get your own seeds shipped from the Cottage Gardener, you can go to www.cottagegardener.com and browse their online catalog.

Before receiving hundreds of woad seeds I had to answer one question: Where could I plant such a crop? My wife’s response to taking over her entire garden for the year was not favourable … I had to think outside the box.

Our neighbours to the east are Chip’s Garage; a family owned mechanic’s shop and local Conestogo landmark.  Brian and Linda (the owners) had complained last year about all the weeds growing on the land behind their shop so I approached them and asked if they would consider letting me grow the project’s vegetation in that location.  They readily agreed, so the work ahead of me is to take this little fallow field and work it into a colour-filled garden.
With my neighbour’s land being made available, my biggest problem was solved, but there was still a lot of work to do.

The evening after I had received permission to plant my woad in the back of Chip’s Garage, I walked around the small field and wondered if I could make this land ready using only my shovel and a lot of sweat.  I decided I couldn’t.

This land has never been used for plants. It is hard, stoney and even has the odd left-over bit of a car lying about.  So, I called Henry Brubacher, a local Mennonite who has helped me in the past when I had a project that required farm tools.  Calling him was a bit of an eye-opener to me: After saying hello he greeted me with, “So, what are you up to now?” and then laughed.  My crushing stones and painting with eggs has led to more than one person from the Mennonite community stopping by my studio to see what is going on. I guess that sort of thing has led to having a bit of a reputation of playful oddity …
Nevertheless, Henry was more than happy to come that very evening and help turn my bit of rough earth into a field.  Watching him work I again had to marvel at how expert he is with his tractor as with every careful turn the ground opened up.

Now that the ground was open I could begin creating a proper field.  In this endeavour I had wonderful help.  While I raked and piled the dirt into mounds, my children followed and threw the stones off to the sides.  As I’ve noticed happens with kids, what began as a chore slowly morphed had more rules and challenges added to it so that in the end it became a game.  As long as they were happy (and careful as they whipped little rocks afield!) I wasn’t going to hinder them.

I am happy to report that in an evening I was able to form proper mounds of earth and that our patch now has fewer stones than it did before. With the ground prepared only one things remained to be done: Planting the woad seeds.

Here again I had little helpers and, by the end, I think we had worked out a nice system.  I did the plowing of a shallow trough (using the old hoe my grandfather gave to me) and my children followed and planted.  My only conundrum was trying to explain to them the specific distance of 12 inches that I wanted to have the seeds sown.  In the end, inspiration whispered a wonderful solution: Using an old stem from one of last year’s teasels, we cut it to roughly a foot’s length and row by row Michael and Claire switched roles.  First Michael carefully measured from seed to seed using the stem as Claire planted, then they switched and it was Claire’s turn to reposition the “measuring-stick”.

So, the woad was planted and I continued to return to it once in a while over the next weeks as things developed, hoping for rain. During this time, the woad in last years garden began blooming and I thought it was worth a picture. Second year woad doesn’t have any worth for pigment directly (all the blue-indigo is gone), but the seeds from this plant will continue the growing cycle next year when I plant them.

woadflowers-703604

Coming back from collecting “Maya Blue clay” gave me a renewed excitement about my woad plants. While I had high hopes initially about my plants, and put a lot of time and effort into creating a place where they could grow, my plants hadn’t come up like I had hoped. Maybe there was just too much rain this year, but whatever the cause it was disheartening to not have a whole field of green spring up.

That said, there certainly was enough of a crop to produce some indigo pigment. The plants were a good size and ready to harvest. After collecting a storage bin full, with some help from my children, I set to work.

My first job was to washed the leaves so that my pigment would be nice and clean when I was all finished. Next I shredded all the leaves into salad sized greens before I submerged them all into hot water. Here they  steeped for a little while before I moved onto the next step of creating my pigment. After the indigo tea had been made I strained away the vegetation (it makes great compost) and added a little bit of sodium carbonate to raise the PH of the liquid. Now everything was ready …

The magical part of making indigo happens during the aeration. Up until that point everything is green as you would expect. The final step is introducing oxygen into the liquid. This can be done many ways: Historically people were paid to jump up and down in the industry’s large vats; today, some people pour off the indigo mixture from bowl to bowl. I like to use a paint mixer on my electric drill. Whichever way it happens, the oxygen creates a wonderful change as you watch the green foam change to a beautiful blue!

With the indigo released from the woad leaves all that remains to be done is cleaning. The liquid, which is a dark green to begin, is carefully moved from pail to pail always adding clean water between. Between each pouring the pigment must be allowed to settle before it can be decantered again. And, little by little, the blue pigment emerges from the green cloud.

2 Comments

  1. […] the same time that I was creating my indigo pigment I thought I should also get things underway in purifying the Marl I collected. What I really wanted […]

  2. […] Ever since I did the 100 Mile ART Project for the city of Cambridge in 2008, the studio has used indigo for its blue pigment. Finding a local blue in southern Ontario was one of the project’s biggest challenges. As with most of the work, it was the fantastic community that formed around the project that offered the solution of growing woad plants and harvesting indigo from their leaves. (More can be read about that part of the project on my artist page: http://www.vandonkelaar.ca/pilgrimage/newtonville-look-what-came). […]

Leave a Comment