Woe is me

Yes you got that right– woe is me or maybe it would be more accurate to say woad is me!

I planted woad this spring and have a nice little patch in my garden where I can control it so it won’t get out of hand and spread. Its been growing nicely. My sister sent me information about dyeing with woad. It is similar to dyeing with indigo. It is more complicated than most of the dyes plants I play with. Usually I just pick and add  plants to the water and simmer over the fire. Woad like indigo requires following  careful steps to insure success.

I followed the directions and picked the plants and packed the leaves into 2 big jars and set the jars into a pot filled with water. I used a thermometer to make sure that it didn’t get too hot and started to watch. After the simmering you add baking soda to raise the alkalinity of the water and then introduce oxygen to the mixture. At this point I was seeing some blue and green in the foam. I was also seeing rain so I moved my chemistry experiment inside to the mud room. Next step was to get rid of the oxygen in the dye liquid – so I stirred in the spectrolite and voila ……the liquid turned yellow just like it was supposed to. I added the yarn and let it sit in the pot. This is the part that is magical even though it looks like nothing is happening when you take the yellow yarn out of the liquid if everything has gone right it will slowly turn blue. Success…. a beautiful robin egg blue….I was elated. Now I searched for other things to throw in the pot and found a some golden rod yarn and some orange cosmos yarn. Ahh a nice green from the yellow yarn and well the orange was kind of a mud blah. But it had worked. I moved everything out to the garage to dry overnight quite thrilled with myself. Alas  in the morning the color had disappeared.

So what went wrong. I made a call to my little sister and asked for advise. And started a new cook. Yes I said cook–we have been watching Breaking Bad here and this dyeing project has so much more chemistry involved in it I am starting to feel like Jesse and Walter starting a batch. I picked again and weighed the woad. I was not discouraged by last nights failure so I doubled the amount of woad and decided to go for broke. As  the liquid simmered it took on a lovely rosey brown hue finally it was time to add the baking soda and agitate. I poured over and over again but the color didn’t change although the side of the bucket I was using did pick up some blue. The fish tickler took pity on me and found me a paddle that attaches to our drill cause I was getting wore out. Still nothing. So then he had the brilliant idea of putting a lid on the bucket and shaking it — much easier….but still no change. More soda…no. Ok I am not a science whizz – I only managed a C in chemistry class and that was over 30 years ago but I was just going to have to fly by the seat of my pants and trust so I stirred the spectrolite in the pot and waited a bit and then put the yarn in. Nope nothing. However that is the yarn I used yesterday so I searched to find something else. I put in a square of wool fabric. Ok a faint blue and now the water does look more yellow than brown. So I found another hank of yellow sock yarn dyed with golden rod and twisted it up so the dye could only reach parts of it and lowered it in the dye. And then we left to take the dog for a walk — I wanted to follow the sage advice that a watched pot never boils. At last a partial success..I came home and pulled it out and had a Packer green and gold skein of yarn. Hung it out to dry and the next morning still green and gold a little faded but still green and gold. 

So dyeing magic didn’t happen this week. It’s not that I didn’t try. I tried hard. I set up the pots and picked in the garden but I had an epic failure. I still had fun but I didn’t achieve the colors I was hoping for. Now I have to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. The one thing I would like to try is getting some spectrolite from a dye company. I was using Rit color run remover maybe that is the problem. The recipe says you can use this but maybe I need to buy the real deal to use.  I would also like to get some washing soda to replace the baking soda even though I don’t think that is the problem. I am sure that my woad leaves will grow enough that I can harvest another batch before winter so maybe in a few weeks I will set up to cook again. And maybe …..blue will happen.



  1. Pia said,

    September 9, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    The only thing I’ve got to work (and I’ve only tried a couple of times then), was “real” spectrolite. Also I seem to remember you shouldn’t simmer woad like you do indigo, just pour over boiling water and leave it to steep? (I’ll have to check my books to back this up, but this is what I seem to remember) I also had trouble that the blue dye attached itself in splotches, there were even splotches floating in the yellow liquid. Very odd.

    • whatzitknitz said,

      September 15, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      I think you are right so I will place an order for spectrolite. My woad is already growing back and I should be able to set up another pot before the frost kills my plants.
      I am going to try again because now it is a challenge that I want to beat. I am going to go back and read more. Pouring boiling water over and then steeping sounds interesting. I had set mine up in a double boiler over a low heat but maybe it still got to hot even though I kept it in the range that was called for in the recipe.

  2. Curls & Q said,

    September 14, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    It think that’s “Woad Is me” 😎 As an ex-chemistry teacher I really like Breaking Bad! What a disappointing dye. Just thinking about some chemical reactions used in the lab:
    1. Will the woad dye break down if it gets too hot? – I agree with Pia. I wonder if getting the woad too hot denatures the dye it?
    2. Baking soda is not the best choice with indicators, which dye is, try washing soda. I used to have to buy this for use in chemistry when making natural indicators/dyes.
    3. In the lab, we do the extraction before we add the soda. It was usually added at room temperature.
    4. Oxygen can be added by rapid stirring, think whipping cream. You don’t need to depend on a chemical reaction for this. Just get air into the mix.

    I’ve never worked with woad, but I have with other dye indicators. Maybe this will help?

    • whatzitknitz said,

      September 15, 2012 at 2:08 pm

      Well I have to admit I was a little bit disappointed but I also feel a challenge coming on. I did get a small result and I could see a little blue adhering to my bucket so I will try again.
      I do think that the temp. affects the dye and was careful to keep a pretty close eye on it.
      And I am going to get washing soda and spectrolite for my next experiment.
      agitating the mixture is harder than it sounds. the recipe says to pour the mixture from one bucket to the other for 8-10 min. until you see the change. Simple right? until you are standing and pouring over and over. So I tried a paddle on a drill to do it and the my husband got a lid for the 5 gallon pail I was using and then we could agitate rapidly by tipping back and forth. Maybe next time I will set up the air compressor and a hose to add air into the mixture.
      All in all this was fun even though my results were disappointing and it is making me research and find out more about chemistry. Its funny how now I see the science in my daily life(ie the kitchen and the garden and the dye pots) but I didn’t make the connection back when I was in school ; )

      • Curls & Q said,

        September 15, 2012 at 3:29 pm

        How about a hand mixer? Experimentation is fun! And you always learn something. Mom was a home ec teacher so we learned about the chemistry of food from her. I didn’t make a lot of other connections until college when my Biochem teacher had a demo with common “things” every class meeting. Amazing! I tried to make the connections with my students. That’s one reason we made our own indicators.

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