Woad work a skill to dye for

It is a skill which was probably mastered in the Stone Age but the use of woad, a native European herb, to create a blue dye fell out of favour in the 16th century as textile firms favoured Asian imports of indigo.

It is a skill which was probably mastered in the Stone Age but the use of woad, a native European herb, to create a blue dye fell out of favour in the 16th century as textile firms favoured Asian imports of indigo. But it is making a big comeback on a Norfolk farm where visitors can get hands-on with the magical product once again. Kathryn Cross visited Woad Barn near Dereham to find out more.

Ian Howard is like a chef who does not want to give away the secret ingredients to his signature dish for fear of it being copied.

So exactly how he gets the rich blue dye from a green leafy plant, which looks something between a dock and a dandelion, is something he would rather keep to himself.

But you can't really blame him. It was quite a gamble to reinvent himself as a woad producer when all his life had revolved around a traditional farming enterprise - arable and a beef suckler herd - on the family farm in Beetley.

Now the business is established with Ian as the only commercial producer in the country, it is obviously a title he wants to keep.

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'The leaves are steeped in hot water but the extraction method is something which I have perfected so I don't want to give it all away,' he said.

What he has said is that the technique involves the thick paste resulting from the steeping being baked until rock hard and ground into a powder. This is the pigment which is then transferred into the water bath to which the garments are added before the real chemistry happens.

'When you first take the items out they are a yellowy-green but within two minutes they will be blue because of oxidisation in the air and the colour will get darker and darker the longer you leave them in. That's the magic of woad,' he said.

And it is this magical process which draws people from all over the world to witness and discover first hand at the increasingly popular workshops. Ian, and his wife Bernadette who runs the shop and online business, have had visitors from as far afield as Los Angeles and Korea and have just received a booking from France for a workshop later this year.

The half-day experience includes an informal talk about woad and how it is produced before they are all given a silk scarf to dye in the workshop themselves.

'We show them how to do pattern such as batique or whatever method they like,' said Ian. 'They will then put it in the dye bath then take it out, wash it and hang it up to dry and that is theirs to take home. People come who like working with natural materials, those who like crafts, maybe spinners. Indigo is not an easy colour to dye and they understand that when they come.'

With the recent shift towards more environmentally friendly products and the introduction of eco-clothing, the natural dye industry is set to really take off.

So much so Ian is already experimenting with different varieties of woad to get the best and purest product possible and recently started extracting a yellow pigment from another ancient plant, weld.

'We learned the hard way really. We were working in a government scheme to find alternative crops. There were 28 being looked at like hypericon, valerian and one called echium which is like borage and works like an aftersun cream taking out the sting of sunburn.

'In 2003 the government finished the scheme but we realised if we could perfect a better form of extraction we could have a good cottage industry with woad. We were coming up to retirement really but I worked on the extraction method and Bernadette worked on researching, sourcing textiles and markets to go into.

'It was a complete life change but we already had the right skills.'

On launching Woad-inc (the inc stands for Ian's Natural Colour) they discovered one of the best fibres to work with their dye was bamboo and they first found a towel manufacturer in the Midlands to make a 70 percent bamboo 30 percent cotton towel which they would then dye in Beetley.

But there was a lot of manual labour involved and so they found another manufacturer to dye the yarn on the cone rather than the finished product - a major breakthrough. They then experimented with other yarns and wools. They now have a lovely merino wool jumper for sale in their shop, and other products using alpaca from scarves to bags and limited edition table runners.

In fact the shop is a good measure of how far they have come in the last few years. The building itself is a converted cattle shed and displays the range of products, mostly made locally, but all in the lovely blue shades that comes from the woad, sprinkled with a handful of yellows from the weld and some greens which is produced by overdyeing woad with weld. The most recent addition to the range is a red dye from the madder plant which comes from Holland and used to be imported in much larger quantities, hence the naming of Maddermarket in Norwich.

And they even use the seeds from the woad flower to extract an oil which is made into soaps and other toiletries.

'People are determined now to have natural products and ours have no nasty chemicals at any stage of the manufacture unlike the synthetic dyes which use things like cyanide.'

With its natural antiseptic qualities as well there are also reports that woad is being used in medical research for cancer and Alzheimer's treatment although it cannot be ingested in its natural state.

Woad has certainly come a long way since Norfolk's own warrior queen Boudicca is reputed to have smeared it on her face before going into battle and although it has seen many changes in its fortunes, its future as a commercial dye now looks set to go from strength to strength. It is no longer a dying art - just dyeing.

The workshops are held on the second Saturday of the month until October (apart from September this year which is the couple's 40th wedding anniversary!). The shop is open weekly from Thursday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm and is well-signed off the Fakenham road out of Beetley.

For more information or to order online, visit www.woad-inc.co.uk or telephone 01362 860218.