Vikings and Linen and Woad Oh My!

When you are interested in Living History you do things you never thought you would, like getting your son and husband to urinate in a bottle for science. Historically there seems to be a tradition of pubescent boys being the best source, and references to collection spots outside pubs. I can’t really see the girls getting into the act as we are not really endowed with the ability of “ahem” directional streaming and were waylaid with long dresses and skirts for a great deal of history. No, I’m not taking the piss….well, yes I am actually, a whole bucket of it so I can ferment it with woad. Woad is an interesting plant. More about it here http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isatis_tinctoria

This little green plant after much hard work imparts a blue dye. Fortunately there are amazing ladies like Teresinha Roberts at http://www.wildcolours.co.uk/html/about_us.html who grow and make the powdered dye. For this experiment I have her to thank for the preprepared powder. I do have woad seeds and I will have a second go at growing them. ( I really don’t think they like Australian summers, not in my front garden anyways.) I should get planting them really soon.

Needless to say you want to do this fermenting process, outside and as I live quite close to a couple of other units, with a lid firmly on when you are not out checking that all is going well. That stinky pot, reeking of ammonia and gradually changing from a dark navy blue to a sickly blue green and producing a shimmering copper scum on the surface when ready is full of historical magic and produces one of mans oldest colours. I am going to pictorially document this for you all once it warms up more. I promise.

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These sober squares of raw linen were to answer for myself questions about dyeing linen. Viking era peoples apparently coloured their linen at times. This is just one ref I can find after a quick google that talks about blue linen. http://urd.priv.no/viking/serk.html and there are more. There still seems to be some sort of idea linen will take no natural dyes. I still think many people didn’t bother or if they did it was there very best garments Many people probably just settled for the raw colour because the effort involved in dyeing the raw linen blue or bleaching linen to then dye it blue would have taken some considerable time and effort (this is possibly modern lazy think). However the more I look into the past the more I admire our ancestors in their ability to produce beautiful cloth, colours and clothing, (which many of us credit card slinging consumers wouldn’t have the first idea how to do) the more I think they were quite sophisticated and go get em, even if they didn’t have the internet, smart phones or think digital watches were still pretty neat. But I digress.

So , I’m in South Australia, as far from flax cultivation as you can be, and to get some linen you need to grow flax. Historically it did used to be grown in Victor Harbor, Aldinga, Willunga etc in South Australia in 1872 and probably later http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/39262299but alas no more. I was going to have to settle for some imported Swedish raw linen for the experiment, already woven. I gave it a bit of a wash and proceeded to experiment with the fermented woad and urine sig vat. These were the results I got. I need to do more testing but these squares kept a great deal of the colour after being thoroughly washed of the pissy smell – I may have continued dipping for another 5 days to see if things got any darker but ran out of squares. Dyed, blue, linen is possible with no heating involved apart from the ambient heat on a warm day. This is blue over a raw unbleached linen. I am yet to test with a bleached linen but I imagine that the blues would come out beautifully bright.

As Spring warms the place up here I am game to do more tests.

Just found the reference that gave me a lot of insight and got me going on this whole thing http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u3tc/u3materials/natdye.html

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9 thoughts on “Vikings and Linen and Woad Oh My!

  1. Linen can easily be dyed, but it can sometimes “bleed” a bit when wet and doesn’t have the light-fastedness that dyes on cotton and wool exhibit. This is by modern industrial standards, mind you, and they are quite stringent. Corcur, for example, is also said to not be a very dureable dye by these standards (especially in regards to light-fastedness) and yet I know a professor (a lichenologist, hence the corcur) who has worn a cap dyed with different lichen dyes including corcur for a decade and it exhibits no signs of fading.

    We see a lot of undyed historical linens because it was a cheap fabric in northern europe,used for underclothes and bedsheets and such, not always worth dyeing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for writing to me Endre. I appreciate the input and also introducing me to Corcur. I had to go look this up. I think you have more lichen in the Northern Hemisphere than down here in South Australia but I am going to read up more about it! My full test will be when I make a linen tunic, dye it with the woad and urine fermentation method and have it worn in the relentless Aussie sun. I think we will get a good idea of lightfastness. I think the coloured linens were definitely for special occasions or people. I vaguely remember something about and man putting on a blue tunic just before he went out to slay someone in a saga somewhere. I better get my books out. I am led to conclude that it was of significance, or maybe blue hides blood stains better :).

      Liked by 1 person

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