I was very pleased when these four packet of seed arrived yesterday, especially as I’d only ordered them the previous day! I hadn’t realised at the time that the vendor, Graine de Vie, was based in my home département of Creuse. That must have helped speed things up no end.
Three of these plants will be colouring my soap from this autumn onwards. The fourth, the saponaire officinale, is for making liquid soap from. Boiling its leaves, chopped, in water releases saponin. This product is still used for cleaning delicate tapestries today. I don’t have any of those, but shall be intrigued to see what I can do with it.
The réséda luteola, otherwise known as weld or dyer’s rocket, will give me a bright yellow colour. This is achieved by simmering chopped leaves and flowers for half an hour or so. The plant is a biennial so I’ll have to be patient as I won’t be getting any flowers until next year. Weld was widely used in France in the past, and its importance is reflected in the fact that it has a day in the French Republican Calendar named after it (14 Vendémiaire, or 5 October).
Caille-lait, or Lady’s Bedstraw, also has its own day of the year (24 Prairial or 12 June). This plant will give me a buttery yellow dye from its flowers and leaves, and red from its roots. As well as providing handy dyes, caille-lait has medicinal and culinary uses. Its name translates to ‘curdle milk’, because that’s what it does! White caille-lait is a very common wildflower in France.
Finally, the pastel des teinturiers, or woad (isatis tinctoria). There was once a huge, lucrative woad industry in France, based first in Albi and then in Toulouse. Nine years ago I bought a French novel about this, which I still haven’t read but will make a big effort to do so now.
Naturally woad has a day named after it in the FRC: 26 Pluviôse, or 14 February.
The woad manufacturing process was quite complicated, involving drying, fermenting, forming into balls called cocagnes, drying again, then crushing and wetting, then fermenting once more. The resulting liquid then had to be oxidised. When indigo came onto the scene in the late sixteenth century and proved to be a much less labour-intensive and time-consuming source of blue, that marked the beginning of the end for woad.
I shan’t be doing the fermenting and crushing routine: I shall just be chopping and simmering the leaves. Woad is another biennial but I should have a few leaves to experiment with this autumn. Its yellow flowers don’t play any role in dyeing.
I look forward to sharing the results of my dyeing endeavours with you in the future.