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Iron Age Wharfedale

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Iron Age Plant Dyes

There are several plants native to the British Isles that can be used to make a wide range of colours. The process of dyeing requires resources that would be available to just about anybody living in Wharfedale around 500BC.

Colours and the required plants:

Other colours can be made from successive applications of the different dyes. Click on a link to read more.

Woad (Isatis tinctoria)

Famously this is the dye that ancient Britons are supposed to have daubed all over their bodies before going into battle. The reality is that Woad would not 'stick' very well to skin and would have been a very poor material to use as a body decoration. It does however, make an excellent blue dye.

A biennial or short-lived perrennial, the plant grows best in sunny locations on chalky soils (but its not too fussy). The spinach-like leaves are best picked during July and August in the first year as the dye produced from second year leaves is weaker. It produces a very good quality green when mixed with Dyers Greenwood (Genista tinctoria).

Woad in flower, leaves and extract, dyed Wool.

Madder (Rubia tinctora)

The roots of this long-lived perennial plant make an excellent deep red dye. The plants are best left until their fifth season before digging up the roots.

The root has been used for several thousand years, Druids are said to have used garments dyed with madder red dye in girls' coming of age ceremonies. The root has been fed to white horses and hawks to colour hooves, teeth, beak and talons. There is even a mention of feeding madder plants to sheep to dye their wool. In Ireland, women piled a paste of simmered madder roots on their fingernails to stain them.

Madder in flower, roots and dyed Wool.

Weld (Reseda luteola)

A native plant that grows freely in disturbed ground and prefers alkaline soils; not growing well in the shade. It is biennial (seeds and dies in it's second season) and can be grown from seed quite easily. Stronger yellows are made using extracts from the young leaves, flowers and seed capsules.

Evidence of the use of Weld as a dye goes back several thousand years. As it can produce rich, bright yellows it was no doubt used by the Carvetii. The plants can be killed by frosts below -10C so they would struggle to survive through a harsh winter.

The yellow mixed with the blue from woad (Isatis tinctoria) produces green shades (such as Lincoln green).

Weld in flower and dyed Wool.

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