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OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312




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Early Dye Plants

Three slender things that best support the world:
      The slender stream of milk from udder into pail;
     The slender blade of grain, green above the ground;
     The slender strand of thread across a woman’s hand.

                                           Triads of Ireland, 9th century

Hand spinner, c. 1180
(Fécamp Psalter)


Until the 19th century, gardens served much the same purpose as today’s supermarkets. Your garden was where you went for food, spices, cleaning supplies, air fresheners, cosmetics, medicines, bug repellants, fiber for rope and for textiles -- the list goes on and on. Gardens also provided many of the plant dyes that, as long ago as the Bronze Age, people used to make brightly colored fabric.


Early weavers created textiles in many different weaves, with brightly colored stripes, checks, and plaids. Braid and woven bands decorated hems, sleeves, and necklines. People of many cultures wore a sleeved tunic, of various lengths, woven of linen or wool. For extra warmth, an outer garment, often of wool, was added.



Madder for red
Rubia tinctorum

Woad for blue

Isatis tinctoria

Weld for yellow

Reseda luteola

Dyer’s greenweed
for yellow
Genista tinctoria

Dye Plants


In northern Europe and the British Isles, dyes derived from plants were used to produce colors that were bright and colorfast. Madder (Rubia tinctorum) provided a rich, brick red. Woad (Isatis tinctoria) produced a glowing blue. Yellow dye came often from weld (Reseda luteola), or Dyer's greenweed (Genista tinctoria). 

By mixing these three primary colors, applying specific mordants, and careful processing, early dyers could produce a wonderful palette of colors. For example, in the 11th century, madder, woad, and weld were skillfully combined to create all of the vivid shades seen in the Bayeux Tapestry. One color in that tapestry, the rich blue produced by woad, has not faded despite the passage of more than nine hundred years.


But a wide range of plants beyond those four were used as sources of dyes, among then lichens, seaweed, mollusks, trees, and metals such as iron and copper.


Of the many plants that were used to produce dyes, some were grown in gardens and others were gathered from the wild. A skilled dyer knew that a good result depended upon the careful selection of all components in the process -- the fibers, water for the dye bath, mordants, and plant materials.


Mordants made the dye permanent; different mordants produced different colors. Having and maintaining the right water temperature was often critical, and required the skillful management of the dye bath, often over a period of hours or days.









Woman carding wool (British Library MS Royal 10 E IV f. 138)

The most commonly used fiber in northern Europe and Britain was wool, followed in popularity by the fibers of flax (linen), hemp (OE hænep), bast, and nettle.


Textiles were treasured; garments were mended and patched; some were even disassembled, pulled into threads that were then rewoven to make new textiles.

Woman weaving on a
horizontal loom

The earliest woolen textiles were undyed, and made use of the natural colors of the wool: brown, black, and white.  As time went on, white fibers became more popular because they were easier to dye in bright colors. Shepherds began to select whiter sheep to breed, and so white sheep became more and more common.


Plant fibers -- linen, hemp, bast, and nettle -- were more difficult to dye, but the softer textiles they produced were popular for wearing beneath woolen outer garments. Outer garments, particularly cloaks or capes, were often made of tanned hide in various shapes and sizes. Sheepskin was most popular, sometimes with the hair left on.

At Must Farm, a settlement in the Fens of Britain that was inhabited as early as c.1250 BCE, flax was used to weave fine linen cloth. Textiles were also made using a technique called twining, which was done in the hand rather than on a loom. Nettle fibers for were used for this, as well as the inner bark, or bast, of the linden (AKA lime, basswood) tree.

Card woven band from Hallstatt, c. 600 BCE

                        Ancient textilest textiles


In the last century, archeologists have found a number of remarkable textiles that give us some idea of the high levels of skill of both the dyer and the weaver. To date, more than 1,000 examples of Bronze and Iron Age textiles have been documented, from some 600 sites in Europe.


Ancient salt mines such as Hallstatt, in Austria, have produced many fragments of Iron Age textiles. Other ancient textiles have been found in Germany, Scandinavia, Ireland, and Britain.

“Bog bodies,” human remains found in watery anaerobic graves, are often attired in woven clothing. Wool is the fiber most often preserved, for the acidic water tends to destroy plant-based textiles like linen. The fabrics that survive are often stained brown by the tannins in the water.

Sometime in the 2nd century CE, the body of a woman wearing this red woolen cape and blue checked skirt was placed in a Danish marsh. Chemical analysis identified the original colors of her clothing.

The same Danish textiles seen to the left are shown above as they appeared when removed from the bog, stained brown by the acidic water. Two sheepskin capes were found arranged over the red cape.

This striking, blue checked cloak, woven c. 300 CE in northern Germany, was placed in Thorsberg bog, probably as a votive offering. The cape is edged on all four sides with wide, card-woven borders with long fringes.

Another woman's dress, seen at left, was found not far from the Danish cape and skirt shown above. This is a peplos, and reflects Roman styles. It is simply a long, woven tube of fabric that is pulled up to cover the body. Sometimes a peplos was folded over at the top and fastened at the shoulders, as shown at right.

At other times the peplos wasn't folded at the top, but was instead pulled straight up and pinned over the shoulders; then hiked up at the waist and held in place by a belt.

The peplos was also known in Roman Britain. On this altar from Birrens, dating to c. 200 CE, Celtic goddess Brigantia is shown wearing a peplos, pinned at the shoulders and belted at the waist.

Farther south in Britain, generations of residents of Coppergate, in York, left evidence of textile production from Roman to Anglo-Saxon times. Archaeologists have found tools (for example, drop spindles similar to that at right) used to process wool, linen, and other fibers, to dye fibers, and to weave fabric.

Wool and flax have been found at Coppergate that date to the 800s, as well as hemp and nettle fiber. Imported silk was cut and stitched on site.

Eve, holding a drop spindle and an upright distaff 
(Hunterian Psalter, c. 1170)

Remnants of dyestuff  are often identified at Coppergate. Madder was found in 244 contexts, greenweed in 189,  woad in 57, and weld in 22. Club moss (Diphasium complanatum), used as a mordant, is found in  247 contexts.


Over time, British textiles developed a reputation for quality. For example, the vivid red created by dyeing with madder came to be admired throughout the western world.


Winrick of Treves, writing c. 1090 CE in his Conflictus Ovis et Lini (The Conflict of Sheep and Flax), tells his readers,

Not blood, not sun, not fire,
glows as red as you, Britain,
ruby in my coat.

Matthew, wearing a red tunic and a blue striped cloak, sits on an overstuffed red cushion (Codex Aureus of Canterbury, c.750).

Dye Plants Cited in Early Manuscript Sources

In early Ireland, the process of dyeing had supernatural overtones. It was a strictly feminine art, one forbidden to men. That is why, In the Book of Lismore, we read that St. Ciaran was sent out of the house by his mother, who tells him that it would be unlucky for him to stay inside while they are preparing and using the dye pot:

On a certain day Ciaran's mother was making blue dye-stuff, and she was ready to put the cloth into it. Then said his mother to him, "Out with thee, O Ciaran!" They did not deem it right or lucky to have men in the same house in which cloth was being dyed.


Irish Legal Texts, c. 750 CE


The importance of dyes is also reflected in the 8th century Brehon Laws of Ireland, which define the most valuable land as that where "everything good does well: grain and milk, and flax, and woad (glasin) and honey, and madder (roidh), and sweet herbs."

These laws assign fines for damage to gardens from livestock, including the "three hen trespasses," which are eating bees, damaging madder plants, and trampling garlic.

The production of blue dye from woad was complex and time consuming, a fact that is clearly appreciated in the laws. To make woad, you harvested leaves only during the plant's first year, because the foliage produced little color in its second year. The leaves were mashed into a thick paste using a grinder like the one shown at right. The paste was formed into balls that were left to dry for at least a month. Once completely dried, the balls were "couched" -- ground into powder, sprinkled with water, again fermented, and then re-dried for storage.

To prepare the dye bath, the dyer mixed the woad with water in a vat, adding potash or urine as a mordant; then the mixture was left to steep for three days. The material to be died -- wool or other fiber, or fabric -- was presoaked in clear water, and slowly lowered into the dye bath. Care was taken to avoid bubbles and the uneven color that they could cause. The wool looked gray in the dye bath, but when it was lifted into the air, oxygenation turned it bright blue, at the same time bonding the dye to the fiber.

The laws of the Senchas Már, compiled in the 700s, show an appreciation for the complexity of the process of creating woad dye, and mandate that a wife divorcing her spouse shall get:

Four divisions of the glaisin [woad] are due to her... 
   a ninth part when the glaisin is newly picked,
   a sixth after it is smoothed ...
   a third after its first drying,
   a half if it is completely prepared.

Charlemagne, c. 780 CE

On the Continent, dye plants were also valued. In the Capitulare de Villis, Charlemagne tells his stewards to supply the women's workshops with:

linum, lanam, waisdo, vermiculo, warentia...
linen,  wool, woad, cochineal (from vermicula, grubs),  madder

He also lists warentium, madder, as one of the plants to be grown in the gardens of his estates.



In Britain, the Astute Reeve (Gesceadwisan gerefan), wrote, c. 1000 CE:

On længtene ...gif hit mot gewiderian
mederan settan linsed sawan
wadsæd eacswa wyrtun plantain...

In springtime, ... if it be fair weather,

set out madder [plants], sow linen seed, woad seed also plant in the garden...


The astute reeve also names a number of tools for both farm and household, among them a "wadspitel," or woad trowel, perhaps similar to the 19th century version seen at right.


Dye plants are among the varieties named  by Aelfric, as well as in the early English herbals, for most dye plants had medicinal uses as well. Woad, for example, was a practical wound dressing, useful to staunch bleeding as well as promote healing.


Place names

Finally, a number of early place names in Britain refer to woad and madder, among them:

Woad (Isatis tinctoria) - glasin, glasto, wad

Glastonbury - Glestingaea, Woad Fortress

Odell - Wadehelle, Woad Hill

Wadborough - Wadberge, Woad Hill

Waddenhall - Wadenhal, Woad Nook

Waddon - Wadone, Woad Hill

Wadley - Wadele, Woad Clearing

Madder (Rubia tinctorum) - Mæddre, wræte

Matterdale - Matherdal, Madder Valley

Mayfield - Medeveld, Madder Field

Wratting - Wreattinge, Madder Place

Wrentham - Weretham, Madder Farm

Wretton - Wretton, Madder farm


A number of interesting resources dealing with early dyes
and textiles can be found here.

Dye plants of the early Middle Ages


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F.D. Drewitt


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