Growing heirloom plants
Resources for gardeners
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.
Ireland, 9th century
Hand spinner, c. 1180
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
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
Madder for red
Woad for blue
Weld for yellow
In northern Europe and the British Isles, dyes
derived from plants were used to produce colors
that were bright and colorfast.
provided a rich, brick red.
produced a glowing blue. Yellow dye came
greenweed (Genista tinctoria).
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,
not faded despite the passage of more than nine
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
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.
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
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.
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
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Conflict of Sheep and Flax), tells his
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:
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."
assign fines for damage to gardens from
hen trespasses," which are eating bees,
damaging madder plants, and trampling garlic.
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.
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.
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
a sixth after it is smoothed ...
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,
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.
Astute Reeve (Gesceadwisan
gerefan), wrote, c. 1000 CE:
...gif hit mot gewiderian
mederan settan linsed sawan
wadsæd eacswa wyrtun plantain...
In springtime, ... if it be fair weather,
madder [plants], sow linen seed, woad seed also plant
in the garden...
astute reeve also names a number
of tools for both farm and
household, among them a "wadspitel," or
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.
of early place names in Britain refer to woad and madder, among them:
Woad (Isatis tinctoria)
Glestingaea, Woad Fortress
Wadehelle, Woad Hill
Wadberge, Woad Hill
Wadone, Woad Hill
Wadele, Woad Clearing
Madder (Rubia tinctorum)
Matherdal, Madder Valley
Medeveld, Madder Field
Wreattinge, Madder Place
Weretham, Madder Farm
Wretton, Madder farm
A number of
interesting resources dealing with early dyes
and textiles can be found