“Pastel des teinturiers” that’s the name of the inconspicuous plant in France with yellow blossoms, - “woad for dyeing”. The latin term is “Isatis tinctoria”. (In the English language the term
“pastel” only stands for a specific colour or for the respective crayon, not for the plant as you find it in French dictionaries).
The leaves of this fascinating plant have been used for dyeing all the time, the seed for the production of woad-oil.
In the past the leaves were minced in woad-mills, worked up to paste and shaped (by hand) to balls called “cocagnes”. These balls still have to go through a difficult and delicate working process (e.g. reduction, fermenting, drying) until they contain the pigment for a successful dyeing. As there had to be many pauses in the working process and people selling the “cocagne-balls” were rather wealthy, everywhere in France the term “Pays de Cocagne” – (land of Cocagne) was used for a wealthy, Cockaigne-type region.
The art of the master of dyeing (“maître pastellier”) was his way of preparing a dyeing bath using the balls containing the pigment. This was a long and complicated process but right afterwards there was the reward: The cloth coming out of the bath still having a yellow-green colour and by contacting the oxygen of the air immediately becomes blue-magically!
The woad provides all nuances of blue – from brightest, lightest blue to deep dark. And this blue won’t run, it keeps its colour throughout centuries. All these merits of woad are still existing today.
The art of dyeing with woad has been known a long long time ago, - the ancient Egyptians knew about it. But it was Western Europe, from ancient Romans until the 16th century, that had the best benefit from this art.
Celts and Gauls used the woad not only for cloths or textiles, they were dyeing their hair, their faces, their bodies as a deterrent against their enemies. Most probably this is the reason why, in France, the term “peur bleu” (blue fear) stands for being panic stricken.
In the European Middle Ages the blue colour didn’t play an important part for a long time. It was finally Louis IX (the Holy Louis) who chose blue for being the colour of his coat of arms. And that’s how slowly the colour blue became the colour of aristocracy. Therefore a reliable and durable colour had to be found – and this was the woad’s blue.
In those times woad was cultivated all over Europe, mainly in the South where the warm climate guaranteed a high quality. Thus mainly climatic reasons caused a geographic triangle (Albi in the North, Toulouse in the West, Carcassonne in the South) to become the most preferred region of the woad.
In the 14th century the woad trading started out of the Lauragais on a large scale, making it a very rich region, - until in the middle of the 16th century the indigo blue out of the New World conquered the market.
Before that the woad dealers, the dyeing and spinning business in the “Pays de Cocagne”, mainly in Toulouse and Albi, were unimaginably rich. The most magnificent period were the years 1450 – 1560, when the woad was in the market as being “blue gold” and big traders like Pierre d’Assézat in Toulouse gained remarkable fortunes. Even nowadays luxurious traders’ buildings, the important functions of the Capitoul and the growing new aristocracy of traders are a sign of this era.
Slowly cultivation and trading of the dyers’ woad disappeared in Europe while the indigo arrived, first – as the term indicates – out of India, later also out of America. Indigo out of America quite possibly in relationship to the dyers’ woad, was cheaper and less complicated in processing.
There were other reasons for the decline of the “Pays de Cocagne” – religious wars, and the starting sluggishness of the important noble traders, caused by their wealth.
In the middle of the 18th century indigo had completely replaced the dyeing woad in Europe.
Napoleon’s Continental Blockade caused a short “renaissance” of the woad that was then used for dyeing the uniforms of Napoleon’s Army.
After that the Pastel” fell into oblivion again – until the 20th century.