Woad Balls

Woad Balls

Way back in the mists of time MEDATS (Medieval Dress and Textile Society) ran a Dyeing Symposium Weekend and part of it was spent with John Edmonds making woad Balls. John had become fascinated with woad whilst volunteering at the Chiltern Open Air Museum after he had retired, he was an inspiration to many and is the reason that Reading University started its research into the Medieval woad Vat and the Spindigo project being started.

Woad plants
woad growing in the field

First of all we picked the fresh leaves and put them into a bucket. then we chopped them up with the edge of a spade, chopping them small but not shredding.

choppin in a bucket
woad chopped up

Then we picked up handfuls of the “Mush” and formed it into balls in our hands. fairly big, because as they dry out they shrink quite a bit.

making the ball

They were then placed onto drying racks – as per Parson’s Drove Woad Mill (Near Wisbech) – and left to dry. They need turning every day to make sure they dry evenly and no mould is forming anywhere that the ball touches the wood. (these were as they were being made, but we all got to bring a ball home to look after! (And yes I do still have mine, although some sort of insect has made holes in it!)

woad balls drying
woad balls set on a rack to dry

Originally the woad leaves would have been taken to the Woad Mill, which consisted of the Roller House, The Drying Ranges and the Couching House.

The Roller House was normally round in construction, built of turf walls about 3 ft wide at the base growing narrower at the top, the walls were about 4ft high supporting a high wide roof of timber and hurdles and thatched with reeds. The floor was circular and paved with stone. A large circular “pan” was placed in the middle under the rollers. A horse would be harnessed up to drive the circular rollers, the pan was then fed with woad leaves to chop them up. One horse would walk around the edge of the circular pan taking the rollers with him – they were attached to the harness. (The horses were led round by a man who often suffered from dizziness from going round in the same direction for such a long time!)

Once the leaves were crushed they were formed into balls between 2″ and 6″ in diameter. The equipment used consisted of a “form” or “balling horse” on which the workman placed a large double handful of pulped leaves, this was converted into a ball partly by kneading and partly rolling. The ball was then placed into a wicker tray called a “fleak”. When full it was pushed along a “loading form” and transferred to the padded head of another workman who would carry it out to the Drying Ranges. A man could ball about the same amount of woad as the horse could crush in the day – his hands becoming stained almost black in the process. (It wasn’t possible to wash off either, it literally had to grow out!)

The Drying Ranges were wooden stands supporting a series of gratings which were arranged in tiers. As the trays of balls arrived they were placed on grates which slid along ledges to form shelves. The balls were thoroughly dried there a process which could take from 1 to 4 weeks. they were then taken to the store rooms, where they waited final preparation of the dye. (In medieval times the balls were then stored in barrels or sacks, hence the statue on the side of Amiens Cathedral)

Amiens Cathedral
Woad growers statue on Amiens Cathedral

The first second and third pickings of leaves were always kept separate.

The Couching House – in order to access the indigotin in the woad it had to go through a process of fermentation called couching. this was the most difficult stage of the processing. First the balls were ground to a powder then piled into a layer 2 – 3 feet deep. this was sprinkled with water and allowed to ferment for 9 weeks. during this time the the mass was turned over frequently and sprinkled with more water to convert it into a paste. regulation of the temperature was crucial – and also one one of the most difficult things to achieve. Every lump had to be broken up so that no portion escaped fermentation. If the temperature went too high the woad was called “foxy” if too low it was called “heavy”

When the fermentation was complete the dark clay like woad was thoroughly dried, sifted and packed into barrels holding from 20 to 30 cwt each. These were marked with the quantity, year of production and then dispatched to the dyer.

Woad is said to improve greatly if kept for a while, owing to the action of the ferment, it’s efficiency in the woad vat being doubled in 4 years. 9 parts by weight of woad leaves were estimated to give 1 part of woad dye as finally prepared for market.

A large part of the woad imported into England had only been balled and dried, the final fermentation happening after purchase.

Hurry - last woad balls commercially made in Britain

There is much information available about the woad vat itself, this blog post was simply about making the woad balls. More information and recommended reading is as follows …

HURRY JB The woad plant and its dye 1930 Oxford University Press

EDMONDS J The history of woad and the medieval woad vat Historic dye series no 1 1998 self published