Pastel in its Prime

  • © CDT Midi Pyrénées Dominique Viet

  • © CDT Midi Pyrénées Dominique Viet

Pastel in its Prime

By Diane Précourt

The story of dyer's woad, or "pastel" in French, is as colorful as the dye it produces. This blue treasure of the Midi-Pyrénées is seeing new growth after being left out to dry for over 400 years.

This yellow flower produces a blue dye so soft it makes even great colorists blush in admiration. Cultivated in Toulouse since the 15th century, dyer’s woad was known for its medicinal properties well before it was sought for the tinctorial virtues of its green leaves.

A member of the Brassicaceae, or cruciferous, family it became the centerpiece of the pastel trade’s golden triangle: Toulouse, Albi and Carcassonne. The commercial weight of pastel was no less important than the value of its sentimental associations. In its heyday, thirty to forty thousand tons of dye were exported, and increasing demand throughout Europe helped woad dealers amass small fortunes.

With the increase in income came an increase in competition for status, and the woad merchants built prestigious mansions with their new riches, leaving a lasting impression on the architectural landscape of the area called Cocagne, named for the woad dye extraction process. Also known as Cockaigne, it is a territory in the Midi-Pyrénées region that, unsurprisingly, over time also became an expression synonymous with “Land of Plenty.

”Religious wars followed by rivalry from American indigo in the 17th century eventually wore down pastel’s flourishing industry. It faded, only to make a quick, less glamorous comeback when it was used as dye for soldier’s uniforms during Napoleon’s reign.

But in the 1990s, dyer’s woad came back out of the blue and was once again in use on the canvases of passionate and experimental artists. Its use grew enough so that in 2004 the Academy of Arts and Sciences of Woad reopened its doors. The Academy’s mission: to study and educate others about the artistic, scientific, social, economic and historical aspects of woad.  The vegetable dye—100% natural—is used for decorative, textile, hygienic and even cosmetic goods, with its seeds recently being integrated into massage products, exploiting the dermatological benefits of the plant first discovered in the Middle Ages.

Today, research is being done on new ways to extract pigment from the leaves without passing through the laborious Renaissance-era production cycle of putrefaction, shaping into balls, drying and crushing. And with the versatile plant’s popularity once again in full bloom, chances are that developments are not far off.

Woad’s history is far from colorless, and the plant produces many shades, from light baby blue to blue d’enfer (hell’s blue), which is the darkest. Over the centuries, the word “pastel” itself has become part of everyday language and is used to describe not only one color, but the entire palette. We most often see it as a small colored stick used to create soft, romantic images.

Alive again in the fields of France, woad radiates its true colors. Even if certain parts of isatis tinctoria are crushed to extract their precious contents, the plant itself would never be crushed by the weight of time.