Known in France as pastel or by the full name “pastel des teinturiers”, the woad – in Latin Isatis tinctoria – is a plant with delicate yellow flowers belonging to the cruciferous family. Its leaves contain a substance capable of producing a matchless blue pigment used since antiquity as a fabrics dye.
The blue dye from woad comes in many nuances, from the lightest blue to deep dark and has the merit of a keeping the color stable even throughout centuries.
The technique of obtaining the pastel dye has been known since ancient times when Celts and Gauls that were populating what is now the territory of France, were using it not only for textiles but also to paint their hair and faces.
The process of fabrication of the color was not a simple one though: the pastel leaves were crushed in woad-mills, then worked up in a paste and shaped by hand in balls -balls called “cocagnes”- , that were left to ferment and dry for up to 4 months until the blue pigment was synthesized.
The process of blue fabric dyeing was the trade of a specialized master of pastel – “maître pastelier” – who knew exactly how to prepare the dyeing bath using the pastel balls.
The turning point in the millenary history of pastel and indeed of the southwest of France can be placed during the reign of King Louis IX – Saint Louis – in the 13th century when he choose blue as the color of his coat of arms. This decision started a blue color fashion among the aristocracy of the kingdom, fashion that was to last until the 16th century or we can say, in nowadays parlance, that during the late middle ages “blue became the new black”!
Starting from the 14th century the pastel trade flourished in the triangular region between Toulouse in the west, Albi in the North and Carcassonne in the East, region called even now “Pays de Cocagne”. The “blue gold”, how pastel was then called, brought unthinkable richness to its merchants and many outstanding private residences -“hôtels particuliers” – in Toulose and Albi date from this time. The affluence brought in by the pastel was such that the expression “Pays de Cocagne” became to define a land where everything abounds, where any wish is granted.
In the 16th century the frenzy of pastel started to recede with the arrival first from India and then from the New World of the Indigo that was easier to process and use.
A spike of the pastel trade took place in the beginning of the 19th century during the Napoleonic Continental Blockade when it was used again to dye the Republican Army uniforms.
Nowadays pastel dye is used for souvenirs and the pastel oil made from woad seeds is used in cosmetics.
Every two years in the park of the Loubens Castle in Lauragais, just 20km east of Toulouse, takes place the “Pastel Festival”.
Here are some photos from the 2015 edition of the fest:
Hi, I am Carla. I am living and working in the beautiful city of Toulouse, France.
I like history, travel and... the southwest of France and try to share through this blog information about events that might be of interest to the travelers to this part of the world!