Singing the Blues in Pastel

Pastel (or woad to the English-speaking world) or Isatis tinctoria is an undistinguished looking plant.

Shop selling pastel-colour clothes
Shop selling pastel-colour clothes

However, its history is long!

Indeed, it is the wonderful blue dye the plant produces that founded the fortunes of some of the principal cities of southwest France.

In its heyday during the 16th and 17th centuries, within the triangle of Toulouse, Albi, and Carcassonne, the pastel plant was called ‘blue gold’.

The prosperous pastel merchants of Toulouse displayed their affluence in splendid mansions.

Many are still standing.

One Toulouse merchant, Jean de Bernuy, was credit-worthy enough to be the main guarantor of the ransomed King Francis I after his capture at the Battle of Pavia by Charles V of Spain.

An English traveller commented that:

“woad… hath made that country the happiest and richest in Europe.”

Much of the pastel produced in the golden triangle was used for the local cloth industry.

It was also exported via Bayonne, Narbonne and Bordeaux to Flanders, the Low Countries, Italy, and above all Britain and Spain

Indigofera tinctoria versus isatis tinctoria

The dye chemical extracted from pastel is indigo, the same dye extracted from ‘true indigo’, indigofera tinctoria, but in a lower concentration.

Isatis Tinctoria grown near Albi
Isatis Tinctoria – pastel

However, following the European discovery of the seaway to India, great amounts of indigo were imported from Asia.

Laws were therefore passed in some parts of Europe in order to protect the pastel industry from the competition of the indigo trade.

In France, Henri IV, in an edict of 1609, forbade under pain of death the use of “the false and pernicious Indian drug”.

However, despite the edict of Napoleon that all the uniforms of his army should be dyed using pastel, the isatis tinctoria finally lost out to indigofera tinctoria in the 19th century!

However, and is now coming back into fashion as a recherché cottage industry.

That said, it’s not surprising that the arrival of indigofera tinctoria caused serious fluttering in the dovecots of the pastel producers.

It was indeed cheaper and stronger and offered considerably more bang for your buck.

Extracting pastel from isatis tinctoria

The extraction of pastel dye from isatis tinctoria was a truly time-consuming and noxious process.

It grows like a weed in sunny, well-drained soil, however, that is the only easy bit.

La cocagne - pastel
La cocagne

It is the leaves that are harvested at the point when the edges are turning violet.

In pastel’s golden days these leaves were then crushed in a pastel mill.

They were then moulded by hand (generally by children because of the size of their hands) into a ball about 15 cm in diameter – the famous cocagne.

It was then racked and stacked in huge drying frames and left to dry out for six months until the cocagne was very hard.

It could be transported to the place where it was turned into dye.

The cocagne was round because the shape combined ease of packing with air pockets between the balls, thus allowing air to circulate, continuing the drying process.

Like wine, the longer the cocagne is allowed to dry the better the resulting colour will be.

But we’re barely half done yet.

Wallpaper in the Pastel Room in Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice
Wallpaper in the Pastel Room in Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice

Once the cocagnes had arrived at their destination they were crushed again.

They were then spread out and sprinkled with water and allowed to ferment, a process known as couching.

Finally, they were left out in the sun to dry.

Once dry, the couched pastel was ready for the dyer.

The dyer who put it in a vat and add potash or urine.

This fearsome mixture would ferment for three days before the dye bath was ready.

The fabric to be dyed was soaked for a day in the urine.

It was then put out in the sun, where it turned blue as it dried.

Nowadays the chemists in Toulouse do it in three hours!

Modern day Pastel cottage industry

Dying with pastel at the La Petite Maison de Pastel in Lautrec
Dying with pastel at the La Petite Maison de Pastel in Lautrec

Pastel is coming back to its own and there is a lively industry developing in and around Toulouse.

Most of the pastel plant is now grown in the Ariège department south of Toulouse.

The dye makes an extraordinarily attractive shade of blue – Wedgewood blue possibly best describes it.

It is also resistant to fading and will wash in temperatures up to 60°C.

The paint is known to have natural fungicide and insecticide properties.

The essential oil extracted from the seeds and seed case is known for its skin healing and anti-aging properties.

Retailers abound in Toulouse, Albi, Lautrec, Cordes-sur-Ciel and elsewhere in the south-west.

Department of Tarn

Credits: Photos and Text by Helene Barratt  Les Heures Claires – Article edited by and for travelfranceonline.com – Photo Wikimedia Commons: header

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