Business to dye for... naturally

After generations of farming, Ian and Bernadette Howard swapped traditional agriculture for a unique venture, becoming pioneers of a new movement championing natural dyes. Rachel Buller reports.

'I don't miss my old farming life because it is still going on all around me,' says Ian Howard gesturing out to the fields which stretch before him. 'The only thing I really miss is the cows.'

Like many farmers, Ian and his wife Bernadette have left behind the traditional agricultural path that had weaved through the generations of his family, diversifying and creating an entirely new business in a bid to survive tough financial times.

Instead of wheat and potatoes, their crop of choice is woad – a plant which has a stunning blue pigment, hugely popular through the centuries until synthetic dyes saw it resigned to history in the 1930s.

Their business – Woad Inc (which stands for Ian's Natural Colour), based at Beetley, near Dereham, – truly is a unique one and one that owes as much to the past as it does to the present.

The dye would once have been war paint, daubed on the faces of warriors as they marched into battle alongside Iceni queen Boudica some 2,000 years ago and up until the early 20th century, the dye remained hugely popular across Europe.

The advent of cheap synthetic alternatives saw it gradually fall out of favour and in the 1930s the last woad mill in Lincolnshire closed.

Most Read

Now it is making a comeback thanks largely to a growing trend in consumers demanding more natural products with an ecological edge.

After decades of farming, the couple began looking into various diversification ideas in the mid-1990s, working with a variety of alternative and unusual crops.

'I didn't know anything about woad. We had a few plants, but over the winter we left the field and it became like a lawn the next year, we didn't realise that you don't have to drill it or sew it, it was like grass, it just grew everywhere,' says Ian. 'It is essentially a noxious weed. You are not allowed to sell it in the USA west of the Mississippi.'

The plant, which looks like an unremarkable cross between spinach and sugar beet with a yellow flower, produces a stunning blue dye ranging from Dying to read more? See the EDP Sunday supplement in tomorrow's EDP.