Worldbuilding: The Woad to Wuin

Blue ruin, that is….

Blue is one of the most treasured natural dye shades, because it’s extremely hard to get in a permanent, stable color on cloth. Most blues, like most plant dyes in general, are fugitive; a dyer’s term for a color that does not last, being faded by washing, sunlight, or just exposure to air. The ribbons for one particular Scottish sword-dance have to be re-dyed their traditional purple yearly, because the dye comes from a lichen (orchil) and simply does not last.

The most reliable plant blue dye is indigo (technically indigotin) which is not only colorfast, but one of the few plant dyes that binds to cotton and linen. It’s so effective that natural indigo is still used today, along with synthetic indigo made in chemical plants.

At least, true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) is. These days most other blue dye plants, like woad of Europe (Isatis tinctorial) and the tadeai of Japan (Polygonum tinctorium) tend to be used mostly by handcraft dyers. They just don’t make as much blue as indigo. Though they do make the same blue. Despite being in three different plant families (legume, cabbage, and buckwheat) they all contain the same original compound, indican, from which indigotin is produced. True indigo just has the most useable amounts per plant, and as a legume it can be used to refresh fields depleted of nitrogen by other crops; an advantage for a farmer.

Oddly enough indigotin is also one of three compounds you can produce from the banded dye murex (Hexaplex trunculus), the other two being a blue-violet and a red-violet. Given my druthers I’d go with plant indigo, gathering shellfish out of tidal areas is not my idea of fun.

But – and this is critical – I’m not deciding how much land is arable and how much of that absolutely must be devoted to food crops. If land is limited, or you suspect a harvest will be poor, it’d be better to plant edible legumes like peas and beans, and get what you can for dyes from otherwise inedible sources.

So what does this mean for worldbuilding? As longtime readers of this blog have probably guessed, this is a case of competing goods.

Time and resources spent making dyes can’t be spent on something else. If your characters are dressed in a dazzling array of colors, that implies a certain level of economic and food stability in their culture. Plainer and simpler colors imply either less resources or a deliberate attempt at austerity.

And I do mean “attempt”. What people think of as basic black is a lot more expensive and difficult to achieve than most people will ever admit. You usually can’t get it with just one dye. It takes a combination, and that’s tricky to keep consistent.

Why do I bring this up with indigo blue? Because one of the prettiest blacks I’ve ever seen was spun from brown wool dyed with indigo. The result was a dark black with a slightly gray-silver luster. A suit made from that would have looked very snazzy indeed.

So when you’re building a culture, think of what you want it to look like. Then work backwards and make sure it’s plausible that your culture has the resources to achieve that look.

Otherwise, your more color-savvy readers may be really feelin’ blue.

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15 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: The Woad to Wuin

  1. The range of colors that comes up when trying to find out what color (…range, for those who can see that stuff….) of blue is “indigo” is mildly funny. 😀

    I know it depends on what’s being dyed, but still– seems like mostly jean colors, and some purple, and a *lot* of enhanced pictures.

    Blue is one of my favorite colors, so this is extra interesting.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. There’s also the arguments between landowners and farmers.
    The landowner demanding cash crops while the people starve is a common trope, but the inverse could also happen if the farmers want to make money while the lord wants to stock up food for the army. (Purely as a defensive precaution, of course)

    Liked by 1 person

      1. There’s a quest idea. The party is contacted by farmers who want to pay them to raid other farms: They have plenty of money because they grew cash crops, but now the farmers who grew food want to charge extra for their food, and the farmers hiring the PCs think it will be cheaper to pay murderhobos instead. Assume most available transportation went to hauling away the cash crops, and won’t be able to reach any place with enough of a food surplus in time.

        For extra drama, there’s only enough food available to feed about a third of the population comfortably through the winter, or maybe up to two-thirds on short rations. The cash-croppers don’t think it’s fair that they should face starvation just because they’d hoped to get rich.

        (Works better if the players can’t pull a Moses and arrange for enough daily manna to keep everyone fed.)

        -Albert

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      2. You both have just given me a terrible idea fragment for a reincarnation isekai.

        Imagine a high level multiclassed edgelord grognard. Meticulous researcher and strategic mind bent towards playing scenarios like Aztec flower wars, Einsatzgruppen C, Cambodian killing fields, Cultural Revolution, etc. (Probably tactically blind, and not really aware of surrounding people.)

        So, nasty piece of work, and normal people do not enjoy gaming with him.

        His gaming group was initially the mythical white supremacist DnD players, but that group was eventually mostly FBI plants. The remaining players who weren’t feds disappeared when a deep state faction discovered an urgent need for ‘better’ civil war planning.

        Anyway, the guy is transmigrated (oblivious to everything going on inter-personally) when the the boog opposition figure out things, and bomb gaming night.

        Basic problems, a) why would anyone want to read about this guy? b) What kind of world would actually need what he can offer, that wouldn’t be so grimderp that no one would want to spend any time there? c) how could a plot work out pleasantly that contains this guy, and otherworlders who would want to use him?

        Obviously, the real problem is on my end.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. It’s intended to be a challenge for the players to figure out who they want to save, as the situation gets revealed, and how to pull it off. They’re supposed to figure out how to ‘take the third option’, even if they have to create one through applied hero-ing.

        Shouldn’t be the first ‘hire’ hook where the person asking for murderhobos isn’t being honest about the circumstances, not with how it dives into the deep end. Players have to be taught that NPCs can try to use them dishonestly in less fraught circumstances, where it’s easier to set things right.

        But if the players can pull it off, their characters are Big Damn Heroes, and truly earned it instead of being handed it on the platter of pre-determined ‘adventure path’ or other railroading nonsense.

        -Albert

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      4. My objection would be it’s too modern philosophy class, rather than vaguely fantasy-realistic– there’s simply way too much known too accurately, with too much forward thought for some aspects (profit!) and negative levels for others (who grows food next week), and….well, it’s generally “the NPCs are doing things as puppets, not people.”

        Could be patched with something like the cash crop causes crop failure in the area of those growing it, so the food they were growing for themselves didn’t turn out at all, and there’s some sort of thing stopping travel so they can’t ship food in when they obviously shipped produce out, and nobody noticed the whole “hey, the food we’re growing for winter isn’t” thing.

        I can see a group that liked gaming through philosophy class challenges, especially looking for their “hack the program” solutions, might like it.

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  3. There’s a new blue color out there, did you know? https://hyperallergic.com/615971/meet-yinmn-the-first-new-shade-of-blue-in-two-centuries/

    I’ve seen a rather fun Tolkien/Sillmarillion fic wherein Feanor invents artifical dyes, thus ruining the Teleri (seafolk’s) dye trade, which contributes to later hard feelings and bad consequences thereof, Alizarin, it was titled.

    There’s an outfit based in France called Renaissance dyeworks, IIRC, that does natural dyes on mostly wool, but also has photos of what you get with various fibers and mordants with the same dye. Possibly useful for worldbuilding.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. See, looking at the color, I would call that “royal blue”.

      But the added footnote, which explains that it’s the first new inorganic pigment, makes a lot more sense.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Has anyone else heard of Amorpha fruticosa? The commercially nonviable indigo plant that has an edible oil? No?

    What about using leguminous indigo as a rotation crop?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Having absolutely nothing to do with this post, sorry, yes I’m aware, but have you perchance seen the Modai fic where Niè Huáisāng Leverages the Wens out of the prison camps? It’s truly quite funny. https://archiveofourown.org/works/24419179
    I’d say most of the crew ends up being a little griftery, but Niè Huáisāng is the Mastermind, Jiang Yanli is the Grifter, Wei Wuxian is the Hacker, a Niè sect OC is the Hitter, and Wen Ning is the ThiefSpy.

    (Or Lynchpin by ShanaStoryteller, which does an excellent job of building up and fixing things, and has some excellent headcanon for the Jiang Family Drama that I’ve adopted.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The topic of today reminds me of this video, https://youtu.be/fr5OZbF0XyA, that saw a few months ago. I had dig it up. Mad respect to the host. He really did those things!

    ‘Why do I bring this up with indigo blue? Because one of the prettiest blacks I’ve ever seen was spun from brown wool dyed with indigo. The result was a dark black with a slightly gray-silver luster.’
    I want to see that. I am most curious.

    Liked by 1 person

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