Friday, 1 May 2015

A Trial of Fresh Madder Root Dye

Most of my madder seedlings were planted out into a raised border, two years ago.  Three have been living in a pot on the patio.  At the end of March, I spotted a red root growing out through the bottom, which I took as a sign they needed potting on and a great excuse to see how much they had grown.  In the books, it says that madder roots grow to pencil thickness in five years and should not be divided and harvested for roots until at least their third year.  These three plants turned out to be coming on ok, despite being cramped in a pot.  Rinsing one of them in a bucket of rainwater  
exposed an orangey red root system, though paler than in pictures I have seen.  I potted two plants on, adding some wood ash to the fresh compost, as an alkaline soil is supposed to encourage the production of alizarin pigment. You probably guessed that the third plant never got back into the soil, falling victim to my flaming desire to have a go at madder root dyeing.
I chopped up the whole thing with secateurs and rinsed it again to get off all the earth.  I've read that pouring boiling water over the roots will clear them of the more orange dyes, leaving the best red.  When I did this, colour just poured out into the water, leaving me panic stricken there would be none still left in those tiny pieces.  I scoured and mordanted some finely spun white Wensleydale and portioned it out into small skeins of random length, all less than 10g dry weight.  The smallest skein went into the first 
hot rinse water, so as not to waste a drop of madder.  I gave it half an hour on a very low heat, just to get it started. By all acounts, madder reds can easily be destroyed by overheating.  I got a bit mixed up, flicking from Jenny Dean's book Wild Colour, to Theresinha's online instructions at Wild Colours and missed the point that the whole dye process can be done without heat.  I could have saved myself constant pot watching for the hour I spent warming those rinsed roots in fresh water in a bigger pot with the largest skein of Wensleydale.  Then I realised I had forgotten the chalk and added that. Then I tested the pH and found it was still neutral, so I added enough soda ash to bring it up to pH 9-10, hoping for the best possible red.

Had to wait for a couple of days to see my first result.  Madder takes much longer to be taken up than any other plant dye I have tried and patience is not my forte, but there was a heartening increase in depth of colour, noticeable even when checking every morning and evening. The biggest ball near the top right is the skein from the first bath, the smallest ball, lower right, came from the first hot rinse water, so it definitely did take out the orange tones.  The pink ball at the top went into the main afterbath for the second phase of waiting a few days, then I poured in the remnant of the hot rinse water and dyed the last two skeins, which came out peachy.  Adding some iron water, one of the peach skeins went back in the pot for a little more heating and turned that pinky beige on the top left.

While I was weeding round the main clump of madder in the border, a few roots fell off into my hand.  They went into the left over dye bath and I contact dyed a piece of heavy Habotai silk by rolling hardy geranium leaves and daffodils into it and tying the bundle up with string soaked in iron water.  My companion, Elinor Gotland, spotted me steam ironing the fabric and suddenly started paying attention.
"That beigey peach is almost a flesh tone on silk, Beaut."
I tweaked it back out of her hoof.
"You have grey fleece."

For a small sheep, Elinor has a powerful grip and a devilish fetish for silk.  To avoid an unseemly tussle, I spent some time in the garden, admiring all my madder dye colours in natural light.  Those geraniums leaked out a good bit of green too, pleased to find the iron had picked out the tracery of their leaves, even though I kept the heat low in the silk dye bath.  

Back in the house, I was staggered to find my friend enthroned on a heap of the most glorious red wool I have ever seen.
"This is what I call Madder Red."
"Wherever did you get that wool?  It's sumptuous, look at the depths and tones in it, that has to be naturally dyed and I know you didn't do it."
Elinor leaned back, playing it very cool.
"Did a bit of shopping at Wonderwool, Beaut, and I got chatting with Sue, who runs Native Yarns. Pure madder dyeing this, she does it herself, one to one weight ratio of root to fibre." She bounced up and down. "This is called Brigantia and it's much softer than your Wensleydale."
I squeezed the skeins and sighed.
"It must have cost you a fortune!"
"Not half as much as you'd think and a hell of a lot quicker than gardening."
"You know that silk scarf I've got?  Interested in a trade, at all?"


  1. You got lovely colours and a gorgeous ecoprinted scarf!
    I wonder how big was the pot the three madder plants grew in. I plan to grow madder also in pots and some in the garden, God willing.

    1. That pot is the size of a bucket, about 30cm high and 30cm diameter. Best of luck with yours.

  2. Hi Fran, what gorgeous colours you got from the madder.

    I tried to flower dye some muslin for scarves for Christmas presents last year. I hammered the flowers on to un-mordanted cloth... but the colours faded . Any recommendations for a mordant to use?

    PS Did you see any of the downsizer girls at Wonderwool?

    1. I've done very little dyeing on cotton. Mordanted with aluminium acetate, it seems to take up a dimmer version of plant colours when simmered in a pot, compared to wool. Haven't tried hammering flowers at all, so I'll be interested to hear how you get on.

    2. I've had good results on cotton with alternate dips in soya milk and alum.

  3. Your posts always leave me smiling Fran, and wow, those lovely madder reds :)

    I was so disappointed to miss Wonderwool this year.

    1. Oh, awful - it has become a highlight of my year. Exceeds expectations every time. Will you get to a different wool festival later this year?

  4. lovely colors-I gotta try this now

    1. I've been reading that sweet woodruff roots dye orange/red. I have to dig a load up while I'm taking out a shrub, the fiddle of picking the roots out seems a small price to pay if I get anything like this out of them. Best of luck with your madder dyeing.

    2. thank you-I look forward to your reading about your adventures with sweet woodruff-spring is here now-I will look to see if I can find a plant to grow for the future