Friday, 11 March 2016

Dyeing Wool and Silk with Fresh Madder Roots

Three years ago, I planted madder seeds. Lately, the new green shoots of 2016 came up through the earth, persuading me it was near enough Spring to start to dig.
Three years ago, I also started this blog. Waiting for the madder plants to grow big enough roots to harvest for red dye has only taken patience, the blog has been a great deal of work in pursuit of more nebulous ends. This third anniversary has me pondering whether all that time blogging has   
been well spent.  What does it mean to have 150,000 page views?  I might say oh, I just enjoy the writing process and benefit from keeping records, but I'd certainly be gutted if people stopped reading, so thanks very much everyone for that. Appreciation in the virtual world has affected real life choices, most notably, last summer, dropping the day job in favour of hand spinning and plant dyes.  Discovering all these roots under the madder plants warmed my heart with gladness and it's just as well I feel such personal satisfaction, since as a small time sole trader, I have barely managed to cover my craft material costs through hundreds and hundreds of hours of work.  I thought I understood in advance that money was not what 
this new life was about, but I was skilled and senior in my old job and the first six months of early retirement provided some difficult reality checks. I'm slowly getting my head around salvaging some self worth while doing what I want for no-one but myself and not being terribly good at it.  Nor efficiently organised. The morning is half gone, here I am in my pyjamas making a second cup of coffee and emptying the ashtray, digressing despite half a dozen things on the day's to do list and madder root dye to write about.
So, with three plants divided and replanted, the precious roots were washed and picked over.  I've heard that dark bark on the thicker roots gives brown tones to the dye, so I spent an age picking and rubbing it 
off before chopping them up.  Half a bucket full of fresh roots shrunk down to half a bowl full of bits, weighing just over 500g.  Jenny Dean's Wild Colour book says the orange shades can be cleared by pouring boiling water on the roots and leaving it for two minutes, twice.  The drained fluid looked tawny brown.  Teresinha's Wild Colours website advises using a food processor  to liquidise the roots in water, a handful at a time.
Mine did not break down well, the result was more minestrone than mash.  I dissolved a teaspoon of calcium carbonate in hot water, stirred it in and checked the pH.  Slightly acid, so in went enough dissolved soda ash to get the pH up to 8.  Various sources agree that the best reds are obtained by gentle heat over the course of days.  I left the main pot, the bowl of hot rinse water and a pan of boiled bark scrapings on the underfloor heating in the bathroom for 24 hours before adding alum mordanted merino roving, silk hankies and a silk scarf.  Each day, I pulled another length of the silk scarf up from the main dye bath and took out a piece of merino.
The total weight of these fibres was about 100g to the 500g fresh roots.  From the top left, merino in the hot root rinse water went strongly scarlet red, so there was plenty of red dye loosed by that brief boiling water soak, on top of stripping out the orange tones. The dye from the bark scrapings alone came out browner, but still a decent scarlet-ish red, I shan't fret too much about cleaning older roots next time.  On the bottom row, wool in the main bath was a purer red, deepening in colour over five days, the last portion becoming a proper blood red.  The silk hankies were amazingly hard to wet, all the thicker parts stayed white, taking up no dye during over a week's immersion. I've since been told by an expert that silk hankies need a fortnight to presoak before dyeing.  The silk scarf came out with glorious gradations of madder red, according to how long each part was left to soak in the madder bath.


Next, I shall be writing about a week spent teasing more colours out of madder root afterbaths.
Time is the greatest luxury.  I spend a lot of mine walking the dog, putting together a blog post, spinning, dyeing or just having a fag and staring into space.  

On reflection, this seems to me a very good life.

17 comments:

  1. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful colours! Similar to what I obtained from a scarce amount of fresh roots from a single one-year plant. Madder is gorgeous. I believe it gives much satisfaction to your retired life :)

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  2. What does it all mean? It means that people like me continue to learn and be inspired by wonderful people like you who so generously take the time to share their experience and knowledge with others. Thank you for the gift of your blog.

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    1. Thank you. I think of the blog as a vanity, it pleases me immensely to see it in the light of being something for others.

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  3. madder is one of my favourites, there's so much colour even in a small amount! and I have stopped grinding - after killing my first blender with it:( I just cut them up as small as I can (I haven't bothered about the "bark" so far) and soak them for a long time. the last time I didn't use heat at all, just put it in a bucket and left it for several weeks. no problem in the garden, but maybe not so good inside an apartment (the smell is.... yuck:)! and silk hankies do take ages to wet thoroughly - but I don't mind lighter spots so much, because I draft them out finely when spinning, which distributes the white spots so well, that it is more a feature than a fault I think.
    happy dyeing - the season is starting - with gorse flowers:)
    Bettina

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    1. My pot has developed a distinct whiff, luckily this disippated on heating before himself got home from work. I haven't spun silk hankies yet, suspect the drafting will not end up fine, but red and white, what's not to like?

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    2. you can also carefully pre-draft the hankies - and knit directly with them, if you don't fancy spinning them! there is quite a lot of yardage in a single hankie - I'd never expected that, when I tried it out, but reading about how many meters one caterpillar spins - it makes sense:)

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  4. Thanks for sharing your experience! I'm planting madder this year - now all I have to do is wait for 3 years :-O.

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    1. High time I started sowing some annuals. Best of luck with your growing :)

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  5. I retired last Jun and except for doing a blog and a fag our schedules sound very similar. :) The color(s) you got are incredible. Helen

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    1. Thanks very much. I don't have many other vices :)

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  6. I planted some madder a couple of years ago.... I am tempted to take a peak.
    Thanks for your blog. Interesting.

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    1. I did chop up a potted two year old plant last year. There were far fewer roots than I found on these, after three years in the open ground, but they did give madder colour. Be strong!

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  7. Thanks for the blog post. The colours look wonderful. I've dyed some alum mordanted Ryeland wool from madder roots bought from 'Wild Colours' and got a lovely strong red. Buoyed up by that I grew some madder in pots sunk into the ground, then dug them up ?3 years later and dried them off in the greenhouse, with a label loosely poked in. My partner has just spring cleaned the greenhouse. Great, but unfortunately I don't think he saw the potential in these wiggly red roots that I do (didn't know what they were) and now they've gone. Oh dear, I should have packaged them up. Next time I'll treat them like gold dust!

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  8. Stunning results and worth the effort!! My madder seedlings are going in this year - thanks for the inspiration!!

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    1. Thanks and best of luck with yours.

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