I have been keen to experiment again with the native bedstraws but, since we moved house and I left my precious dye garden behind, I have been finding it difficult to harvest suitable bedstraw roots. The roots of the Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum) plants that I have planted in my new garden are too immature and it is against the law to uproot plants in the wild, so it seemed that any experiments might have to wait a year or two for my own plants to be ready to harvest.
However, thanks to the generosity of Leena Riihela in Finland (www.riihivilla.com) who kindly sent me some roots from her own garden, I have been able to experiment with Hedge Bedstraw, (Galium mollugo).
Compared with the roots of madder (Rubia tinctorum), bedstraw roots are very fine and delicate, and these bedstraw roots were very precious as they had come from such a long way away. So I wanted to make sure that I didn’t waste them.
For these tests I used mainly alum-mordanted wool, except for some unmordanted samples from the exhaust dyebaths. To prepare the dyebaths, I first soaked the roots overnight in water, then poured off this liquid. I then steeped the roots twice in boiling water for about 1 minute each time and added this liquid to the soaking water to make the first dyebath. I then simmered the roots twice more, using each simmering liquid for a separate dyebath. In the photos below, the orange colours on the left were from the soaking water plus the two steeping waters and also from the first 2 simmerings. I then simmered the roots again twice for about 45 minutes and used this liquid for another 2 dyebaths. The middle range of shades on the photos were from these 3rd and 4th simmerings, the redder one with an alkaline modifier (washing soda). The range on the right came from exhaust dye baths, with some unmordanted and some alum-mordanted samples. Once the fibres had been added to the dyebath, I didn’t worry too much about the temperature and allowed the dyebaths to simmer gently to improve colour take-up. (This simmering is not something I would do when dyeing with madder – see below)
I decided to work in this way, rather than combining all the extractions, because my belief is that the richest true reds lie under the yellows and browns and the best way to get reds is to first use up these yellows and browns. I don’t know whether this belief is correct but my experiences suggest it seems a good way to get reds rather than oranges.
I now use this method when dyeing with madder and it seems to work well. After washing the madder roots well, I simmer them to extract the colour for the first dyebath, remove the roots to use again for a second dyebath and then reduce the temperature before adding the fibres. Once the fibres have been added, I don’t simmer the madder dyebath and I keep the temperature hot but not too hot – i.e. well below simmering point. The roots can then be simmered again to extract more colour for a second dyebath. Indeed, madder is a most generous dye and the roots can often be simmered several times before the dye is exhausted, giving colour for yet more dyebaths.
I think that, when I next dye with the bedstraws, I will probably keep things simpler and try something closer to the method I use with madder. So, after soaking the roots overnight, I will simmer them once for about 30 minutes and use this solution for my first dyebath. I will then simmer the roots again (probably for about 45 minutes) for a second dyebath and to make sure no precious dye is wasted, I will simmer the roots at least once more for a further dyebath. But first I must wait for my bedstraw roots to be mature enough to harvest.
A range of shades from Hedge Bedstraw (Galium mollugo)
A close-up image of some of the Hedge Bedstraw colours.