Anglo-Saxon dyes – Madder

Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is one of the most ancient dyes and a particularly useful and reliable source of red. Other plants in the madder family (Rubiaceae) include the native plants lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum), wild madder (Rubia peregrina), hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo), dyer’s woodruff (Asperula tinctoria) and woodruff (Galium odoratum).

Although madder (Rubia tinctorum) was available during the Roman period, it seems to have been replaced during the early Anglo-Saxon period by the native Rubiaceae (for example:lady’s bedstraw and wild madder). This suggests that the Romans imported madder as a dried dyestuff, rather than growing it in Britain, and that it disappeared with the departure of the Romans. There is evidence that madder began to be imported from France in the 7th century and by the later Anglo-Saxon period it had become a very common dye.

The analysis of dyes in textiles of the early Anglo-Saxon period seems to indicate that reds, like purples, were mainly used for narrow woven bands, headdresses, embroideries and accessories, such as bags, rather than for larger fabrics. Where dyes were used in larger fabrics (and dyes were detected in only one-third of the larger fabrics analysed) these were mainly dyes that give shades of yellow, blue and brown, plus green from blue and yellow dyes used in combination. It is also possible that, at least in the early Anglo-Saxon period, reds and purples were colours reserved for people of high status.

An alum mordant is necessary for true reds from madder (Rubia tinctorum) and reds achieved on a clubmoss mordant are very similar to those achieved on fibres mordanted with mineral alum. Without a mordant, madder gives colours in the orange to coral range and using a tannin mordant gives similar but slightly deeper colours. An alkaline modifier, such as wood-ash-water, makes the colours pinker in tone and an iron modifier makes the colours browner. The addition of chopped crab apples to the dyebath makes the colours brighter.

The first photo below shows a range of shades from madder (Rubia tinctorum)

In my experience it is not easy to obtain true rich reds from lady’s bedstraw, wild madder, dyer’s woodruff and woodruff. I grew all these for several years in my old garden but never managed to get the sort of red obtained from madder, also grown in my garden. The use of an alkaline (wood-ash-water) modifier moves these colours further towards red and an iron modifier makes the colours browner. I intend to continue experimenting with these dyes in the madder family – if, that is, I can grow enough roots to make the tests worth the effort. Lady’s bedstraw grows wild at the sides of many country roads in this area but it is against the law to uproot wild plants, so I shall have to rely on my home-grown plants and it will be a while before they are mature enough to harvest.

The second photo below shows colours from wild madder roots (upper left), wild madder dried tops (4 samples at lower left) and lady’s bedstraw (right)

The third photo shows colours from woodruff roots (Galium odoratum)



11 replies
  1. arlee
    arlee says:

    I bought verum, and we have mollugo growing wild in our yard–the roots are so fine though that i think it will take years to get enough to play with!

  2. Jennifer B
    Jennifer B says:

    Have you ever used bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)?  I would like to know if it is colour- and light-fast.

    • says:

      I’m afraid I have no experience of dyeing with bloodroot. Perhaps someone else may have a comment to offer.

  3. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    Boy, was I glad to read this – so interesting!.  My neighbor thinned her madder this spring and I came home with lots of roots and also planted some.  I had planned to dye some of my Shetland yarns next month – still spinning – but had thought to try rhubarb as a mordant since I don't like the pies.  I hope you'll talk about rhubarb as a mordant in a future post.

    • says:

      Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid and are used as an alternative mordant. The recipe is in my books but all you need to do is simmer up the leaves, strain off the liquid & then simmer the fibres in the solution. Use about 50% leaves to weight of fibres.

  4. Linda
    Linda says:

    Plucking up the courage to give this a try (never dyed before).  I harvested some madder from my brother-in-law's garden (he lives in New Jersey in the US with great sandy soil that the madder seems to like).  Am I correct in thinking that I need to let it dry out for a few weeks before using it?
    Sorry to be so thick-headed.  Thanks for any suggestions!

    • says:

      To answer Linda’s question: You can either dry the madder & store it for use later or use it fresh – either is fine. Remember to wash the roots well before using them & this will also get rid of some of the less desirable brown pigments. Before making the dyebath, I usually pour boiling water over the chopped roots, leave them to steep for about a minute, then pour off the liquid & either save it for another dyebath or discard it. This helps to get rid of pigments that might dull the red. Further details are in my books.

  5. jessica
    jessica says:

    Thank you, Jenny for the wonderful blog posts!    I'm making a note of the Rhubarb, we have those plants in our yard and I'm often just digging them up to share with the neighbors.
    Sending Best Wishes!

  6. Linda
    Linda says:

    Wow, Jenny, thank you for the great tips!  When visiting my sister, I not only collected the madder from her husband's garden, I left them with a wish list for my upcoming birthday.  Colours from Nature is on the list (and I'm sure I'll be unwrapping it in a few short weeks)!  I'm so excited; I can barely contain myself.  Thanks, again, Jenny.  🙂

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