Dyeing with Madder

As I have some home-grown madder waiting to be processed, I thought I’d write a few more words about dyeing with madder. 

IMG_2098Madder in my dye garden







After the madder roots have been dug up (and remember to dig as deeply as possible so as not to miss the thickest roots), they need to be washed well to get rid of the soil. Although some sources suggest otherwise, the roots can successfully be used freshly-dug and straight from the ground and I have obtained excellent bright reds from fresh roots. They can also be dried for use later.

IMG_2406Madder roots dug up from the garden







I usually soak the roots in a tub of water for an hour or two and then scrub them with a brush to get rid of the dirt. As it’s a good idea to wash out some of the less desirable brown and yellow pigments, it doesn’t matter if some colour leaches out into the washing water. Once the roots are clean, I chop them up as small as possible. (Incidentally, a garden shredder or an old food-processor can be very useful for chopping up madder & other roots.)  If I don’t intend to use them immediately, I then spread the roots out to dry on sheets of newspaper on wire mesh or wooden trays or in shallow cardboard boxes. If I’m lucky and the sun is shining, they dry fairly quickly outside. Otherwise I put them in the airing cupboard. If you have to put the roots on top of one another, it’s a good idea to put a sheet of newspaper between the layers and make sure to turn them over regularly, so they don’t develop mould. Once they are completely dried out, I put them in strong paper sacks and store them in a dry place, either under a bed or in the airing cupboard. It’s important to keep them away from damp and wet, as they can easily become mouldy. It’s not too disastrous if they do develop mould as they still seem to produce a reasonable dyebath, although the colour may be duller.

To obtain a true red from madder it is necessary to use an alum mordant. However, madder can also be successfully applied to unmordanted fibres, especially wool. The colours obtained without a mordant tend to be more orange or brown in tone but using an alkaline modifier (for example washing soda) can often produce some very attractive shades of pink. An aubergine purple can also be obtained from madder by using iron as a mordant and then applying an alkaline modifer.

I’ve done many experiments with madder over the years, usually leaving the roots in the dyebath & either dyeing without heat at all or following the often-repeated instructions to keep the temperature low for reds. However, I discovered a little while ago that madder root can be simmered to extract the colour, just as one does with other dyes, without losing the red. Before I do anything else, I wash the roots in cool to warm water, then strain them through a sieve to get rid of the water. I then put the same roots in a pot & pour boiling water over them (at least enough to cover them well), leave them for a minute or two & then strain off the liquid, which can either be thrown away or used for a separate dyebath. This gets rid of some of the less desirable yellow & brown pigments. If I’m feeling really brave, I may repeat this last process once more, especially if I plan to save the discarded liquid for a separate dyebath, but I’m always afraid I may be removing some of the very desirable red dye, as well as the pigments I don’t want. Then I add more boiling water (or cool if you prefer not to keep boiling up the kettle) to the same madder roots & simmer them for about 30 minutes. I then strain off the dye liquid, let it cool to well below a simmer, add the fibres & leave them to steep for as long as it takes to get the red I want. I may add some heat after a while but I never allow the dyebath to simmer once the fibres have been added. This method seems to result in reds just as good as, and often better than, those from the more common madder-dyeing methods. And the roots can be simmered again for another dyebath.

If you live in a soft water area, your tap water may be too acidic to be able to achieve reds from madder and you will only get oranges and rusts. These shades can be shifted towards red by using an alkaline modifier, such as a washing soda after-bath. Washing soda can also be added to the prepared dyebath but only if you plan to apply the dye without heat. It’s important to remember not to apply heat to any solution containing washing soda, especially if you are dyeing wool, as this may destroy the fibres.

Madder is a truly remarkable dye & it is often difficult to completely exhaust the roots. I now often dry out the roots after the first dyeing process & store them ready to use again later. If you do this, don’t store the dried roots in plastic bags as they readily become mouldy if they get the least bit damp. (Actually, they still seem to be fine to use even if they are mouldy, although the dyebath smells less pleasant.) I dry the roots out in the airing cupboard as described above, then put them in paper sacks & store them in the airing cupboard or under a bed until I need them.

If you grow your own madder, don’t forget that the dried plant tops also give pretty colours. Around late Autumn, the plant tops start to look dry & pale, like straw, & they can be cut off & used for a dyebath. With an alum mordant, they can give pretty pinks & without a mordant they give beige to tan colours.

Note: There are full details for using madder in my new book “Colours from Nature” (Click on “My Books” on the home page for more information)

IMG_0438[1]A range of shades from madder

5 replies
  1. Helen Melvin
    Helen Melvin says:

    Brilliant! Jenny thank you so much for posting this. I am about to dig up four year plants so this blog is very timely! Previously I had dried and kept the roots for a year but this time I will try with fresh roots.

  2. Marian
    Marian says:

    This is perfect! We are starting to design the extention of our veggie garden for next year and I mentioned that I want to grow some madder. I read…your book maybe?? I can’ t remember, that one has to let the plant grow for 3 years before digging it up to use it for dyeing. So in a way, since one is using the roots of the plant which would mean those plants are gone, you plant it…let it grow for a few years… take it out, use it…and plant new ones…right?? Or am I missing something?

    I thought you were on vacations because bloglines wasn’ t updating your feeds and your blog seemed dormant. I came here to look for the link of your blog to pass it to a few people who were wondering about natural dyeing and I see you have been posting… Anyway, hope you are doing ok.

  3. Kathy Jolman
    Kathy Jolman says:

    Hi Jenny,
    I’m back from my natural dye workshop in Window Rock, Arizona with Rose Dedman (Navajo), (http://www.weavinginbeauty.com) if you’d like to take a look at my blog htp://www.miquilter.blogspot.com
    The second post down is the beginning with us in the desert collecting the plants. I have a few more posts to go next week.
    Your post on madder root was very interesting, thank you!

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