Sea Green and Sapphire

A blog about a love of colour, addiction to fabrics and joy of crafting…

Madder, in Many Ways


Madder dyeing results

Dyeing with plants really appeals to my inner scientist. It is endlessly fascinating to me how you can take one type of plant and get an infinite variety of shades from it. Even if you ignore the fact that soil, growing conditions and the time of year affect the colour you get from a particular plant, there are still many factors that affect the final shade of the fiber. Firstly, there are different ways you can extract dye from the plant. Then there are the many ways you can mordant the fiber before dyeing. Dyeing temperature and time also affect the colour you are going to get. Some yarns need no heat at all, others need a good simmering. And this is all before you get into the business of modifying the dyed colour with things like iron and copper or by varying the pH with acids and alkalis.

In an ideal world, my inner scientist would like to have a dyeing process that covers all these factors and all the different permutations. Needless to say, I don’t have the resources to do all that and so my inner scientist has to be kept under a tight control.  However, in the last couple of weeks I have had a good go at experimenting with madder and as all the pictures in this post show, I have managed to get many many lovely shades of red from it, ranging from orangey tomato colour to dark reddish browns.  Madder is such a strong dye that you can use one dye bath several times, the colours getting gradually lighter as the dye gets more and more exhausted. In the end you will still be getting a seemingly endless supply gentle peach hues.

Fiber dyed with madder

Alum-mordanted fiber from multiple dye baths - strongest were dyed first, and the rest came from subsequent dye baths

In my experiments I used three different recipes, each with 100g of dried madder root (Rubia tinctorum)  pieces and slightly different variations of mordants. The inspiration for these experiments came from a Medieval Dyeing workshop ran by Deb the Mulberry Dyer for the Online Guild of Spinners, Dyers and Weavers which occupied a lot of my crafting time in March. In addition to the medieval recipe given in the workshop, I tried two other methods I had found in my dyeing books.

After dyeing, I experimented with different modifiers: iron, copper, citric acid and washing soda as my alkali.

Those of you who are into dyeing, you can read the details below. The rest you, just enjoy the pictures showing the many shades of red from madder!

Method 1:

I  poured boiling water from a kettle over 100g of madder root pieces and left to soak overnight. The next day, I gently simmered it for approximately an hour.

Previously I had mordanted some yarn with 8% alum and 7% Cream of Tartar (CoT) and some with 10% alum only (no CoT as Deb recommended mordanting madder without Cream of Tartar, apparantly you would get better red that way).

I then heated these two types of yarn very gently to 70-80 degrees (C), and kept the yarn at that temperature for an hour or so.

Finally I modified some of my yarn with iron (I didn’t really measure this, I just added some iron water until I saw the colour of the dye change enough).

As this was my first experiment, I wasn’t being very systematic and so I didn’t have enough yarn to try all the possible combinations of factors. But I did notice that both of the mordanting methods came pretty similar orangey reds. Iron gave me a rich reddish brown.

Dyeing with madder: Results from recipe 1

Methods 1 and 2 (from left): alum, alum+iron, alum+iron with rinsed madder, alum+CoT with rinsed madder, alum only with rinsed madder

Madder: mordanting with alum and alum+Cot

Top yarn mordanted with alum and CoT, bottom with alum only - not much difference!

Method 2:

At this point I happened to read in one of my dyeing books (Wild Colour by Jenny Dean ) that you will get better red if you rinse your madder pieces before cooking your dye bath. Apparently this would remove yellow and brown pigments and you’d be left with red pigments only.  So I poured boiling water over the madder, left to soaked for two minutes and repeated this once more before simmering the madder as before. I noticed the rinsing water had lots of dye in it, so I kept it and used it for dyeing yarn later.

I must say I did not get stronger reds using this method, in fact I got the opposite. All I managed to do was to dilute the dye and therefore get weaker shades. I won’t bother with the rinsing process in the future.

Madder results: the effect of rinsing

The effect of rinsing madder before simmering the roots: (from left) alum method 1, alum+iron method 1, alum with rinsed madder, alum+iron with rinsed madder

Method 3:

This was the medieval method I learned in the workshop. I first mordanted my yarn with 25% of alum (no CoT). I added 25% WOF of madder  into a pot, added my yarn and heated it up to a boiling point. I boiled the yarn for an hour or so (actually in practise it was longer than that as I got caught up with lunch in the middle). Many books tell you not to simmer, let alone boil, your madder dye, so it was interesting to see what happens if you ignore this advice.

By this time I was getting much more organised so I had plenty of skeins to play with so I decided to mordant some of them with copper sulphate and citric acid. I was also able to do a full set of modifications for each type of mordant. I used iron, copper, citric acid and washing soda.

This gave me 7 shades from alum (alum only, alum+acid, alum+alkali, alum+iron, alum+iron+acid, alum+iron+alkali, alum+copper).

Madder dyed according to a medieval recipe

Madder results from a medieval recipe. All mordanted with 25% alum. From left: alum only, alum+acid, alum+alkali, alum+iron, alum+iron+acid, alum+iron+alkali, alum+copper

and 6 shades for copper (copper only, copper+acid, copper+alkali, copper+iron, copper+iron+acid, copper+iron+alkali).

Copper mordanted yarn dyed with madder according to a medieval recipe

Medieval recipe but mordanted with copper: (from left) copper only, copper+acid, copper+alkali, copper+iron, copper+alkali, copper+copper

I really liked this recipe as it gave me a fantastically rich shades of red with alum and lovely terracotta brown shades from copper. Acid modification made the colour more orange, whereas to get a really good red you will need an alkaline modification (or hard water).

After trying out all these recipes, I have been dyeing fiber with the various exhaust baths and I still have some yarn in pickling jars being solar dyed and other fiber just left in left-over dye buckets, being cold dyed until further notice.

So, there you go, more than 20 lovely shades (so far…) from one plant!


Author: Heidi

I love colour wherever I find it, in art, photography, gardens, nature. I also love all kinds of fiber arts; spinning, dyeing, knitting, felting, sewing.

10 thoughts on “Madder, in Many Ways

  1. I love this post. Thank you so much for all the information. It is so helpful for a beginner natural dyer like me. the colors are beautiful and I love the gradation. Nice work!

    • Thank you Marjorie, I’m so glad you enjoyed it 🙂

      I’m a novice dyer myself so there’s lots to learn and experiment with, but that’s what makes it so interesting, doesn’t it – and it gives a lot to blog about 🙂


  2. Beautiful, all of them, and what wonderful blog post!

  3. I love it! Got my fist package of natural dyes today, and got a log of madder. Love, love, LOVE those colours! You got a net follower 😀

  4. Have just stumbled upon your lovely blog while researching ‘madder’ …. thank you for this comprehensive post – it’s very helpful indeed!

  5. Heidi,
    Loved the information here. I’m preparing to dye wool yarn with madder to repair an old kazak Caucasian rug from the early 19th century. Your first set of photos shows alum and iron mordant. This color is exactly what I need to achieve. Could you explain how you added the iron water to the dye bath. Was it at the end. Also could you estimate how much iron sulfate to water I should use to achieve this color. I greatly appreciate your blog and any further assistance you could provide. Thank you. Patrick

    • What an interesting colour challenge you have, Patrick! 🙂

      The iron I used in these experiments came from rusty nails soaked in a bucket of water and some vinegar – this is a very imprecise method so I wouldn’t be able to tell how much actual iron there was when I created the colour. I added this iron water into the dye bath right at the end (when the bath had cooled down). I didn’t actually like this method exactly because it was so hard to know how much of iron I was using. With iron it’s easy to go wrong, at first nothing happens and then the yarn just goes black because you added too much iron!

      So after these madder experiments I changed my method. These days, if I need to modify a colour with iron, I won’t use iron water from rusty nails, I would use iron sulfate because then you can measure more easily how much iron you are adding. I’ve also discovered that it’s not necessary to add the iron to the dye bath itself, but you can just add iron to clean water and soak the wool in that. That way you can reuse your dye bath to produce lighter shades without spoiling it with iron.

      Unfortunately I’m not experienced enough as a dyer to be able to tell you an exact amount of iron sulfate you should use. And the amount of time you soak your wool in the iron solution also counts, the longer you keep your wool in the solution, the more it gets modified.

      However, here’s what I would do in your situation: I would dye quite a bit more yarn that you need for your rug, and create lots of small (2-5g) skeins from some of the yarn. I would use the small skeins to do some experiments with iron sulfate to figure out what quantity of iron and soaking time gives you the right shade.

      You can do these mini experiments in small containers like jam jars. Add some water to them and then add a tiny amount of iron (just a few “grains” from the tip of a tea spoon) to the first one and a bit more to the second one and bit more again to a third one. Iron sulfate goes a long way, especially with very small skeins, so be conservative and start with a tiny amount. It’s important to make a note of how much iron you added, ideally by weight or by volume if you don’t have precise scales. Then add one small skein into each jar and keep it there for 5 minutes and see if there is a change. If it’s not right yet, keep it there a bit longer. Normally 10-20 minutes is quite enough to see a change (and longer soaking times may harm the yarn). Once you see a colour that is right, rinse the skein immediately so that you stop it getting any darker.

      Once you have created the right colour in a small skein, you can then try to replicate the process for a larger skein, you just need to adjust the amount of iron proportionally to the larger amount (this is why you need good notes!). I personally would do at least one test run with a larger amount before modifying the actual yarn you want to use for your rug, just to make sure you are confident that your recipe works. With iron it is so easy to over-modify the yarn and end up with a darker shade you want.

      I’m sorry I can give you an exact recipe, but that just the nature of natural dyes. If you need a precise colour, it’s a slow process of experimentation and learning from your results.

      Good luck with your project, please do let me know how your experiments go! I’d love to hear if you manage to create the right colour for your rug.


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