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!