Dyer’s Red


Recently, a new dyer asked a veteran of our group what color we’d get from yarrow. Her reply: “If we’re very lucky, yellow.” Smiles all around. It was joke, of course, as practically everything we grow yields yellow — a rich variety of delicious yellows for sure, but yellow just the same. The indigo we’re growing (Polygonum tinctorium) intrigues us to no end with its comparatively intricate color extraction methods, the array of blues it can provide depending on oh so many factors, and the fact that you can combine it with all those yellows to make green. The red in our garden is Rubia tinctorum, or madder. Color resides in the roots, which take two to three years to mature.  We’ve been patiently watching and waiting, tending and watering for two years and the time has come!  Welcome red!

Dominique Cardon calls madder “the queen of the reds … quite simply because it could be cultivated, meaning that there was always a supply of product that was much cheaper than the luxury reds obtained at huge expense by collecting millions of scale insects … in wild, remote places. But dyer’s madder also owed its success to the astonishing variety of colors that could be obtained from it — either alone or in combination with other dyestuffs.”

madder print
Pages from L. Fuchs flora, printed in Basel in 1545, showing wild and cultivated madder. Reprinted in G. Sandberg, p.73. See references.

The wide geographical distribution of the Rubiaceae family of plants has made this source of red dye accessible to humans across time and space. It enters the literary/archaeological record around 1900 BCE via Akkadian texts from Mesopotamia and shows up on a belt in Tutankhamun’s tomb (c.1350 BCE). Use of an alum mordant with madder is recorded on a 7th century BCE Neo-Babylonian tablet, as well as the 3rd

Our two-year-olds.

century BCE Chinese text, Erya, likely indicative of a much older, established, madder-dyeing tradition. In South America, madder-dyed textiles are associated with the Paracas Culture of Peru (800-100 BCE). The botany and chemistry of madder, as well as its role in human history (cultivation, harvesting, processing, dyeing, trade, intrigue, etc.) makes for fascinating reading and we’ve included a few sources for further exploration in the bibliography.  One more point to conclude: Alizarin, one of the dyestuffs found in madder root, was the first natural pigment to be synthesized in 1868. No wonder madder and the other natural reds were such prized and pivotal factors in human interaction.

The madder harvest.

The harvest from our first madder bed was certainly prized and pivotal, and processing and dyeing with it has proved a unique learning opportunity. Given the lengthy maturation time and our limited cultivation area, it is a very finite crop. We ended up with about 450g in total, which was divided in half for two dyeing opportunities. Having prior experience, two of our members took charge of processing the roots, first washing them, stripping the bark off, and then separating them into yellow and red piles on the assumption that they could produce different hues. The reds went straight into a frighteningly powerful blender for pluverization.

The yellow roots were chopped and set to soak with a chalk additive (1-2% per weight of dyestuff), on the understanding that madder likes hard water and, with it, can produce a stronger red. Among other factors, the calcium content of the soil in which madder grows influences both dye yield and depth of color. The Grand Soak-O-The-Yellow will last two weeks to a month, depending on how long our valiant dyer can bear the smell. The pulverized red roots went home with another dyer for a week-long soak, followed by one-hour of cooking at a temperature not to exceed 175 F; over this, the dyestuff turns brown and ineffective.

This is as good a place as any to say that, as is typical with natural dyes, there are many routes to success and, of course, failure. In the days following our harvest, we read or recalled aspects of madder harvesting, processing, and dyeing that we did not do. Next time.

First use of dye bath. Madder-dyed wool, wet.

Our next dye date coincided with the first Free Day at Chatfield Farms and dye garden volunteers were out in force to provide tours, demonstrate dyeing, and talk with visitors about what we’re up to. In addition to our stalwart African marigold, yarrow, and indigo (extract) pots, we had madder on the stove and enjoyed sharing our new experience with the public. The chopped, cooked, chalked red roots went into a pot with water high enough to cover our fiber and reader, if you wonder whether we mixed, we did. Silk, wool, cotton … fabric, skein — in they went and, remarkably, came out with good color. Following experience and reference sources, we kept the temperature below 160 F. Gösta Sandberg explains, “The roots of the cultivated madder make up to four percent of the plant’s total weight … primarily alizarin, purpurin and pseudo purpurin. The latter is converted to purpurin by the heat produced during the dyeing process. However, the pseudo purpurin is of great importance because it has the most brilliant of the madder dyestuffs, and the instructions often repeated in the literature – that madder must be dyed at a low temperature (below 70 C) – probably has something to do with that,” (Sandberg p. 78, see references).

Second use of dye bath. Madder-dyed cotton, dry.

Easily ten items went into the pot that first day, and we reused the bath the following week. The results were good both times. Some dyers opted to rinse their fiber right out of the pot, others let it dry before rinsing. It will become part of knitting, weaving, and sewing projects, with varying forms and functions. We look forward to some interesting reports back on how this remarkable color holds up. And what about those yellow roots? We shall see.

Below you’ll find a list of titles for further reading about madder. There are many, many sources and perhaps your favorite is missing. If so, please leave a comment with the citation. We’d also like to hear about your experience with madder. Have you grown it? If so, where do you live? Any particular way you harvest or process it for dyeing? With regard to dyeing, have you tried mordants besides alum? How many times have you been able to reuse a bath? Let’s hear it!

Suggestions for Further Reading

Adrosko, Rita J. Natural Dyes and Home Dyeing. New York: Dover, 1971.
Pp 20-25 give a tidy historical overview, with attention on madder use in American history; recipes on pp. 95-96.

Böhmer, Harald. Koekboya: Natural Dyes and Textiles, a Colour Journey from Turkey to India and Beyond. Ganderkesee, Germany: Remhöb, 2002.
Fascinating book that addresses just about every aspect of madder (and other dyes) in Turkish textiles. Kökboya is the Turkish word for madder.

Buchanan, Rita. A Dyer’s Garden: From Plant to Pot, Growing Dyes for Natural Fibers. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 1995.
See pp. 52-53 for background and recipe.

Cardon, Dominique. Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science.
Chapter 4, pp. 107-166 detail the Rubiaceae family, highlighting specific species with sections on botany, history of use, and techniques.

Dean, Jenny. A Heritage of Colour: Natural Dyes Past and Present. Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Search Press, 2014.
Informative presentation on madder history, cultivation, processing and dyeing on pp. 116-123.

—–  Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1999.
Pp. 124-125 ably cover cultivation and harvest and dyeing.

Liles, J.N. The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing: Traditional Recipes for Modern Use. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
Chapter 5 looks at the red dyes, with madder and Turkey Red history and recipes on pp.102-127.

Sandberg, Gösta. The Red Dyes: Cochineal, Madder, and Murex Purple, a World Tour of Textile Techniques.  Asheville, NC: Lark Books, 1994.
Pp. 73-174 focus on madder, it’s botany, geographical distribution, history, techniques, and ethnography. Pages 178-181 present a technique for dyeing with madder.

Van Stralen, Trudi. Indigo, Madder & Marigold: a Portfolio of Colors from Natural Dyes. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 1993.






Author: Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden

The Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden is a joint project of the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Rocky Mountain Weavers Guild, established by a donation from the family of Janice Ford. Janice was an enthusiastic and energetic dyer, weaver, and seamstress who passed away too young in 2011. The garden has been flourishing since 2014, enriching and coloring the lives of visitors, artists in many media, and especially those whose privilege it is to tend it. The garden is located at Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield Farms. http://www.botanicgardens.org/chatfield-farms/janice-ford-memorial-dye-garden From June to September, we are there most Thursdays, 9-12, to weed, harvest and dye. Visitors are welcome to stop by to see what we're up to!. Admission is free to Denver Botanic Garden members, with a $5.00 fee/car for non-members.

2 thoughts on “Dyer’s Red”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s