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Aug 13

Natural Dyes: Madder

For the last of the summer series of natural dyes focused on red, let’s journey on to madder, one of the world’s most ancient dyes.

Madder-dyed, shibori spider design (kumo) on rayon by Judy Newland.

Madder-dyed, shibori spider design (kumo) on rayon by Judy Newland.

Science in the Dyepot
Madder contains one of the most complex groups of substances of any dye plant–more than twenty compounds are contained in the plant. Alizarin, the organic dye found in the madder plant, creates the crimson red we associate with madder. However, there are yellow and purple colorants in the chemical mix, which is why madder produces such a wide variety of naturally-dyed colors. Madder plants belong to the Rubiaceae family and grow all over the world. Dyer’s Madder, the main source of true red, is Rubia tinctorum, the most studied variety. This sprawling perennial has narrow pointed leaves and prickly stems. Plants need to grow three to five years to reach vigorous color potential, so plant with patience!

Explore History
Madder is one of our most ancient dyes–the universal red. Cotton textiles from the Indus civilization date to around 3000 B.C. A madder-dyed belt was found in Tutankhamun’s grave and archeologists have unearthed madder-dyed fabrics in ancient China. The Andean cultures of Paracus and Nasca used the domestic madder plant Relbunium long before cochineal. Throughout history, madder has most often been used on wool and cotton, as silk was considered so precious it could only be dyed with cochineal.

Cultural Cloth

Book cover for The Root of Wild Madder by Brian Murphy.

Book cover for The Root of Wild Madder by Brian Murphy.

The Root of Wild Madder by Brian Murphy is about the history, mystery and lore of the Persian carpet. Murphy journeys through Afghanistan and Iran in search of stories, carpets, and wild madder. Along the way, he discovered a dye deeply embedded in a culture that considers a carpet to be poetry with a voice and a story.

When Murphy finally discovers wild madder, he wades into the field of plants with tiny barbs and spines prickling his legs. He visits the ancient grinding stone covered with red dust and comes away with the red of history on his hands. He meets a man who believes his grandmother’s spirit is part of the family carpet because it came from her hands and her mind. Do you think what we make, what we say, what we do can be contained in the textiles we love? Life is in our cultural cloth.

Madder in Current Use
Alizarin, the dye from the madder plant, along with other madder-based colors, gives the rich maroon red to the elaborate cloth still being produced by the tenth-generation of Ajrakh block printers, the Khatri family in the Gujurat region of India. The preparation of block printing and natural dyeing the Ajrakh is a demanding technical art requiring perfection. Madder, in combination with other natural dyes of indigo, pomegranate, tumeric, and resists are used in the dyeing of the cloth.

Dye Technique
Madder is a dye plant one could spend a lifetime exploring. If you are harvesting roots, do not forget to wear long sleeves and gloves to protect yourself from the tiny barbs and spines. Otherwise, use powder or extract to get started. (Visit the new addition to ClothRoads’s website under Resources. The section Natural Dyes contains suppliers for natural dyes, classes, workshops, information, and blogs.)

To create a true red you will need to carefully tend your dye bath. If it gets too hot you will end up with brown tones as the heat releases other colorants at higher temperatures. Prepare wool with alum mordant and cellulose fibers with tannin and aluminum acetate for best results. Heat the dye bath to 140 degrees and hold for an hour before adding fibers. Continue to cook for another one to two hours. You can reuse your dye bath several times to obtain lighter shades. Madder loves hard water and you can add a Tum’s tablet to your dye bath if your water is soft.

Fun Facts
A note about Turkey Red. This strong fadeless dye was developed in India to dye cotton a brilliant red. Twenty or so separate processes were required using blood, oil and rancid fat, charcoal, cow, sheep and dog dung and the liquid contents of animals’ stomachs. This fascinating process, in a more simplified version, can still be used on cotton today. Give it a try. Jim Liles’s book, The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing, contains recipes and hints for Turkey Red dye and making your own oil. This is not a project for the faint of heart!

Next month we leave our summer of perfect reds and fall into the magic of indigo!
Get your dye on and share this on.

Our guest blogger, Judy Newland, continues her monthly natural dyes series. Judy has worked in textiles for more than thirty years as a maker and later as a textile historian. With a background in textile history and museum anthropology, she brings a deep cultural engagement to everything she produces. Judy has just joined the ClothRoads team working with us part-time and sharing more on the cloth road. Learn more about Judy at clothconspiracy.com.

Cannon, John and Margaret, Dye Plants and Dyeing, 2003, Timber Press, Portland, OR.
Cardon, Dominique, Natural Dyeing, 2007, Archetype Publications, London.
Liles, JN, The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing, 1990, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN.
Murphy, Brian, The Root of Wild Madder, 2005, Simon & Schuster, New York.
Sandberg, Gösta, The Red Dyes: Cochineal, Madder and Murex Purple, 1994, Lark Books, Asheville, NC.

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