Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Madder (Rubia tinctorum) 2013

Madder, often referred to as Dyer's Madder, is believed to be a native European plant, however ancient cloth dyed with madder has been found in other areas of the world as well, including cloth on Egyptian mummies.  The madder plant has lance-shaped leaves and small yellow flowers that grow in clusters, but it is the roots that are used for dyeing.  Cultivated for its red dye, madder roots can produce shades of color from pink to purple, as well as red, by using different mordants.  It was used to color wool, cotton, silk, and leather. 

Typically the plants are allowed to grow for three years before harvesting roots, and even then the roots are quite delicate in size.  Because madder is very invasive, some growers prefer to use container growing so that it doesn't take over the garden.  My first madder seeds came from a seed swap with another natural dyer.  From my seven seeds, three plants germinated.  These I planted in a plastic tub which I placed in a sunny spot of the yard where they grew ferociously.

Madder at the end of year one.

The second year I transferred these plants to an old claw-foot tub, appropriately painted "madder red," which sits on the edge of my garden. 
Madder at the end of year three.

After three years of growing, I harvested my first small batch of roots for dyeing.  Some of the roots were almost hair-like, while the largest were smaller in diameter than a pencil.  I left the roots to soak in a pail of water for two days to help soften them.
First harvest of madder roots at end of year 3

Instructions for dyeing with madder roots suggest grinding the roots, but they were so tough, my food processor dedicated to dye stuffs, just couldn't cut through them, so I resorted to using a pair of shop shears to cut the roots into about 1/2-1 inch lengths.  I had approximately  2 1/2 cups worth of chopped roots to dye with.
Chopped madder roots

In order to obtain the red shades madder is capable of yielding, I read to pour boiling hot water over the roots, pouring that liquid off and saving it for a separate dye bath that will yield the more yellow tones.  Do this twice.  Then I poured fresh cold tap water over the roots and filled the pot 2/3 full of water.  Leaving the roots in the pot, I added 5 mini-skeins of DK weight wool yarn (10 yds. each) pre-mordanted with alum, copper, iron, and rhubarb.  One skein had no mordant.  The yarn and roots would be heated simultaneously.

I was careful not to boil this dye bath.  Too much heat, or even a full simmer, will turn the color brown.  To keep the red tones, the temperature should be brought up very slowly to the point of steaming, NOT a boil.  I didn't want to see any bubbles.   And soon the beautiful brick red tones began to appear!

Alum mordant yields more reddish tones.
Rhubarb mordant on left, iron mordant on right.

After maintaining the simmering heat for about 50 minutes, I turned the heat off, scooched the yarn all to one side and added 1 TBS. of ammonia to the bath.  I had read that making the bath a little alkaline will help to bring out the reds.  Then I left the yarn to sit in the dye pot for over a day before taking it out to rinse and dry.

Here were my final results:
Madder sample mordant card.
Clockwise: no mordant, rhubarb, copper, iron, alum in center.