Digging for Madder

Madder Harvest

Few things are as satisfying to me as digging root crops from the earth. New potatoes in summer, carrots, beets, turnips, echinacea in fall, and madder roots on a blustery winter day like today. It gets me every time--how magical it is to set out with a basket and a digging fork and unearth vibrant and useful treasures from within the folds of the gritty ground! Of course, it helps to have a day or two of sun and higher temperatures to break the frosty mornings we have been having 😉



Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is a precious and ancient dye plant. Its roots have been used for centuries around the world to produce light-fast reds on natural fibers... these roots gave birth to the Turkish Red of antique rugs, the notorious red of the English Redcoats, and were even found to have dyed clothing uncovered in Tutankhaman's tomb. Until the 1860's, Madder roots were the sole source of Alizarin Crimson pigment (used extensively in oil painting)... and the dry roots remain a key ingredient in the traditional Japanese indigo fermentation vat.

For dyeing, roots are harvested in the fall or winter, once they are 2-4 years old and the plant has gone dormant for the season. (If you are getting ready to plant madder in your garden this year, stay tuned this spring for the upcoming post, Planting Madder: Strategies for a Continuous Harvest).

The roots can be somewhat brittle, and break easily, so harvesting needs to be done with care. If you live in an area where the ground freezes solid in the winter, you will want to harvest either in fall before the snow, or (preferably) in early spring once the soil warms and before your plants break dormancy.

Once collected, excess dirt should be shaken loose, and the roots thoroughly washed. They can then be used fresh in the dye pot, or dried and stored for later. In either case, roots should be soaked in cold water overnight before you use them.


Washed Madder Roots


It is important to note that the dye potential of your madder roots will depend on many different factors... age, growing conditions, soil nutrients and pH, minerals present in your dye water, and dye vat temperature all have important roles to play in the dance towards beautifully dyed fibers. If you are striving for the reddest of reds, certain steps can be taken to encourage success.



Top: purpurin removed from roots via cold water extraction. Bottom: alizarin red emerging after an hour in the dye vat.

First and foremost, it is important for natural dyers to know that:


Madder roots contain two major dye compounds: yellow/orange (purpurin) and red (alizarin). If both pigments are allowed to be released in the dye vat, orange is the most likely outcome.

Fortunately, the yellow dye compound can usually be drawn from the roots via cold water extraction, while alizarin's full potential emerges over several hours in hot water.

To isolate and remove the yellow dye from the roots, first soak them overnight in cold water, and then drain. Chop the roots coarsely, and put them in a blender, filling the blender half full with fresh cold water. As you blend the roots, you should see the water turning a frothy yellow/orange. Once the roots are thoroughly chopped, strain them through a fine mesh strainer (reserving the orange liquid if you wish to use it in a separate dye bath).

If you are using fresh roots, continue to rinse them in the strainer until the rinse water runs mostly clear. If your roots were dry to begin with, place them in a bowl or pot of warm water (not hot) and allow them to sit until the water turns deep yellow/orange, drain, and rinse with cold water until the water runs almost clear.




Tip 2: Do Not Boil

The second most common reason for unsuccessful madder vats is temperature control. Once you have rinsed them, slowly heat your chopped roots in fresh water, allowing the bath to come to a gentle steam (between 150-165F/65-75C).

DO NOT BOIL. Even a simmering dye bath can quickly turn your precious reds to browns and oranges, as the high heat denatures the alizarin in the bath. It can be helpful to use a double boiler method to moderate temperature, placing the roots in a large glass jar and filling it with water, then placing this inside a larger pot of water. Once the dye bath reaches 150-160F, maintain this temperature on low heat for 2 hours or more.

If you are dyeing fiber/yarn/roving, the root bits should then be strained from the bath before adding your fiber (otherwise you will be picking them from the matted mess for days!). They can be placed in a jelly bag or tied in cotton gauze and added back to the pot with your fiber, to eek any remaining color from them as you continue the dye process.


A few other suggestions:

Fiber to be dyed should be washed and pre-mordanted -- I use 10% alum, while others prefer tin.

For reds: use a 2:1 or greater dyestuff-to-fiber ratio, and keep on low heat for another 2 hours. If you like, turn the heat off after an hour and a half, cover, and leave overnight before removing and rinsing your fiber.

Play with afterbaths--Madder responds to pH modifiers, so dipping dyed fabrics in acid and alkaline afterbaths once you pull them from the dye pot will increase the range of colors achieved. If you find your dyed fiber is too orange for your liking, a gentle alkaline afterbath may do the trick, shifting the color towards the rosy end of the spectrum.

Exhaust the bath--depending on the quality of your dyestuff, you may be able to get a second round of reds or corals by placing more fiber in the vat and giving it a second go.


Happy harvesting!


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6 Responses

  1. jill
    | Reply

    oh Kori this is wonderful information. I have used cochineal for reds but madder has always been not as reliable. Your excellent directions i will print and save. although i probably will not grow madder (i may get some for Earth hues) you procedure recipe is is excellent ! thank you

  2. Bonnie Klatt
    | Reply

    Thank you, Kori! This is so helpful.

  3. Lynn
    | Reply

    Thank you for the pics and information about separating.
    I have some bags of roots had harvested before moving years ago and when tried to use them later were so hard and soaking didnt seem to help(turned to hard rubber). Any ideas to make more usable?
    Recall a book on natural dyes from Australia that said when they added alum to the dye pot, the yellow pigment attaches to the alum and drifts to the bottom of container. Just refound 1 old dye book (Your yarn dying Elsie Davenport – “medium roots best color, woody roots are said to make the colour too yellow”) .
    We have some pear bark to dye with and wondered about what to try (soak or ferment or….
    The twigs stain the sidewalk pink-red to red-purple in the rain (will check pH) and sidewalk is alkaline.
    Am craving a clear or sunny yellow so will try for that now.
    Thanks for ideas!!

  4. Lynn
    | Reply

    Wondered if you notice a difference in color depending on size(thickness) of roots used for dying?
    Did you make the dyebath more alkaline or hard as recall a recipe using chalk?
    Thank you
    Such nice color

    • ecotone.threads@gmail.com
      | Reply

      Hi Lynn,
      If you are using tap water that is mildly acidic, adding a pinch of chalk to the bath will shift the pH, increasing your chances of obtaining rosy reds (rather than orange or brick red). Since madder reds develop over a long period in the bath, and the water I use is pH neutral, I tend not to do this when dyeing wool (which can be damaged by hot, alkaline solution). Instead, I will do a quick dip in an alkaline afterbath if I am not satisfied with the colors obtained in the vat. Cotton and other plant fibers tend to fare well in an alkaline solution, so they could be treated differently.

      I have heard somewhere of using alum to separate out the purpurin pigment from solution, however I haven’t tried this as I am a bit skeptical (seeing as how alum is also the primary mordant used to bind alizarin to fiber). I will put it on my list of potential future experiments though, and let you know if I everfind differently 🙂

      The size of the roots does seem to make a difference, though I will in no way claim to be an expert or the definitive opinion here! Instead, I can share my observations thus far. If you cut open a small root (1/4 in diameter) you will find it is primarily crispy red or dark orange flesh with a small, yellow core. As the roots grow larger, the core also grows, and becomes woodier. If you cut a woody old root (diameter of say, a large carrot) in half, you will find it is now mostly yellow core within, with a layer of red flesh around the outside. To me this indicates that the alizarin is held primarily in the outer flesh of the roots, rather than the woody core. However, if you chop up the yellow core and allow it to oxidize, it also turns red. Whether or not this indicates the presence of alizarin, I do not yet know–it could also be a chemical reaction caused by purpurin or one of the many other minor dye pigments held in the roots, and not actually translate into a color achievable in the dye vat. I hold this as a possibility because liquid purpurin pigment extracted from the vat and left to sit uncovered for several days will also turn red. One way to know more would be to experiment with older roots by separating the red outer flesh from the inner core, and doing three vats–one with the outer flesh, one with the inner core, and one with the inner core after it has been oxidized (also on my to-do list).

      In any case, I tend to use roots that are between 2 and 4 years old, grown in slightly alkaline soil. These are generally between 1/4 and 1/2″ in diameter, and are mostly crispy and red, with a small yellow core. They produce beautiful results.

      Finally, as to your dry old madder roots–I can’t give you much advice! Once dry they become incredibly hard and tough, as you have found, so the common practice is to chop them up into 1/2-1″ pieces BEFORE drying. It would still be worth trying a bath with them, even if you can’t blend them up! You could soak them for several days to a week, and see if that helped at all, if not put them in the pot whole and see what happens 🙂

      Hope that covers everything,

  5. Sylvia Linsteadt
    | Reply

    Thank you so much for this extremely helpful post, Kori! I wonder, do you have any advice about how to get the best color on linen? I have a vintage nightdress I am considering dyeing with some of my extra madder root. Warmly, Sylvia

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