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.
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.
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.
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