Shades of Madder

Late last week, for my first foray into the world of plant dyes for fiber, I chose one of the traditional classics: madder root.  Madder is seldom used today (except by fiber artists), but throughout much of the middle ages (up until the introduction of colchineal in the 15th century), it was Europe’s main source of red dye.  Ironically, the color produced by madder is hardly ever a true red, but primarily (depending on the mordants used) a range of shades from orange-red to peach.  Nevertheless, as with all of the old classic plant dyes, I love the rich history bound up with madder. I didn’t get a chance to do much gardening this year, but next year I will be starting my dye plant garden in earnest, and will be trying to find starts for several of the old classics–this one included–as well as several newer alternatives I plan to use.  (More about those in future posts.)

I got some madder root and alum mordant at a textile shop here in Eugene, soaked the madder root for several days, and then ground it very coarsely in my mortar and pestle.  (For future endeavors, I will be using an old blender; the mortar and pestle is great for small amounts of herbs, but for four ounces of hard roots, not so much!)

I decided to use the all-in-one method of dyeing, in which you include the mordant in the dyepot instead of pre-mordanting the yarn separately.  (Today I’m dyeing with elderberries and have pre-mordanted my fibers instead; we’ll see which method wo rks best!)  Here’s my second batch of yarn in the madder dyepot (I forgot to take pictures of the first batch):

This batch yielded a creamy peach/apricot color (photos of the finished yarn to come), in contrast to the bright rusty oranges my first batch produced.  Here’s that first, brighter batch in the rinse water: 

Then, because the major resource book I’m using, The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr, recommended putting three batches of fiber into a madder pot, I put in a gorgeous cream colored linen skirt that I hadn’t been wearing due to a stain.

Although plant fibers don’t take dye as readily as animal fibers do, the skirt came out a lovely blush-apricot shade that I’m very pleased with; it’s like having a whole new skirt!

Today, as mentioned above, I’ve been dyeing a few skeins with elderberries, as well as trying my hand at spinning a marled merino yarn and drawing up some initial plans for my new fiber-centric Etsy store.  Next week, my wheel will be getting a small upgrade; I’ve ordered a new, modern Traditional flyer for her so that she’ll have three whorl sizes instead of just one!  She already does a pretty good job of spinning a nice range of yarn, and I can’t wait to see the difference the new whorls will make!


4 thoughts on “Shades of Madder”

  1. Nice variety of shades there from the madder root! I’m interested in seeing the results from your elderberry dye. I used golden rod one time on some white alpaca that yielded a very nice pale, warm yellow without a mordant. The colour has stayed true too. I want to experiment with natural dyes more myself.

    1. Thanks! I’ll post some pics of the elderberry yarn in the next day or two. When I go to the textile store to get my new flyer (squee!) this Saturday I plan to get some more alum and some iron; I’m looking forward to seeing how the iron modifies some of my color results. (I’ll probably try a few without mordants, too!)

  2. Madder is one of my favorite colors, I think. It always puts me in mind of the old masters of Renaissance art. Fine job on the skirt, and the yarns!

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