Madder

Madder, ‘Rubia tinctorium’, is also known as common madder, dyer’s madder, or rose madder.  Madder has been an enormously important natural dye plant, and its importance cannot be overstated.  Madder dye is very lightfast and wash fast.

Plant in sun, in a location where it can be contained, and the roots will not become invasive.  Some people grow it in containers to make sure the roots don’t end up where they are not wanted. 

Madder is in the family of the weedy, sticky willy plants, that have leaves and stems that act like Velcro and want to stick to your clothes.  Like the other plants in this family of plants, Madder can be invasive as well, and the roots spread underground, while the plant on top of the ground spreads out, grabbing onto things and dies back over the winter.                    

The roots are the dye source and 3 year roots or older are best, because you want the roots to have grown large enough to be worth harvesting for use.  The roots should be dried before use, which further develops the dye.  Crush and break the roots up as thoroughly as possible and soak in water and heat to make a dye bath.  Dyeing with fresh roots will produce an inferior color compared to dyeing with dried roots.

Madder be used as a lightfast dye without the need for an aluminum mordant.  Jenny Dean mentions that you can use Madder and a tannin with good lightfast results, in her book, Colours from Nature. 

Madder is sensitive to over-heating in the dye pot.  Overheating, and simmering or boiling Madder root will result in browner tones.  So, if you want browner tones, no problem! But if you were hoping for reds or oranges, then avoid simmering or boiling. 

Madder will produce the best reds with an alum mordant and more purplish subtle hues by using an iron mordant in hard water that contains calcium.  Madder prefers hard water, so calcium carbonate, often referred to as ‘chalk’ by natural dyers, is the principle mineral to create hard water.  So add some chalk if you have soft water to deepen the shade.

Exhausted madder dye baths can be used as a reduction source for indigo vats.  The roots no longer contain dye but they still contain reducing sugars for reducing indigo vats.

If you are ever unhappy with seed or any other product you receive from me, please let me know.  Especially with seed, I feel that if the seed should not produce well, the waste of the growing season is the biggest shame and a refund unfortunately cannot make up for that loss of time.