Category Archives: learning to use dye plants

This is for posts that explain the process of plant dyeing

Madder Red by Robert Chenciner

Looking into Chenciner’s Madder Red

An article by Ashley Walker
© copyright 2017

Madder Red – A history of luxury and trade (2000) by Robert Chenciner
published by Curzon Caucasus World ISBN 0 7007 1259 3

This book is devoted to all aspects of the history of madder from cultivation, through process, economics and use of dye and pigment. The author has collected together in this one reference work the result of many years research.  It is a mine of information. The book is not a light read and the first time I was able to get hold of a copy I only read the chapter on madder cultivation which I found of particular interest. Since obtaining our own copy I have discovered the book contains many additional snippets of information on cultivation and use which compliment our earlier article (see here). My interest, from the point of view of the small scale grower and crafter, covers those aspects of growing and using madder that could be employed on a domestic scale. In the remainder of this article I attempt to extract information of practical use (see comments in Red).

The Madder Plant

The book contains information collected from multiple sources from all over the world but chiefly from the Caucasus and Russia. The focus is mainly on Rubia tinctorum  but other plant sources of red dye are also noted, particularly Rubia peregrina (Wild Madder) which was used quite often when tinctorum was not available. The roots of peregrina contain purpurin and little or no alizarin. Purpurin was valued for producing superior pink and violet shades.

Plant diversity, propagation and seed fertility

In different places madder appears to be adapted to local conditions and taking seed or plant material to grow in other parts of the world often resulted in failure – though this may have been due to inexperience of the new farmers. The book also confirms my own experience that the seed of madder is difficult to germinate and can easily become infertile due to poor storage.

For the home grower this means using the seed as soon as possible (within a year of harvest).

Farmers invariably preferred to sow seeds direct but only the most experienced could do this with success. New farmers preferred to grow the seeds in nurseries and then transplant into the fields when big enough or take rooted shoots from a field being harvested. Transplanting was harder work (and so more expensive) but ensured a greater chance of success.

Crop rotation, maintenance and soil fertility

Maintenance

Six months after planting, the rows of madder plants were “earthed up” (like potatoes) to encourage the plant to put out side shoots (underground stems) and protect the plant from drought in the summer and hard frosts in the winter. This practice is also reported as improving the quality of dyestuff.

For the home grower this seems a sensible activity if you like to grow madder in rows as it would allow the roots to be more easily dug out.

The main maintenance job is reported as weeding, with the most difficult weed being couch grass. I have to agree with this as couch grass has a very similar habit to madder and also forms a mat of underground roots which are extremely difficult to untangle once they get a grip.

Crop rotation and soil fertility

Most of Chenciner’s references to soil fertility indicate that madder harvests (weight of root and quality of dyestuff) will decrease over several years if grown in the same soil continuously – even if the soil is well fertilised with manure. A figure of approximately 6 to 12 years is mentioned as the maximum length of time that madder could be grown economically in the same field. After this time the land had to be left fallow or rotated for several years (4 to 12) before any further madder crops could be grown. Typical rotational crops were rapeseed, beans, wheat, hemp, turnips, beet, potatoes and cabbage.

Several references are made to observations that madder grew best on virgin ground which is much the same as any other crop, but the failure of manure to restore fertility suggests a depletion of some micro-nutrient not present in manure. The only suggested method of restoring fertility quickly was to add “natron” and common salt. Natron is a mixture of hydrated sodium carbonate salts and other salts found in dried up lakes.

For the home grower it may be possible to substitute common washing soda for natron but I would not recommend doing so without careful experiment first to find out how much to apply. Washing soda is a powerful alkali and sprinkling it on soil could do serious damage.

Adding small quantities of sea salt (35g per m2 about twice a year) may be a better solution but be careful not to overdo it. Rock dust may also do the job.

How long to grow the plant before harvest?

Throughout its history this subject has been the source of much discussion and the author comes to two conclusions:

  1. Older roots (3 to 5 years) produce the best quality dyestuff.
  2. Economically it was best to harvest after 1 to 2 years.

As you can imagine 3+ years is a long time to wait before being paid, particularly if as an “adventurer farmer” you had to pay rent on the land/accommodation and feed a family during this time. Most successful ventures appear to have been run by established land owners who had minimal overheads and additional sources of income. Some farmers did practice a form of partial harvest where a trench was dug beside the row of madder plants. Roots found in the trench were harvested without killing the main plants which continued to grow for a further year or two.

This practice makes home growing of madder considerably less of a wait though the final harvest may be reduced.

Harvest and processing of madder root

Steaming

The first procedure after digging the roots was to steam them, a practice carried out in the field by a team of specialists. All sources are clear that this process increases the amount of dyestuff in the root and after about 4 to 5 hours the roots would turn from yellow orange to a strong red. A hole was dug in the ground and a fire lit. When the surrounding soil had become baking hot, madder roots were piled on top and then the whole heap was covered in damp cloth or similar material to keep the hot air in.

Although we have never tried this I see no reason why it would not be possible to do this at home using standard vegetable steamers. The exact method will need to be worked out by experiment.

Washing

There are very few reports of root washing in the book and when it is mentioned it is not recommended for fear of loss of dyestuff. I would guess that the growers wanted to keep even the poor quality brown dyes found in the thin skins. Any soil clinging to the roots would just add to the weight of the final product, so more profit!

Drying

In the Netherlands and Britain this was done in specially built heated drying houses as the climate here was not hot enough to dry outside. Even in the Caucasus and other hot dry areas most growers preferred to dry in the shade rather than direct sun. This slow drying is reported as another essential process to further increase the amount of dyestuff in the roots. Roots were often stored for one or more years to allow them to mature before being pounded into a fine power or “krap”. The roots had to be brittle dry before pounding otherwise the root would stick into a hard cake.

For the home grower the important features of this drying process is the temperature and the length of time. The recommended temperature was between 20°C and 30+°C so drying in an airing cupboard would probably work well with storage in a warm dry place after the roots have dried out completely.

Fermentation

Fermentation was sometimes done before pounding, sometimes afterwards and involved placing the root material into a vessel with water for a short time (a few days) during which time the sugars in the root were fermented out. Removing the sugar was important as later fermentation in the dye bath interferes with the dyeing process.

From the home dyer’s point of view this is not so important unless you make your madder dye bath a day or two before using it.

Pounding

When the madder industry was in full swing the roots were pounded in large horse-powered or water-powered mills and the resulting powder or krap was sorted into a variety of grades. The main problem besetting the root processors was separating out the “tough” outer skin which contains the brown dyes that would dull the final dyed product from the inner “parenchyma” part of the root which contained most of the dyestuff. Exactly how this was done is not explained but logically krap was probably sieved into coarse and fine fractions and the first powder produced after partial pounding would have presumably contained most of the bark.

For the craft dyer pounding is not really an option. It may be possible to grind the root in coffee bean grinders but only if you are prepared to say goodbye to the grinder. The metal blades in such grinders could be a problem if they become rusty and end up adding iron to the dyestuff which would sadden the colour. Chenciner reports that some pounding mills used wooden hammers with ends strapped in metal (possibly iron) so the danger cannot be catastrophic.

There has been some confusion amongst today’s craft dyers about exactly which part of the root contains the dyestuff. Nowhere in the book does the author note the differentiation of root into ‘true roots’ and ‘underground stems’ or rhizomes, although some of the quotes from historical documents do allude to this. The root is invariably described as having a thick tough bark but this is clearly an impression formed by looking at the dried root. The skin of fresh root is very thin and can be easily scrubbed away on an individual root but this is probably not possible on a large scale without losing a lot of the underlying dyestuff. The position of the dyestuff in the root is usually described as being just above the woody cortex, but again this is probably a description of a dried root where the soft fleshy outer material has shrunk to a thin layer of concentrated dye bearing material just covering the woody cortex.

Rubia tinctorumIn the shrinking process, the outer skin wrinkles up and appears to become quite thick.

In theory it would be possible to hand wash fresh roots then pound the roots in a strong pan until the woody cores could be removed and the remainder left to dry. This would be very labour intensive however and the inner pith from root stems (which also contains dyestuff) would remain in the removed woody material.

During a Turkey Red workshop run by Debbie Bamford (The Mulberry Dyer) at the 2013 Spinners Weavers and Dyers Guild summer school an experiment was done to try and separate the outer part of the root from the inner cortex and test the resulting material for dye strength and colour. Most of the commercially obtained dried root was actually root stem with the characteristic central dot of red pith. The outer layer of bark and inner dye-rich material was shaved off with potato peelers, down to the pale woody cortex. It was not possible to remove all the dark material. Equal weights of shavings and inner cortex were then used in identical dye baths. The shavings gave the darkest red with little if any dulling due to the presence of outer bark.
root-experiment

For the home dyer wanting the brightest reds the easiest way to remove the brown dyestuffs from the bark is to set up the dye bath using your preferred recipes and after a first heating of root pour off the liquor and replace with fresh water. (See Jenny Dean)

Refining the powdered madder root

When the Madder industry expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries it was not long before competitive manufacturers began to invent new mechanised ways of refining the krap to increase its quality. The first breakthrough using a complex chemical treatment resulted in “garancine” which was later purified even further into “flowers of madder” which was almost pure “alizarin” (the main dye chemical in madder root). These refined products enabled the dyer to dye product quickly, easily and reliably.  Krap became an inferior grade product and perhaps contributed to its entry into the dictionary as the word “crap” meaning rubbish.

For the home dyer, refined madder root products are still produced and sold as madder extracts but these are expensive and I think less exciting than growing your own or making do with chopped root or krap. Home refining is possible (see Michel Garcia) but you do need some specialist laboratory equipment.

Economics

Chenciner is particularly interested in the economics of madder growing, processing and use. As a very high value product, madder growing attracted “adventurer farmers”. It is hard today to imagine farmers being put into the same class as gold prospectors but the potential returns on investment were such that many amateurs were drawn in. Of course many of these inexperienced adventurers were doomed to failure. What seemed like a shortcut to riches and fortune soon turned into a nightmare as old seeds sold by unscrupulous traders failed to germinate or the crop simply failed to grow well or any number of other disasters befell the hapless farmer.

Recipes from History

Contained in the text are numerous recipes for the processing of madder and dyeing of various fibres and textiles. These recipes are often quoted without interpretation into modern terminology so often remain obscure. However, they do offer a fascinating window into historical techniques and a platform for modern attempts to duplicate them.

Historical texts referred to:

The Leyden and Stockholm papyri (a Greek/Egyptian document written around 300AD which contains many recipes for the dyeing of fibre some of which use madder), e.g. :-

  1. Dyeing in Rose Colour  Rose colour is dyed in the following way. Smear the rolls of wool with ashes, untie them, and wash the wool in the liquid from potter’s clay. Rinse it out and mordant it as previously described. Rinse it out in salt water after mordanting and use rain water (which is so) warm that you cannot put your hand in it. Then take for each mina of wool a quarter of a mina of roasted and finely pulverized madder and a quarter of a choenix of bean meat. Mix these together by the addition of white oil, pour it into the kettle and stir up. Put the wool in the kettle and again stir incessantly so that it becomes uniform. When it appears to you to have absorbed the dye liquor, however, brighten it by means of alum, rinse it out again in salt water, and dry it in the shade with protection from smoke.

The Plictho of Gionaventura Rosetti: Instructions in the Art of the Dyers Which Teaches the Dyeing of Woolen Cloths, Linens, Cottons, And Silk by the Great Art As Well as by the Common (1548)

RED Madder wool-spinning-small

Inspiring teachers

India Flint dyed silk at From the Earth, Mardleybury Gallery  June 2016

India Flint dyed silk at From the Earth, Mardleybury Gallery June 2016

In June I attended a ground breaking exhibition ‘From the Earth’.

The curators Caroline Bell and Jenny Leslie wanted to enable the subtle tones of plant dyed textile art to be appreciated in a sympathetic setting. The main exhibition site was Mardelybury Gallery near Datchworth, not far from where I live in Hertfordshire. The art and craft supplier Art van Go hosted a series of linked workshops at their shop/studio workshop in Knebworth, accompanied by an exhibition of work by the tutors.

The exhibition at Mardelybury ranged from pieces by India Flint to water colours using plant pigments. But the highlight for me was attending two of the workshops: Jenny Leslie’s ‘Organic Indigo Vat’ and ‘Screen Printing with Natural Dyes’ run by Alison Hulme and Caroline Bell.  Here’s a bit about the first of these two workshops.

First we learned about creating crackle on cloth with a simple batter of flour and water. Spread with a palette knife, optionally scratch designs into the semi-dry resist, leave to dry  completely and then pull the fabric from different angles to create cracks.
Paint iron/tannin dye ontop for a wonderful visual texture. Variations include use of porridge or other sticky starchy grains. Use mordanted cloth and overdye after removing the pastes.
These are not strong enough resists to withstand a dyebath, so the iron/tannin ink is used to capture the pattern instead.

Flour paste resist for texture

Flour paste resist for texture

Removing the resist

Removing the resist

Jenny also set up a fructose indigo vat for shibori resist. Seeing this ‘in the flesh’ gave me the confidence to work an indigo vat without synthetic reducing agents. Up to then part of me simply didn’t believe it could work.

Inspired by the course, I collected together all of the tail ends of indigo vats we had kept from previous years (see below) plus some recent additions from William. Will is a friend we taught to grow and use japanese indigo. He has amazing green fingers and produced some terrific plant dyed yarns but now he’s living on a canal boat he has other priorities. I hope to pay him back for his dye pigment in plant dyed yardage.

Once there was a bike or two kept here!

Once there was a bike or two kept here!

I love these sludges! When you grow your own indigo rather than buying it, every last speck of blue is precious. This was the dye shed much earlier in the season.

Once the indigo has been extracted from the woad or japanese indigo leaves (with alkali, heat and oxygen) the solution can be left indefinitely. The indigo particles settle over time. Carefully decant the excess water and harvest the sludge.

The combined volume of the best of these sludges filled my largest steel pan. I commandeered a corner of the cold frame outside the kitchen door, added the lime and fructose (fruit sugar) and away it went.

Organic Indigo Vat

My first fructose indigo vat

I am still learning how to condition the vat and probably added far too much sugar at one point. But it’s been giving a good colour for weeks and remains actively reducing.

Here’s the most recent piece I have dyed with the vat: a bomaki shibori based on a method Vivien Prideaux gives in her book on Indigo Dyeing. I used a natural calico from Art van Go which has been recommended by quilt artist Bobby Britnell for its ability to drink up dye. The cloth was crispy with sugar frosting by the time it had dried out for the last time.

Plastic pipe bokami

Plastic pipe wrapped with cotton bomaki style.

Unwrapping the Cotton

Unwrapping the Cotton

The fabric was probably rather thick for the number of layers of cloth involved, so the colour didn’t penetrate fully. I should have scoured the cloth beforehand, but usually it doesn’t seem to need any preparation. I’ll do another resist on the top later.

Some of the inner folded sections barely took any indigo.

Some of the inner folded sections barely took any indigo.

Unfolded and on the line

Unfolded and on the line

Even if you read about a new technique, see it on u-tube, watch on dvd,  there’s still no substitute for learning alongside a tutor in a workshop. Thank you Jenny Leslie!  http://www.regenerationtextiles.co.uk/

 

Growing Step by Step

Ashley is the horticulturalist. He lavishes the allotments with attention.
This year the weather has been kind and the dyeplants have responded brilliantly.
Here are annotated pictures of the main dye garden in recent months.

 

The Natures Rainbow Dye Garden, Hitchin, May 2016

The Natures Rainbow Dye Garden, Hitchin, May 2016

The Natures Rainbow Dye Garden Hitchin, Early July 2016

The Natures Rainbow Dye Garden Hitchin, Early July 2016

Dye garden

The Natures Rainbow Dye Garden, Hitchin, Late July 2016

 

Colour in Winter

overview of colours larger

What could be better on a cold winter’s day than plant dyeing with ten creative and enthusiastic felt makers?

Today I ran a small group workshop for Region 5 of the International Feltmakers Association

After a demonstration of the basic principles, people were left to work the dyebaths to achieve the wide and bright colour palette available from the ‘Grand Teint’ dyeplants which can easily be grown here in the South East of England.

In the space of a few hours, we dyed nearly a kilogram of merino wool tops (pre-mordanted with alum), a little silk (pre-mordanted with aluminium acetate) and some unmordanted banana yarn.

group sharing fibre 3

This is a workshop I have facilitated many times before for my local Spinners Dyers and Weavers Guild In the past we have always held these events outdoors on a long summer’s day which works really well for rinsing and drying. So it was very different working indoors and to a tighter time schedule.

I will be running a plant dyeing day for the North Herts Guild of Spinners Dyers and Weavers Guild on Saturday 23rd April 2016.

Contact me if you are interested in hosting plant dyeing workshops. I am open to designing workshops to suit specialist audiences.

Breathe Yellow

TG breathe yellow medium

I have experimented with something called ‘Colour Play’ developed by Vanessa Volpe from Northampton. This is a healing therapy akin to psychodrama, but using colours rather than words to communicate. Vanessa understands how colours resonate with different aspects of our personalities. When facing fear of the unknown it’s a good idea to imagine breathing yellow into your lungs and body to infuse you with confidence. Anish Kapoor has said that when your visual field is full of pure yellow something very special happens. He dislikes spelling out experiences for the viewer, but he is on record saying that yellow is the ‘passionate’ part of red, whereas blue is the ‘godly’ part.   Goethe, on the other hand, described yellow as serene, gay, softly exciting and gladdening. I was certainly gladdened the other day when I obtained these beautiful yellows on silk, linen and cotton. I had been feeling rather overwhelmed by all the preparation work I still needed to do for my display in the student gallery at the Festival of Quilts. A morning out with the dyepots ‘breathing yellow’ lifted my spirits.