Category Archives: madder

The traditional nothern european dyeplant for red. Very colourfast

Susan Dye and Ashley Walker

The Natures Rainbow garden 2018 – Part one

by Ashley Walker
Copyright August 2018
Banner photograph copyright Sharon Cooper

On the 9th August, after two months with barely a drop of rain, the heatwave and drought in the South East of England may finally have come to an end. Despite regular watering the unnatural weather has taking its toll on our dye plants. For the first time our woad plants are being eaten by Cabbage White butterfly caterpillars (Large White Pieris brassicae and Small White Pieris rapae) and more recently by flea beetles (genus Phyllotreta). I guess the critters were getting desperate to find plants with a bit of juice in their leaves. The weather is having an impact on me as well, I have to water the indigo nearly every day and keeping the rest of the garden needs water too so I’m spending hours each week that I’d rather be spending on writing or dyeing.

This is the first part of a two part post on observations of the dye plants in our garden. This one deals with the plants we have been growing for more than a year. The second part will cover new plants.

European Woad – Isatis tinctoria

Isatis tinctoria being eaten by Large White butterfly caterpillars

These Large White caterpillars managed to eat the whole woad leaf, leaving only the midrib behind.

We have grown Woad for about 12 years now and for the first time our plants have been attacked by caterpillars and flea beetles. This makes a change from the usual small black slugs which put a few holes in the leaves but seldom do any serious damage.

Isatis Tinctoria leaf with eggs and lava of Large Cabbage White butterfly

A cluster of Large White butterfly eggs on the underside of a woad leaf

Isatis Tinctoria being attacked by Flea Beatles

Shiny black small Flea Beatles can slowly chew their way through a woad leaf leaving it like a sieve.

Isatis tinctoria

Woad flower spike August 2018 – from seed to flower in one season as a result of pampering.

I expect that the extraordinary hot weather is to blame with the butterflies and beetles probably acting in desperation. Although the flea beetles appear to thrive, the caterpillars have had a much harder time digesting the unpalatable leaves and most of the newly hatched critters have simply died, leaving a few small holes in the leaf. Only one plant had its leaves reduced to its midrib but even this one will survive as it is now putting out new growth. Interestingly it appears to be only the plants I have watered which are being eaten. There are a few plants which never get watered and these are looking fine.

A few people have asked about growing Woad in tubs or containers and this year we’ve had a few in containers ourselves and this has revealed a problem. One of our plants grown in a container in good compost and watered and fed regularly has grown large and is currently putting out a flower spike which will drastically reduce the amount of indigo in its leaves. Its very unusual to see Woad flowering in August so I can only assume we have pampered it too much – given it the ability to grow large enough to flower in one season. So if you are growing Woad in containers don’t give them too much fuss!

Chinese Woad – Isatis indigotica  

Isatis indegotica

Chinese Woad – about as big as it gets before flowering

Isatis indigotica

Planted out in April these Chinese Woad immediately produced flower stems

We have been growing this for two years now, desperately trying to find out how to stop it flowering a few months after planting. From what I’ve read I’m in good company and this is the chief reason Chinese Woad has not caught on as a source of indigo, despite the fact that it could potentially produce as much dye as Japanese Indigo. Some of the literature indicates that botanists think Isatis indigotica is basically just a variety of tinctoria (European Woad). However, if that is so it has evolved away from tinctoria to a considerable extent. Indigotica is clearly adapted to a much warmer climate and although still nominally a biennial it behaves much more like a half hardy annual. It will flower at any time of year, even in winter, so its rosette stage is always very short and the plant never gets very big. The leaves are a paler blue-green than European Woad and its yellow flowers will continue to be produced throughout the year provided the plants are watered and taken care of. Once the plant starts to flower the larger rosette leaves die off leaving only small leaves on the plant which are probably no good for dyeing. According to the Handbook of Natural Colorants, indigotica will be triggered into flowering if the night time temperature falls below 5°C, which makes it almost impossible to grow the plant to any respectable size here in the UK. Even in Mediterranean climates the plant can only usefully be grown in the Summer. From my experience the plant will flower even if you just look at it the wrong way so I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not worth the effort. It does grow very quickly however and if you were to grow it en masse and harvest the leaves before it flowered it might just provide a return for your efforts.

Another problem with Chinese Woad is its susceptibility to pests. Caterpillars and aphids like it very much and can easily destroy your plants.  And you guessed it, significant insect damage will also trigger flowering. In a mad moment I decided to see if Chinese Woad tasted any nicer than European Woad. But the taste test settled nothing, both plants are extremely bitter and fiery. I obviously don’t have the finer tastes of Cabbage White butterfly caterpillars!

Japanese indigo – Persicaria tinctoria

Persicaria tinctoria - Long Leaf variety

Long leaf variety of Japanese Indigo with curled leaves to protect itself the prolonged hot sun of 2018

This year we are growing the same three varieties as last year – Long Leaved, Broad Leaved and an Intermediate Leaved white flowered variety. There appears to have been no interbreeding from last year. This year the difference between the long leaf and broad leaf varieties is stark. The Long Leaf plant is very vigorous with dark green leaves. The Broad Leaf variety took a long time to get going as usual and suffered from its leaves turning red. I was initially confident that the red colour was partly due to the hot sunny weather we were having in early summer – the slow growing plants were getting roasted. But after a good feed (with chicken manure pellets) the plants started growing quickly with the new foliage a nice mid green despite the continued hot sunny weather. So a bit of a chicken and egg situation: was it the lack of fertilizer that caused the leaves to redden or simply that the young plant leaves, growing slowly, were getting a longer exposure to the hot sun?  The Long Leaf variety reacted differently to the hot sun with leaf curling , something I had seen last year but only on plants grown in the greenhouse.

Persicaria tinctoria

A bed of intermediate White flowering Japanese Indigo.

Persicaria tinctoria

Newly planted out Broad Leaf Japanese Indigo with sun reddened leaves.

Thus far we have only harvested the Long Leaf variety and used it in a little experiment comparing Jenny Dean’s extraction technique with the more often used long soak in cool water. The results will be written up in a later post. What I have also noticed is that we are currently getting a considerably better production of indigo from Woad than the Long Leaf variety of Japanese Indigo. Woad is well known for giving better results when the weather is hot and sunny. If the climate change predictions are correct and we continue to have hot summer weather then I think we would be better to return to growing mostly Woad. The Long Leaf variety of Japanese Indigo produces the least amount of indigo dye of the three varieties (see comparison here) but it does produce larger plants so perhaps still produces an equivalent amount of indigo per square metre.

Madder – Rubia tinctorumRubia tinctorum berries

Once again this year the madder plants are producing masses of berries. This is the third year running. In the previous 10 years or so the plants produced only a few. I have no explanation as to why this is.  I’ve grown plants in different soil, in planters and in the ground and all plants are doing the same. A result of the weather?

Rubia tinctorum

Madder plant obtained from Southwark Cathedral in early 2018.

This year we obtained a new madder plant sourced from Southwark Cathedral dye garden. The plant is quite different to plants I have been growing up to now (all of which were derived from a single seed over 10 years ago). This new plant has paler leaves with a different shape and it flowers about 3-4 weeks later. It will be interesting to see if the root yield is also different. I’m pleased to have been able to increase the genetic diversity of our madder as I’ve always propagated by root stem cuttings or from seeds from my own plants.

Wild Madder – Rubia peregrina

Rubia peregrina

Wild Madder in flower – Early July

We’ve been growing this plant for nearly three years now. It’s an evergreen but the tops do not appear to be totally hardy in the UK climate and were damaged by the winter frosts. This is the first year in which the plants (originally obtained from a wild flower nursery) are starting to look a bit happier. They are putting out new shoots from underground stems and flowering for the first time. It remains however a very slow growing perennial and I think it will take longer than Common Madder to produce a good root harvest so we are leaving it for another year.

I was given some seed from a friend from some wild plants growing on the south west coast which nearly all germinated though it did take well over a month before the first shoots appeared.

Saw wort – Serratula tinctoria

Serratula tinctoria

Saw-Wort plants with yellowing of leaves.

Serratula tinctorum

A self seeded plant with dark green leaves growing next to the transplanted ones with yellow leaves.

This native  plant continues to be disappointing. Not only do the plants remain small but about half of them suffer from bad yellowing of the leaves once planted out in the garden. I have tried practically everything to remedy the problem – fertiliser, Epsom salts and seaweed extract. There are some self-seeded plants which look very healthy so I do wonder if the roots are somehow getting seriously damaged during transplanting. It also remains likely that there is something wrong with the soil itself as other plants (Genista, a red scabious and a Purging Buckthorn shrub) are similarly affected.

Serratula tinctoria dye comparison

A comparison of our main yellow dye plants. Top is Weld, Bottom Right is Genista and Bottom Left is Saw-Wort

We did try dyeing with the Saw Wort this year and obtained a good buttery yellow. We were hoping it would be a nice lemon yellow like Weld and Genista so were a bit disappointed with that too.

Dahlia species

Dahlia Species

Bumble bee on single type dahlia grown from seed.

Dahlia Species

Dark Red Dahlia giving pinky purple and greens. Possibly “Nuit d’Ete” or “Black Cat”

The colour of Dahlia flowers has an effect on its dye but we did not appreciate by just how much until this year when we tried using some deep red flowers to dye with. We obtained nothing like our accustomed strong yellows with acid pH and strong orange with alkaline pH. This time we got green with alkali and blue/purple with acid indicating that the dyes in this dark red flower were the same as you find in red cabbage and some other red flowers. These dyes, although very pretty, are not light fast. Over the years of growing Dahlia we have narrowed down the varieties that produce the best results for the home dyer. These are yellow or orange double flowering pom pom types. The pom pom flowers are longer lasting and produce more dye – some pom poms are very large and yield a lot of dye but bees and pollinators are unable to assess the nectaries. We have tried to stay away from these but there’s no doubt they are the best for dyers.

Tansy – Tanacetum vulgare

Tanacetum vulgare

Tansy needs regular watering for healthy plants.

Often used by Scottish dyers as a source of yellow dye this plant has been growing in our garden for several years now but largely unused because the plant wasn’t very vigorous. There was never enough plant material to harvest and the flowers were disappointing. This year we planted a bed of Japanese indigo alongside so the Tansy benefitted from being regularly watered. The resulting Tansy flowers have been lovely so if you’re growing them keep them watered for best results.

Perennial Coreopsis –  Coreopsis grandiflora varieties e.g. Golden Joy, Sun Ray, Early Sunrise

Coreopsis grandiflora

Perennial coreopsis – plant breeders benefitting the plant dyer.

Coreopsis grandiflora

Bright orange on alum mordanted wool blanket.

These are double flowering perennials with deep orangey yellow flowers which produce a lot of dye. They are not as hardy as the growers would have you believe as half our plants died during the winter and only a few have recovered enough to put on a good show this year. However, many can be easily grown from seed so are not too expensive to grow. They make excellent bedding plants and produce a fabulous orange dye from the flowers. An example of the plant breeders unwittingly aiding the home dyer.

Dyer’s Alkanet – Alkanna tinctoria?Alkanna tinctoria

Alkanna tinctoria

Alkanet root. Bottom tip has had thin outer black bark removed revealing the dissapointingly white root.

This is the third year of growing and though I have not tried to extract any dye from its roots I am deeply disappointed to find that the roots are not red as they should be. I was suspicious as soon as I started to grow the plant from seed bought from the German Company Rühlemann’s. The plant seemed too vigorous with over large leaves and not hairy enough, but I persisted with it until it flowered. The flower shoots were tall (up to about a metre high) and not at all like the creeping wild flower growing around its native Mediterranean. The flowers when they finally appeared were the only part of the plant that looked like the pictures of Alkanna tinctoria seen all over the internet but the roots? The roots were white!

Doing some reading around this ancient dye plant I find that its qualities as a medicinal plant derive solely from the coloured substances in the root which were used as a dye, cosmetic and bio stain so you can imagine the way I feel after lavishing attention on this plant for the last three years only to find the roots are white! Recently I discovered one internet comment on the plant that says the cultivated version of the plant does not produce as much dye as the wild type. Well that’s some understatement. Of course it is possible that lavishing attention on the plant was entirely the wrong thing to do and I should have left it alone but it seems more likely that the growers have simply selected the seed year after year from the largest prettiest plants and in so doing have bred out the qualities that gave the plant its historical value.

Just to confuse matters Alkanna tinctoria has been and is also known as “Anchusa bracteolata, Alkanna tuberculata, Alkanna lehmanii, Lithospermum lehmanii”, and has been given various common names as follows Alkanna Radix, Buglosse des Teinturiers, Dyer’s Bugloss, Henna, Orcanète, Orcanette, Orcanette des Teinturiers, Orchanet, Radix Anchusae. Rühlemann’s who sell the seed are now calling it Alkanna tuberculata. There is certainly confusion on the identity of all these plants. Are they all the same or not. If there are any botanists out there  who can get to the bottom of this please please get in touch!

References

Philip John and Luciana Gabriella Angelini – Indigo – Agricultural Aspects. Chapter 7 of Handbook of Natural Colorants  Edited by Thomas Bechtold and Rita Mussak. Wiley Series in Renewable Resourses. (Available as free download).

Rühlemann’s  This German herb plant and seed supplier has a number of dye plants for sale including Chinese Woad and Long Leaf Japanese Indigo but it is primarily interested in the medical properties of the plants it sells and I get the impression they know little about plant dyeing.

Ethel Mairet Centenary Challenge

daily drawing of madder dyeing

I keep a daily drawing journal. This is from the day I was ready to post off my skeins to the Ethel Mairet Dyeing Now exhibition.

Over the space of about 15 years we have built up a modest collection of books on plant dyeing. I love my dyebooks. Some are stained with use. Others are academic reference tomes to be referred to for inspiration on rainy days.

But thanks to the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft I’ve been working from ‘A Book on Vegetable Dyes‘ by Ethel Mairet originally published in 1916. It has influenced just about every book on natural dyeing in the English language since. I first heard of the book at an AWSD Summer School course on Turkey Red with Debbie Bamford, The Mulberry Dyer but I had not thought since to look it up.

Mairet was a pioneering craftswoman and a successful handweaver. She began working in London and moved to E Sussex. The book is nearly 150 pages, with over 60 recipes from the 17th Century onwards. The introduction is a manifesto for a revival in plant dyeing. She railed against the ugliness of commercial chemical dyes. My favourite quotes are:

“The way to beauty is not by the broad and easy road; it is along difficult and adventurous paths.”  Mairet (1916, p6)      

 and

“The aim of commerce is material gain; the aim of the crafts is to make life, and no trouble must be spared to reach that end.” Mairet (1916, p8)

As a centenary celebration, the Ditchling Museum has invited plant dyers to recreate all of the recipes from the book and the exhibition ‘Dyeing Now’ (on until 16 April 2017) has been filling up as skeins of wool, silk, cotton and linen have been coming in from all around the world.

I volunteered early on to do a madder recipe, as I wanted to contribute something dyed with our home grown madder root. I was duly sent two skeins of wild silk to dye with madder. The appropriate recipe was Recipe 7 on p 103.

Mairet recipe for madder on silk

Recipe 7 for madder on silk

Last year was tough for various reasons and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago I engaged with the task. Mairet says little about the preparation of madder, so I decided to prepare the root as per Jim Liles and favoured by Debbie Bamford i.e. several days of soaking, grinding in a blender, heating and straining. Each day yields a fresh extract of dye. Combining them all produces a good mixture of the full range of dye chemicals in the root.

My experience of dyeing silk is that it is hard to get beyond a pink or orange. The texture and nature of the wild silk seems to drink dye well. But I wasn’t taking any chances!

This post describes in pictures my recreation of Recipe 7 for madder on silk from page 103.
First I wetted the silk in a little synthrapol detergent in cold tap water. Next I scoured it by simmering for 45 minutes in tap water and rinsed it straight away. Them I mordanted the skeins by cold immersion in alum solution for several days. The skeins were then aired (un-rinsed) and re-soaked again in the same mordant solution. One skein was briefly over-mordanted by heating in 5% ferrous sulphate solution, stirring well to achieve even results. This was removed and rinsed as soon as a suitable pale yellow shade emerged. Iron is harmful to silk and I prefer to restrict its use to vegetable fibres like cotton and linen.

 

ransoms allotment madder root dried

I started with madder dug from our dye garden on Ransoms Rec Allotments in 2011. This ensured it was fully ripened.

Ransoms allotment madder after 1st soak

I broke the root by hand, added boiling water and let it soak overnight. This is next day after straining off the liquid.

Ransoms allotment madder root cut

To reduce strain on the blender I cut the softened roots lengthways with a sharp knife. We are after the good stuff in the dark rind and the dark core (parenchyma). The pale orange woody layer has less pigment.

blender for madder

First outing for a cheap blender from Wilkos. I doubt it will survive heavy use but being new I could be sure the blades weren’t rusty. The top was annoyingly difficult to twist on and off.

Ransoms madder 1st liquor

The blender came with a handy graduated plastic jug. This is the strained liquid after one treatment of grinding, heating and soaking. Lovely colour!

ransons madder after 3rd grinding

Pulp after the grinding on the third day. I ran a parallel batch of commercially sourced chopped madder root from P&M Woolcraft (a favourite supplier) as an experiment. The results were similar.

madder foam in dyebath low temperature

On day four I combined all the liquors and the mashed root in a stainless steel pan. In went a skein. After gentle heating a pale foam appears.

Pigment on heating

As the temperature rises the foam becomes darker red. The alizarin is the least soluble but most valuable of the red pigments in madder. Solubility increases with temperature so a madder dyebath typically starts out pale orange but gets redder and redder as the temperature rises.

Exceeding 60degC

Bring the temperature up slowly over at least an hour to 82 deg C. Then boil for the final 5 minutes. I ignore all warnings in dyebooks to keep madder dyebaths below 60 degrees C. Heat is necessary to release the best reds into solution. We have hard water which also helps.

Madder dyed silk wet

Silk yarn after an hour in the madder dye pot. The pieces of madder root shake off when dry. Afterwards, I brightened the skein by heating in a soapy solution with a teeny weeny amount (just a few grains) of tin mordant in the form of stannous chloride. This is toxic so all suitable precautions were taken.

dyeing the iron mordanted silk

I keep an enamel pan just for dyeing with iron. This is the exhaust dye liquor from the previous process used to dye the iron mordanted skein.

madder dyed silk in eve sun

Ethel Mairet’s Madder Recipe 7 on alum mordanted wild silk. Evening sun makes it glow rather well.

alum mordanted madder on silk

Close up of madder on alum mordanted wild silk. The lighting makes a huge difference to the perceived colour. This was taken outside on a different day to the previous picture.

iron mordanted exhaust madder on silk

Close up of madder exhaust on alum and iron mordanted wild silk. Photographed at the same time as the red skein shown above.

Two madder dyed silk skeins

Madder on wild silk. Exhaust bath with iron mordant above and madder on alum below.

Ethel Mairet project silk skeins Madder Recipe 7

The finished products alongside the raw material. Plenty more dye to look forward to using.

 

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

Rubia tinctorum

Growing Madder

An article by Ashley Walker
© copyright 2017

Common Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is an excellent source of red dye. It is indigenous to Southern Europe, Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa but has many close relatives (in the genus Rubia) around the world.

Rubia tinctorum

Young madder plant

Propagation, Care and Maintenance

As a herbaceous perennial, Common Madder dies all the way back to the soil at the end of every year. This means that madder beds can be mulched over the winter to suppress weeds and protect the soil from nutrient loss. Mulching with well-rotted manure or other soil improvers will have the added benefit of fertilising the soil.

Rubia tinctorum

Shoots of madder in the early spring surrounded by the dead stems of last year’s growth

Madder shoots appear in March and will withstand mild frosts. They grow into a mass of long clambering stems which need support to grow above a foot or two in height. Madder will tolerate coastal conditions of wind and salt and is highly resistant to pests and diseases. Seedlings will benefit from protection from slugs, but the shoots of mature plants need no protection. Growth can always be improved with a little fertiliser and watering in hot dry weather but we generally leave our madder to fend for itself and it still gets good harvests. The green part of the plant contains very little dye stuff but was used as animal fodder and reportedly would turn their bones red over time.

Growing Common Madder requires considerable investment from the dye plant gardener. From seedling or cutting it takes three to four years before the roots have swelled to provide a satisfactory harvest. Time is not the only consideration either. The plant is highly invasive and if neglected it will spread to the rest of your garden. The plant’s main method of propagation is the underground stem which grows horizontally under the surface and pops up one to three feet away. If you are a diligent (and ruthless) gardener you can keep on top of it by pulling up the shoots every time they reappear. Our approach is to set aside part of our vegetable allotment for madder. We remove stray roots as and when we dig the vegetable beds over. In ten years we have only once had to take more drastic measures when the madder was heading for the neighbour’s allotment. Madder roots and shoots are relatively thick which makes them easy to remove when digging; keeping the plant under control is far easier than dealing with perennial weeds like bindweed and couch grass. If you have no ‘out of the way’ space suitable for madder and you maintain an ornamental garden, madder can be grown in a large raised bed with deep walls to prevent the underground stems from escaping or, failing that, a very large planter. Setting up a separate raised bed each year for four years would allow you to harvest madder every year. The larger the container or raised bed the better. As with all container gardening, the plants will need extra attention to watering and feeding compared to madder grown in open ground.

Rubia tinctorum

Green berries of Common Madder

Rubia tinctorum

Madder berries turn from green through red to black. Although the black berries produce a wonderful red juice it does not appear to be a useful dye.

Madder also propagates itself by seed. The seed of Cleavers (a close relative) is covered in tiny hooks which attach to passing animals. With Common and Wild Madder the large seeds are surrounded by a juicy black berry which is eaten and spread by birds. Madder seed once dried is notoriously difficult to germinate. Many sources suggest that it will self-seed readily in some countries but we have never come across a seedling in our allotment. All of our madder beds were derived from a single seed we managed to germinate many years ago. So if you know someone who is already growing madder ask them for a root cutting from the underground stems in the spring and you may save yourself a lot of time.

Note: If growing from seed I previously recommended using advice from a scientific paper [1] which had found that soaking the seeds in very hot water for a few minutes would help break the seeds dormancy but having tried it ourselves I can categorically withdraw this advice. DO NOT DO IT! All I managed to do was kill the seeds! I will be writing up the results of this experiment soon.

With its scrambling habit and close resemblance to cleavers, most people would not judge Common Madder an attractive garden plant. However, if weeds are kept at bay, large beds of madder produce beautiful clouds of tiny yellow star-shaped flowers in July/August and glossy black berries in October. Providing support for it to clamber over also improves its attractiveness.

Rubia tinctorum

Rubia tinctorumRubia tinctorum

Rubia tinctorum

Harvesting Madder Root

Rubia tinctorum

Underground stems (Rhizomes) and true roots

There are two main types of root: bulbous true roots and straighter underground stems or rhizomes.  Once established, the adventurous rhizomes soon start to swell and take on some of the characteristics of real roots. They begin to produce and store the various substances that bear pigment. Both true roots and new plant shoots grow from these rhizomes. The bulbous true roots are the most prized by dyers but three year old underground stems can be just as good so do not discard them.

Rubria tinctorium

The bright orange shoots are new growth stems.

Rubia tinctorum

Network of underground stems just under the surface.

Rubia tinctorum

Cut underground stem, note the orange woody ring with red center of pith.

Rubia tinctorum

Cut root with thin woody centre

Having to dig up the root is often cited as a barrier to growing Madder, particularly if the soil in your garden has a lot of clay but there are many ways to make the task easier. If you do have heavy soil invest in several bags of soil improver and a few bags of sand and dig in well before planting. If that sounds too strenuous, create a “no dig” bed and spread over it a very thick layer (at least one foot or thirty centimeters) of a mixture of manure, soil improver and sand. Top this up in the second or third winter. It is true that madder roots will go very deep (several feet) into the ground but there is no need to dig down that far as most of the roots, including the largest ones, are usually near the surface.

Rubia tinctorum

Root stems and rhizomes before and after washing. With a little gentle brushing the outer surface of bark (which contains brown dyes) can be removed to reveal the orange flesh of the root. The difference between root stem or rhizome and true roots is seen here . Root stems are invariably straight and have a woody ring with red pith centres. True roots are twisty and have a thin woody centre.

Rubia tinctorum

Soil type is not important to the health of the plant but growing madder in an alkaline soil stimulates the production of the red dye stuff. We are fortunate to have a light chalk soil in our garden which is already quite alkaline. For acid soils an application of lime will improve the dye yield.

The general consensus is that the best time to dig Madder in Northern Europe is late Autumn, after the roots have been replenished by a full season’s growth. The worst time to harvest is Spring when all the nutrients are coming out of the roots and going into new growth. However, we have harvested at all times of the year and found that the results are  similar so don’t be too constrained by the literature. Of more import is what you do with the roots after harvest.

Rubia tinctorum

Mature madder root

Rubia tinctorum

Once removed the outer bark reveals the translucent orange flesh. The central woody core can be seen here through the root.

Rubia tinctoria

Washing the roots with a jet of water

Root Processing

First they need to be washed to remove loose soil. This can be done with a hose connected to the mains and the spray head set to a narrow jet.

We leave the wet roots to drip dry outside in net wash bags and then move them to a warm, dry place out of direct sunlight where they will get plenty of air circulating around them. It takes around one to two months to fully dry the roots, when they can be snapped by hand or chopped up for storage in air tight containers or paper bags in a dry place. Slow drying followed by long storage allows more of the precursor substances in the root to be converted into alizarin which is the substance that gives the classic pink/red. The root is admittedly easier to chop when fresh but then much more difficult to dry unless you have access to a herb dryer.

The clean roots can be used immediately but remember that most dye recipes specify quantities for dry root. Our experiments show that drying reduces the weight by a factor of six. So rather than 50% weight of goods you will need 3 times the weight of goods in madder. Fresh root is also useful for dyeing cloth in eco-bundles.

Rubia tinctorum

The dried root is chopped up for final storage.

Although it involves more work and considerable patience, we much prefer to dry the roots and keep them for a year or so before use. Indeed we think that along with our chalky soil and hard water, this may help to explain our success in achieving very good reds from our home grown madder.

Other red giving plants for your dye garden

It could be argued that Common Madder, being so easy to grow and yielding a great deal of pigment is the only dye plant in the UK worth growing for reds. However why should we limit our plant dye and botanical knowledge in this way? There are a number of related plants which have played an important historical role where soils are not well suited to Common Madder. While it is against the law to uproot any wild plants, many of these can be easily grown from seed and some are available from wildflower nurseries. Examples include Field Madder (Sherardia arvensis), Wild Madder (Rubia peregrina), Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum) and Dyer’s Woodruff (Asperula tinctoria). Wild Madder appears very similar to Common Madder but is evergreen and grows wild in South West England and South Wales. Lady’s Bedstraw is a lovely perennial wild flower with dense clouds of yellow flowers in July and August and surely deserves a place in the dye garden?

Rubia Peregrina

Wild Madder (Rubia peregrina) found growing in a hedgerow near Brixham, Devon 2nd Jan 2017. Photo by Brian Bond.

It is said in the literature that these relatives of madder do not provide as much colour as Common Madder, primarily because the plants are harder to harvest and the roots are thinner. Even the common weed, Cleavers or Goosegrass (Galium aparine) is said to contain similar pigments to Common Madder although its thin roots are unlikely to yield enough for true reds.

A further article based on the book “Madder Red” by Robert Chenciner will be posted later in the spring when I’ll be looking at the history of growing madder and its lessons for the craft grower.

Bibliography

Ecotone Threads (another really good blog post on growing Madder by Kori Hargreaves in California).

Chenciner, R. (2000) Madder Red: A history of luxury and trade Curzon, Caucasus World

Sandberg, G. (1996) The Red Dyes: Cochineal, Madder and Murex Purple, Lark Books

Cardon, D. (2007) Natural Dyes, Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science, Archetype Publications London

[1] Sadigheh, S. et al (2009), Study Methods of Dormancy Breaking and Germination of Common Madder (Rubia tinctorum L. ) Seed in Laboratory Conditions, Botany Research International, 2 (1): 07-10  See http://www.idosi.org/bri/2(1)09/2.pdf

Red is the colour

TG red river quilt small

Norwich Red was a plant dyeing process for madder invented by Michael Stark in the 19th century. It was special for producing exactly the same shade of red on wool as on silk. Sadly the recipe has been lost. Otherwise I would definitely have tried it out for the quilt shown here. The decorative upper section is made from layers of silk/wool gauze dyed with madder. You can see how these shades differ to the pillar box red of the river – which consists of 100% wool.  The quilt was inspired by the sumptuous woven shawls exported from Norwich to royal courts around the globe in the Victorian era. The weavers themselves were often on the breadline. The Wensum is a chalk river, making it ideal for madder dyeing and it was reputed to have ‘run red’ when the many dyehouses in the city centre emptied their vats.

I have no evidence that there were any dyers in my family tree, although my family has been in Norfolk for many generations. It’s probably pure coincidence that I have the perfect name for what I am doing. I’ve spent most of my life embarrassed about having a name that sounds like an instruction to ‘keel over’ and ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’. I like my surname a lot more nowadays.