Let’s talk plants: Madder

I’ve talked about dyeing with madder more than a few times. I’ve written up documentation about some of my early madder experiments. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to know that I am really rather fond of playing with madder. So let’s do a little bit of a wander down the botanical path with the plant.

NB. I am a terrible gardener. I managed to kill a mint plant, that’s the level of terrible we are talking here. I do not grow my own. I let professionals (or awesome friends) do that for me and reap the bounty of their labours with gratitude (and/or payment.)

Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Right, we’re talking about Madder. Most commonly, when the word madder is tossed around in the dye world, folks are meaning the dried and ground roots of Rubia tinctorum. Also referred to as common madder or European madder. It is, however, not the only madder plant out there that has dyestuff for us! It’s not even the only madder plant we can buy. The other one that’s easy to find at the dye supplier is Rubia cordifolia. Also referred to as Indian madder, or munjeet. But yet again that’s not the only other madder out there, there’s more! Wild madder, Rubia peregrina and Japanese madder, Rubia akane and there are others in the Rubia family.. but the first two are the most commonly used.

R. tinctorum is a perennial that was cultivated throughout Europe and the Middle East, with the highest quality coming from Turkey, Holland and France. It is native to western and central Asia and naturalized itself in central and southern Europe. Munjeet (R. cordifolia) comes from moutainous regions of Asia, from the Himalayas to Japan and also in tropical Africa. Wild madder (R. peregrina) is a native of Europe, Turkey and North Africa as well as the coastal regions of southern England and some bits of Wales and Ireland. The roots of wild madder are smaller than that of madder, requiring more dye stuff to gain a strong colour than one would require from madder, although that can be mitigated by waiting longer to harvest the wild madder roots (five years, rather than three for R. tinctorum)

Madder dyed wool

All of the various versions of madder have been used since antiquity, with evidence in extant items from Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus vally (approx 3000 BCE) and mentions in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia and recipes using madder are found in the Papyrus Graecus Holmiensis (approx 4th century) Assumptions about which madder was being used are usually based on geography. The East was more likely to be using R. cordifolia, the West more likely to be using R. tinctorum or R. peregrina. Local traditions using local plants, as the Rubia plant family is happy to grow in so very many different places.

All of them contain similar dye molecules, although different plant species have them in different combinations and concentrations. This chart from “The Colourful Past” by Judith H. Hofenk de Graaff is an excellent summary of who has what, with some extra plants that also contain anthraquinones.

Forgive me for being the kind of person who casually drops words like ‘anthraquinones’ in conversation, but in a nutshell.. those are the dye molecules that provide the red colour. For the curious, these are their structures (why this graphic is missing alizarin, I have no idea but it’s below):

Mohd Yusuf et al., “Eco-Dyeing of Wool Using Aqueous Extract of the Roots of Indian Madder (Rubia Cordifolia) as Natural Dye,” Journal of Natural Fibers 10 (March 13, 2013): 14–18.
George B. Kauffman, ed., Coordination Chemistry: A Century of Progress, vol. 565, ACS Symposium Series (Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, 1994), accessed February 18, 2021, https://pubs.acs.org/doi/book/10.1021/bk-1994-0565.

Phew, okay.. still with me after the brief foray into chemistry? (If you’re interested, the handout for my class on dye molecules can be found here. If you have a virtual event you’d like me to teach it at, just ping me.)

At the end of the day, if you have madder, munjeet or wild madder, you’re getting a dose of very similar dye molecules and just enjoy the ride. All of them function pretty similarly, and the reds are just so much fun to work with. I have an experiment in progress comparing R. tinctorum with R. cordifolia, through a collection of exhaust baths, so look for that coming soon!

Bibliography:

Hofenk de Graaff, Judith H., Wilma G. Th Roelofs, and Maarten R. van Bommel. The Colourful Past: Origins, Chemistry and Identification of Natural Dyestuffs. London: Archetype Publ, 2004.

Dean, Jenny. Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes. Rev. and Updated ed., 1st rev. U.S. ed. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2010.

Cannon, John, and Gretel Dalby-Quenet, eds. Dye Plants and Dyeing. Repr. London: Black, 2002.

Yusuf, Mohd, Mohammad Shahid, Shafat Khan, Mohd Khan, Shahid Salam, Faqeer Mohammad, and Mohd Khan. “Eco-Dyeing of Wool Using Aqueous Extract of the Roots of Indian Madder (Rubia Cordifolia) as Natural Dye.” Journal of Natural Fibers 10 (March 13, 2013): 14–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/15440478.2012.738026.

Kauffman, George B., ed. Coordination Chemistry: A Century of Progress. Vol. 565. ACS Symposium Series. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, 1994. https://doi.org/10.1021/bk-1994-0565.

Food dye is awesome!

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m rather fond of making yarn pretty colours. These days, I do a lot of work with natural dye, but that isn’t where I started*. I started with food dye. Kool aid to be precise, but that’s getting vanishingly hard to find as those little packets without extra sugar, and so I generally use icing dye these days.

Food dye? Really? Yes really. It is incredibly wash fast (and light fast and colour fast) on wool and silk. It does absolutely nothing to cotton except a pathetic stain that washes out fairly readily (unless it’s your or your kid’s favourite shirt, then you’re doomed), and even less to linen. Wool and silk? Sticks like glue!

Fibre Acid Dye Heat

It is really pretty basic, all in all. You need fibre, you need dye, you need something acidic, water and heat. I mostly work with wool for my food dye playing, it’s cheaper than silk. I have used both citric acid and vinegar as my acid in this, I find that vinegar is cheap and easy. (Are you sensing a theme here?). This is not the place to use that lovely artisanal amazing vinegar, the cheapest white vinegar from the store is just fine. The more expensive higher octane stuff is probably also fine, but I’ve never gone out and bought it on purpose, so use what you’ve got.

Your fibre needs to be good and clean, this is true for any dye project. We often call this step ‘scouring’ in the dye world, but end of day.. good and clean. Hot water, bit of soap, you want no dirt, not much lanolin left, no spinning oils, nothing that is getting in the way of the dye. Rinse it well. The theory in the dye world is to ‘Rinse until you’re willing to drink the rinse water’.

If you are dyeing right away after scouring, perfect, your fibre is good and soaking wet! If not, you need to get it good and soaking wet. Wool resists getting wet, so this is not a dunk and call it good, this is a dunk it in and walk away for a little while.

This is a good moment to pause and consider the heat aspect, as that will inform what sort of container you are using. Food dye is an exception to the rule about never using a container you are going to use for food. Everything you are using is food safe. Except perhaps the fibre, please don’t eat the fibre, but technically it isn’t poisonous, just you don’t need that high of a fibre diet. You can see above that I often use an old crockpot. However! I have popped things in the microwave, I’ve used a steamer basket on the stove, I’ve baked wool in the oven, as seen in the photo above. (That is an interesting conversation to have with your partner ‘ooh, what are you baking? It smells.. sweet? And … sheepy?’ ‘Electric blue Kool Aid and fleece.’) I have shoved fleece into an old and clean peanut butter jar and stuck it on the back deck in the heat of summer. I’ve put jars of dye into a crockpot of water to have half a dozen colours on the go at once. Your options for heat are endless, but it will inform what container you’re using.

Right, so we’ve covered fibre, and getting it wet and containers and heat. The acid part is really very simple, I add a glug of vinegar to whatever water I’m using. That’s it. Nothing exciting, nothing fancy, just a basic glug. If I was doing this in a giant pot, I’d be aiming for perhaps a glug glug glug, but this is a no measure experience and just have faith. A glug is fine. (Citric acid powder is a whole lot more concentrated, a small spoonful should do it. Less in a mason jar, a big spoonful in a giant pot. You get the idea.)

Now you need to add colour. This bit is entirely up to you, and what you are aiming for. In the casserole style above, I had barely enough vinegar water to make things wet, and then sprinkled dry koolaid powder randomly about as I was aiming for something variegated. In the bucket of dayglo orange below, I dumped a packet of orange kool aid in and stirred liberally before putting in my sopping wet yarn, as I wanted it pretty uniform. I’ve been known to tie off sections, shibori style, or throw in balls of yarn, knowing that the dye was going to hit different sections at different times. This is entirely up to you, but I will say that know that the dye and water does not penetrate nearly as far into the ball of yarn as you hope, you end up with an outer layer of colour and nada in the middle. I was sad, so I share that with you so that hopefully it does not make you sad as well.

Orange kool aid and yarn in a random plastic tub in the microwave

I liberally mix my colours to get a liquid approximately the colour I’m looking for, and accept that it will not be quite the same on the yarn, but close. The little tubs of icing dye are VERY CONCENTRATED, so use sparingly. Really sparingly. I have been known, for a mason jar or small plastic tub, to measure them out with a toothpick. A very saturated dye in the crockpot, I went to tiny scoops on the end of a small spoon. Like seriously, you are aiming for amounts that would make small children who are trying not to eat a food happy. You can add more, but you do not want to be rinsing for 80 years.

At that point, pop in your wet fibre, steam/bake/nuke/stick in the hot sun and wait. Your choice of heating will determine how long you wait. I generally bake things in a gentle oven (say 275F?) for half an hour to an hour. Steam is more like 20 mins to half an hour. Sun dye is a few good days of solid summer warm (or months if you forget about it, and that’s fine too). Nuke it for a minute or two and see how it looks. There are not any hard and fast rules and regulations here. It needs to be hot, and it needs to be hot all the way through for a while. Not ages, but a while. If you don’t like what you get.. dye it again! 🙂

And there you have it, that’s dye with food colour in a nutshell. It’s fun, it’s easy, and if you are careful about choosing your icing dye combinations, it can look like you used natural dyes to get there without the fuss and hassle! (There are no natural dyes that give blue kool aid colours, just FYI.) Everything is non toxic, so it’s a great thing to do with kids without worrying that they are licking the mordants. Stick some wool and some colour in a mason jar and let it stew on the balcony! It’s a ton of fun.

*Technically I started with natural dye research. I was doing some fan fiction collaborative writing in the early 90s and it was based in a historical setting. The character I was working with was an early chemist, and so I went to the university library, and sat down with honest to goodness books about natural dye to be able to write her more effectively. That was the seed of it all, even if it took me years to actually TRY it, but the fascination started in dusty stacks of books and fiction.