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Natural Dyeing: Madder

May 10, 2009

When I first got interested in natural dyeing, there were two dye plants that held a particular fascination for me. One of these was woad, due to it’s association with the ancient britons, and the other was madder. As my background is in archaeology and archives, both of these plants were familiar to me from historical and classical writings and I was very keen to try them out. 


Dyeing with woad is a very different process to my usual dyeing method so I decided to start off with madder. Although native to Africa and Asia, Madder has become naturalized in many parts of Europe and can be successfully grown in the UK. It has a long history as a dyeplant with evidence for its use dating as far back as c. 3000 BC. References to it appear in classical texts and medieval writings. More recently, it was used to dye soldiers uniforms red. You can read more about its historical uses here.

The dyeing: I premordanted the wool with alum and cream of tartar three days prior to dyeing. When the wool was cool, I rinsed it then wrapped it (still damp) in a plastic bag. This is called ‘ageing’ the wool and is supposed to produce better results when using madder.  For the dyebath I used 100% chopped madder root. I placed the madder and pre-mordanted wool in the pan and left them overnight. The next morning I brought the dyepot to simmering point and let in simmer away very slowly for an hour. Well, that was the plan anyhow – I have a very fierce hob and to keep the temperature below boiling, I have to turn off the heat every now and then. I kept doing this for the first half hour but then promptly forgot all about it and when I next checked it, the dyepot was bubbling away. Apparently, higher temperatures bring out browner tones in the dye and this is probably why my wool ended up a rusty orange colour – not that I mind, I love the colour. Next time, I’ll try to keep the temperature low though so I can compare the colours. I’m also keen to start experimenting a bit more with my dyeing and seeing how various additions to the dyebath (such as lemon juice, iron water, oak galls etc) affect the end result.


That said, I’m really pleased with the colour – it’s reminiscent of autumn leaves and puts me in mind of all the vibrant colours we saw when we visited Westonbirt last autumn. I’d love to dye enough wool for a whole cardigan but I haven’t got a big enough dyepan at the moment – something to bear in mind though…..wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a cardigan that was totally handmade – hand-dyed, handspun and (hand)crocheted?!


About the yarn: I opted for a rare breed wool – Whitefaced Woodland – as this is a breed I’m interested in keeping when we’re in a position to buy land – at the moment it’s just part of my ‘fantasy flock’! The wool was lovely to spin. It did feel a tad coarser than some of the other wools I’ve used but still spun up into a nice soft yarn which I think will be soft enough to wear next to the skin. The yarn is fairly fine with a WPI of 26 (which seems to be my default setting!) and is 260m in length and weighs a little over 100g. I’ve had lots of ideas how I’d like to use it – an autumn jumper for baby small is top of the list but I’m not sure if I have enough yardage so it might end up as a bag or hat….. I’ll keep you posted!

18 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2009 6:31 pm

    I love your blog; I look forward to poking around in your archives.
    I have an old bathtub out in the garden full of madder plants; I ought to wait another year, though before harvesting. Maybe I’ll just dig up a teeeeeny bit to experiment with this year!
    Thanks for adding me to your blogroll!

  2. May 10, 2009 6:47 pm

    thanks very much! I’d love to grow madder but we’re not planning on staying in our current house longterm…. still, you’ve got me thinking – we could always take a bathtub with us….!

  3. May 10, 2009 7:25 pm

    That is such a gorgeous colour and one of my favourites!

    Anything to do with autumn and the colours she produces has my thumbs up.

    Have a lovely evening,

    Nina x

    ps. hope you try the Banoffee Pie recipe soon it is delicous, but then I am biased about my cooking concoctions!!

  4. May 10, 2009 7:45 pm

    Your madder dyed wool is beautiful!!! I love this colour, more than what I achieved, it was more losos like, pinkish, I like this deeper one. Next time I am not going to watch the temperature that meticulosly…:)
    Lovely to meet you on-line!

  5. May 10, 2009 9:16 pm

    the color is gorgeous! I just fell in love with it! I would make baby cardigan from it because the yarn looks so soft…

    and about the blueprint crochet book, I strongly recommend this book to anyone who likes diagrams as me, all is clearly explained and almost everything is drawn as a diagram… normally I would have problems with so many issues working on this top, but I am not having any yet…


  6. May 11, 2009 12:46 pm

    That’s a lovely color!! It looks so much better than the stuff that comes from the store. Definitely tell us what you do with it!

  7. May 11, 2009 2:45 pm

    That is a lovely colour, autumn colours are my favourites and that looks great.
    Where do you buy your fibre from? The fleece I’m spinnig at the moment came from Garthenor Organic and is washed but not carded. It is great for blending different colours but my wrists sometimes object to too much carding so I might try roving or tops another time.

    • May 11, 2009 5:20 pm

      Thank you willow. I got this particular batch of fibre from Forest Fibres – not organic but they do have a fair bit of rare breed wool. Their website is:
      I’ve only done a little carding so far but I’m hoping to get hold of a whole fleece at the end of the month so I imagine I’ll be getting plenty of practice!

  8. May 11, 2009 3:40 pm

    that is such a beautiful colour!

    How do you get the dye to stay on the yarn and not wash out in its first clean?

    I’ve got some naturaly dyed wool that turns my hands blue whenver I knit with it.. most annoying!!! 🙂


    • May 11, 2009 5:30 pm

      Thank you hen!

      The mordanting process is supposed to make the dye more colourfast. However it does depend a lot on the material used for dyeing – some plants are just naturally more fast than others. If you’re interested, there’s a great little book called Fast or Fugitive by Gill Dalby that gives lots of info about the wash- and light fastness of various dyeplants. It makes me laugh that non-fast dyes are referred to as ‘fugitive’ – I imagine them going off robbing banks or getting up to all sorts of criminal antics…. perhaps that’s just me though!

      Anyhow, it’s unusual that your blue wool should be leaching so much colour. I wonder if all the dye wasn’t washed out after dyeing. You could always give it a quick rinse and see if that does the trick!

      • May 20, 2009 10:07 am

        thanks for this reply Rebecca! I’m so lazy I never even considered washing the wool and seeing if that helps!! :o)

        I know that the lady I got it from had a tough time getting the colour I asked for, I think she kept dyeing it until it had the right depth. I didn’t mean to be picky!!! Lol!

        made me laugh about ‘fugitive’ dyes!! LOL!!!


  9. May 11, 2009 8:58 pm

    What a fascinating history. It must be really satisfying to have that pre-knowledge of a material and then actually get to work with it.

    I think it’s groovy that you can get two colours out of the same stuff depending upon how you boil it. I adore earthy tones like what came out. Looks like rust on my monitor. Love it.

    I would crochet a hat/beret with it.

  10. May 12, 2009 8:14 am

    that is an impressive deep colour – well done. did you grow the madder yourself?

    • May 12, 2009 11:18 am

      Thank you – I didn’t grow the madder but hope to eventually. Our problem at the moment is that we’re not planning on staying in our current house longterm so, as much as I’d love to plant a dye garden now, I need to wait a while…

  11. May 12, 2009 6:02 pm

    Ohhh, the colours you are coming up with are all so wonderfully beautiful! Nothing beats natural, I think.

    You’re making me want to go out and kidnap a couple of our local sheep… 😉


  12. May 13, 2009 6:58 am

    I agree, this is a beautiful rich, earthy, autumnal colour – I think ‘rusty orange’ does it a disservice! I’ll be looking out to see what you make with it.

  13. May 19, 2009 7:00 am

    What a beautiful shade! I did some dying in the autumn and want to do more as we move into better weather around here. I have been relegated to the shed because DH can’t stand the smell! But I love it!

    • May 19, 2009 7:22 am

      thank you – think you should rename your shed ‘the dyehouse’ 🙂

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