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!