Over the last month or so I have been dyeing a lot with madder (rubia tinctorum), trying to get a clear red, which can be a bit elusive to achieve. I thought I’d write a little blog post about it as there has been a lot of reading and experimenting involved, a lot of swearing and disappointment until finally a success!

I’ve always dyed with dried roots and not powdered madder and all the material has been sourced from the same supplier. All the dyeing has been done using my tap water. My yarn is all pre mordanted in a 10% alum mordant bath. London is in a hard water area which should create ideal conditions for madder reds. Well, this doesn’t seem to be the case in my house as my water Ph is 7 which is neutral. I’ve been reading a lot about madder lately; from books and blogs. I knew I needed an alkaline environment for clear reds so I needed to increase the Ph of my water.

I did three different experiments for red. I’ve dyed with madder before, but in these three occasions I wanted clear red and nothing else. I used super wash yarns for all the dyebaths. The first was a 100% Bfl and the other two merino singles.

The first try was a cold dye bath I found instructions for Riihivilla’s blog. I dyed 1:1 ratio of yarn and madder root. I pre soaked the madder overnight. They went in the a bucket and stayed there for a week. All I did was to give the bucket a good stir once a day. The smell was very unpleasant and the liquid slimy a gunky, but red.

Alum + madder from a cold dye bath

The colour turned out beautiful! Not what I was after, but a fun experiment. I didn’t alter the Ph at all this time neither did I discard any soaking water like I did in the following experiments.

Second time I dyed a bath with again 1:1 ratio of yarn and madder root. I prepared the bath by pouring boiling water on my madder roots and discarding this water afterwards. I repeated this once more. I found this method on Jenny Dean’s blog. I added chalk to the bath and had a Ph of 7 and kept the temperature at 60 degrees for an hour

Top to bottom; Madder+ alum, Madder + copper, Madder + Iron, Madder + citric acid

The results were very much on the orange side. I think not soaking the roots meant the colour stayed quite pale. And my Ph was neutral. I’ve then realized adding chalk doesn’t increase alkalinity, just creates a neutral Ph. I’m not one to be put off by an unsuccessfull dye bath I decided to go for a different kind of experiment and modify the skeins in various after baths. I used citric acid, iron and copper, a gram of each in and kept the skeins in for 5 minutes. All yielded different results and I was surprised how subtle the difference between the copper and iron dyed skein was. I expected the iron to be a lot darker. Next time I’ll try a longer modifying period.

And now for the third time lucky dye bath! This time I combined a few recipes and brilliant advice from my friend Jules. I doubled up on my madder; 2:1 ratio of madder to yarn. I soaked my madder over night and then discarded this liquid. I then rinsed it once more, again throwing away the liquid. I put my madder root in the saucepan and turned on a gentle heat. I measured the Ph which was 7. I then added bicarbonate soda to my dye bath, about two teaspoons of it. This raised the Ph to 8. I added my yarn and left it on a low heat. I kept my yarn in the dye pot for 2 hours with heat on and left it in overnight to cool down.

Madder + alum

Top to bottom; Madder 1st, 2nd and 3rd bath

Hurray! Finally I created a red! I did a little happy dance when I lifted the skein out of the pot.
Growing madder takes a good three years (at least) so dyeing with it was never going to be a quick process. I’m not sure if there was a single element that caused me to succeed in the end or was it all the knowledge I combined. Now I need to re- create this colour as well as try cold dyeing again, but with a raised Ph. I really wish I had paid more attention to chemistry lessons. I might have a better base skills to understanding all the variables properly, but maybe I’ll get there one day, hopefully in time for when my own madder roots can be harvested.

1st year madder plant being re-potted

2 thoughts on “Madder

  1. Hi Emma, I recreated your 3rd method of creating a red – and succeeded. I got a beautiful deep red on unbleached soya-fibres.
    Recently I bought more soya-fibres for more pretty reds.
    Looking forward to dying with madder again.
    Thanks so much for sharing your experiments.
    Warm regards, Isabel


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