Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is one of the ancient primary dye plants, unsurpassed for its glowing, earthy warm hues and potential to make rich, clear plant-based reds otherwise difficult to find in nature. Common madder can grow to five feet high. The roots, the source of the dye, can be over three feet long. I grow madder root both in my urban home dye garden and with my students at our Oakland community garden. It is easy to grow from seed. I recommend planting in deep planter boxes or a designated section of your garden, as madder roots deepen and expand and the plant sends out sticky vines that can move quickly and threaten neighboring plants. Growing madder root can be an exercise in patience; however, it is pure joy to dig them from earth once they’ve matured after two to four years.
Madder root creates rich, vibrant reds, oranges, and pinks, depending on the pH of your water, the mordant you use, and processing time. You can continue to use one madder root bath to get lighter shades of red, coral, and pink.
Dyeing with madder root is satisfying any time of year, but its vital oranges and deep reds are especially suited for fall. These are perfect shades to dye any thick woolens in your closet, as I’ve done here, to warm the darker, cooler days.
Harvest fresh madder root by digging up entire roots from mature plants (at least two to four years old). Soak and gently brush any dirt off of the roots.
Dried madder root can also be bought from a specialty dye supplier to experiment with while you wait for your own madder roots to mature!
As so many beautiful garments throughout history have been dyed with madder root, using this warm palette from deep in the earth to keep you cozy is a fine way to connect with and honor all your fellow practitioners of this ancient art—creating an heirloom textile from an heirloom color.
- Woven wool scarf, 22 by 90 inches (about 8 ounces)
- 3 teaspoons aluminum sulfate
- 3 teaspoons cream of tartar (optional)
- 8 ounces madder root, chopped into ½-inch pieces and soaked overnight
- pH-neutral soap
- Heat- and water-resistant gloves
- Mortar and pestle or dedicated dye blender
- Medium stainless steel pot with lid
Scour your wool scarf. Premordant your scarf with alum and cream of tartar, if using.
Grind your madder root pieces, using a mortar and pestle or dedicated blender.
In a medium stainless steel pot two-thirds full of water, heat the madder root to a low simmer and simmer for 40 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the dye bath steep; leave it overnight for stronger color.
Warm the dye bath to lukewarm, add the wet scarf, and slowly raise the heat to a low simmer. Gently simmer your scarf for 40 to 60 minutes, then turn off the heat and let your scarf steep overnight.
Gently rinse your scarf with pH-neutral soap and water at a temperature similar to the dye bath from which you’ve removed it, so as not to shock the fiber. Without squeezing out any water, hang or lay the scarf to dry out of direct sunlight. Despite these precautions, it is normal to have some shrinkage during the dyeing process.