Madder is an extremely ancient dye and was most likely the first plant used to color textiles along with indigo. There are several members of the Rubiaceae family that contain alizarin but the most commonly used is Rubia tinctorium. The earliest indication of colored thread is from Catal Huyuk in Turkey and is from the beginning of the sixth millennium BC. A group of beads were found with traces of red inside the string holes, which suggests that the thread was originally red. Most varieties are indigenous to India, Persia, Asia Minor and Europe, although a few varieties can be found in North America including Mexico. It eventually became the most cultivated dye plant in the world. In the 1800's the best madder came from Holland and France. In 1868, the German chemists Graebe and Liebermann discovered the formula for alizarin. To protect the French madder producers from competition with the new synthetic alizarin, until 1870, the French government had soldier's uniform pants dyed red with madder. By 1871, synthetic alizarin was being produced in large quantities and almost completely drove madder out of Europe. Synthetic alizarin gradually disappeared from the market when other synthetic dyes for red were developed. By the turn of the century synthetic alizarin was only being used in India for printing cotton.

Taken from Jim Liles book, “The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing”

"The very best, fastest, and most sought after red on cotton and on linen from about 1600 to 1930 was Turkey red. Indian dyers probably produced relatively fast madder reds by about 2000 BC, and they undoubtedly developed the Turkey red process also, though this is usually credited to the Persian, Turkish, and Greek dyers along the area of the Mediterranean known as the Levant on about 1600 AD.

The process was much more complicated than that for simple madder red. It originally involved some thirteen to twenty tricky steps to be performed over a three to four month period. Ingredients used in various of the steps (from 1600 to 1880) included cattle, sheep, or camel dung; rancid olive oil, castor oil, sesame seed oil, palm oil, fish oil, or lard; soda ash, tannin, alum, chalk, madder, and sometimes blood. The brightening process, which produces the brilliant, fiery shades, include boiling the dyed article, sometimes with tin salts. Even the best dye houses (usually set up for Turkey red dyeing alone) had frequent failures. Turkey red was expensive, but if well done it would last until the yarn or cloth was in tatters, and it did not fade or bleed onto surrounding white areas.

I think it is most probable that the Indians first developed the process because it was they who were the first (by several centuries) to produce good madder reds on cotton, and because Turkey red involves additional steps which enhance the dyeing of cotton red with madder. So intricate was the process that it took literally every country in Europe 150 years to steal away and master this "Oriental" technique. The French and Dutch were apparently first to to obtain it in Europe in about 1750. Turkey red is the most complex of any dye known, ancient or modern, and it's entire chemistry has never been totally confirmed, mostly because it was entirely replaced by the much cheaper synthetic reds by 1910-1940, at which point further study of its chemistry ceased."

By the mid 19th century madder had become the most investigated of  all the natural dyes. At that time it was discovered that there are at least five different coloring agents in the roots. They are alizarin, purpurin, pusedo-purpurin, xanthin and chlorogenin. Alizarin is a polychromatic dye. It produces different colors with different mordants and mordant combinations. As with synthetic indigo, synthetic alizarin is somewhat "flat". It is the combination of the different coloring constituents in the plants that give natural dyes their depth and glow.

picture courtesy of Deb McClintock

picture courtesy of Deb McClintock

The madder plant is a low growing perennial herbaceous vine with thorns and has small yellowish flowers that start blooming in July. By September, the flowers have turned into small, shiny black berries. The leaves die back in winter and come back in the Spring. It is the root that contains the dye properties. It takes at least 3 or more years after planting for the roots to develop the dye, then they are usually harvested when the roots are at least 1/4 inch in diameter and several feet long. After being harvested, the roots are cleaned, dried and broken.

Besides indigo, madder is my favorite dye source.  I love the warm glowing reds and oranges that madder will give you.  This past Spring I decided I wanted a madder orange sweater for the Fall.  I used 4, 8 oz. skeins of a 60/40 blend of mohair and ramboillet.  I love this yarn because it's not really "hairy" like most mohair and it's regional as the angora goats live in the mountains of Tennessee.  I scoured and mordanted the yarn.

Then weighed out an equal amount of dried madder roots, covered the roots with water and heated ever so gently then let sit over night.  Poured off that water as it has more "brown" in it.  Added more water and a tiny amount of citric acid and sat the pot in the sun, once the roots were softer, I chopped them up in a blender and put the pot in the sun again.  After several days I strained those roots, added more water and let that sit in the sun, always saving the liquid, I did that several more times or until the liquid was become clear.  At that point I added calcium carbonate to "harden" the dye bath.  I wanted more of an orange, not so much red so I didn't add a lot.  I then added the yarn and set the pot in the sun again.  After several days, to be quite honest, I didn't keep up with how long it took, I just looked and stirred the pot every day, when the yarn was a little darker than I wanted, I removed the yarn and let it dry.  After a couple of weeks, I rinsed it.  It was not a quick process, but I enjoyed the process and letting the sun do all the work.   I like the color, it looks like paprika!

And, those spent madder roots didn't go to waste, they were used to start an indigo fermentation vat.  More on that later.


The books I referenced for this post are:

The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing, Traditional Recipes for Modern Use by J.N. Liles

Madder Red, A history of luxury and trade by Robert Chenciner

Natural Dyes, Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science by Dominique Cardon