Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is a plant that has been harnessed for thousands of years by dyeing communities around the world. A member of the extensive Rubiacae family of plants, which includes the coffee plant, it is native to Central and Southern Europe, North Africa and Central Asia. This perennial climbing plant grows to a height of about 100cm, and produces small yellow flowers followed by dark berries. But it is for its roots that madder is renowned. Growing to over a metre long and a centimetre thick, these roots contain a number of chemical compounds that produce a range of shades from deep brick-reds and oranges to pale dusky and salmon pinks. Through lengthy processing the red element, alizarin, can also be coaxed into giving up the coveted ‘Turkey’ red. Madder is also associated with the uniforms of the British Army ‘Redcoats’.
Traces of madder have been found in ancient paints, pottery and fabrics from Europe to China. Fibre dyed with madder was found in the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun (d.1323 BC) and has been unearthed at various archaeological sites such as Pompeii (79 AD).
Natural dyes can be extracted from many plants but are often ‘fugitive’, meaning they are likely to fade rather quickly. However nature has been generous in providing the three primary colours in a few key plants that give relatively colourfast natural dyes:
Madder (Rubia tinctorum), as detailed above, yields robust to rosy reds.
Weld (Reseda luteola) gives a bright, almost luminous, yellow dye and subtler shades in lower concentrations. Fustic (Chlorophora tinctoria) also produces strong yellows.
Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) thrives in hot humid climates and gives intense shades of blue across a wide spectrum. Its temperate-climate cousin, woad (Isatis tinctoria), gives less dramatic but pretty shades of blue.
These dyes can be used alone in varying concentrations, or mixed and modified to produce an extensive palette of colours. Their colourfast properties meant they were the dyes of choice for many of the mediaeval tapestries that we can still see today, including the famous Bayeux Tapestry.
Madder root was an important commodity of the ancient trade routes connecting Europe with the Middle and Far East until it was gradually displaced by the development of synthetic dyes in the 19th century. But nothing can quite replace the subtlety and depth of this remarkable dye in its natural form. Cultivating it domestically in a temperate climate requires only the most basic of gardening skills – but you will need to be patient. Once established the plant needs three or more years for the roots to grow and thicken, and for the colour to develop sufficiently to make it worth harvesting. The roots then need to be cleaned and cut and can be used fresh or dried for storage.
Fortunately, for those without the patience, stamina or growing space, chopped or ground madder root is readily available from craft suppliers – at a price! The cost of buying natural dyestuffs is often the most expensive element of any such dyeing project, so you want to make the most of your outlay. And madder has a lot to give.
In the next blog I’ll be detailing how to achieve four distinct and attractive colours from one batch of madder – and a left over (exhausted) weld dye bath.
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