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Dye With Madder

Madder Rubia tinctorum
Also called Turkey red

The roots of this ancient plant are rich in red alizarin and are the source of a strong red dye. The uniforms of the British Red Coats were dyed with madder root. It is a perennial plant growing to a height of approximately 100cm. It has slender, jointed stems which are covered with short prickly leaves. The flowers are small green/yellow and bell shaped. In the late autumn the seeds turn black and dry out to resemble black peppercorns. Madder can be propagated from seed, root and shoot divisions. Germination takes 2 – 3 weeks. Madder thrives in full sun and well drained soil. The colour yielded, varies from reds to orange depending on the mineral content of the soil and water, the age of the root and where the madder was grown. The temperature of the dye pot also affects the colour as does the water used. Madder produces a better red in hard water, hence the addition of calcium carbonate to the dye bath. The roots produce more alizarin pigment if the soil is well limed in the winter.

To harvest madder

Lift the roots from 3 – 5 year old plants in the spring or autumn. The root of the madder also contains brown and yellow pigments. Wash the roots thoroughly but carefully.

Before washing I leave the roots outside for a few hours on a sunny day to allow the surface soil to dry on the root and then use a soft brush to gently remove the excess soil making washing the root a little easier. I then lay the roots in a plastic vegetable tray which serves as a type of colander and gently hose the roots – allowing the dirty water to rinse away which then removes the majority of the remaining soil and finally a more thorough wash in buckets of water until all the soil is removed and the roots are clean.

I soak the roots in hot water for an hour or so to leach out some of the unwanted pigments (brown and yellow).

To dye with madder root

  • 100g dried chopped madder root
  • 100g of alum mordented fibre/yarn (dry weight)
  • 10 litres of water
  • 6g of calcium carbonate
  • 12 litre stainless steel bucket

Dissolve the calcium carbonate in hot water and add to the cold water in the dye bucket. Soak the madder root overnight in the dye bucket. At the same time soak your alum mordanted fibre/yarn in a separate container to open up the fibres.

The following day VERY SLOWLY heat the dye bucket to 140 degrees F (taking between 2 – 3 hours) Use a thermometer. Overheating will not give good red colours – just browns. Turn off the heat and allow to cool.

Strain the madder root through a double layer of muslin (cradled in a sieve) and repeat if necessary. Save this pigment for producing paler shades later.

Pour the strained liquid back into the dye bucket.

Squeeze the soaking fibre and carefully enter it into the dye bucket and slowly raise the heat to 140 degrees F. Maintain this temperature for an hour. Turn off the heat and leave to cool overnight.

The following day remove the fibre from the dye bucket and allow to dry before rinsing and washing.

If you wish you can use the dye liquor to give paler shades by following the procedure above – until the dye is exhausted.

To dye with madder powder

Calculate 50g of madder powder to dye 50g of fibre a dark red or 100g of fibre for a paler shade.

Mix the powder with warm water to make a runny paste and add to the dye bucket containing 7 -  10 litres of cold water.

Dissolve 6g of chalk (calcium carbonate) in hot water and add to the dye bucket.


Add pre soaked mordanted fibre and VERY SLOWLY raise the temperature to 140 degrees F. Maintain this temperature for an hour. Turn off the heat and leave to cool overnight.

The following day remove the fibre from the dye bucket and allow to dry before rinsing and washing.

Buy madder powder here 

Buy chopped madder root here

Buy madder seeds here