five skeins of yarn in shades of red, orange and coral and two fabric samples in coral and pink laying on a wooden table

Natural Dyeing with Madder

This blog post is all about natural dyeing with madder. You can use madder to dye both yarn and fabric and create beautiful shades of reds, oranges and corals.

madder root in a glass jar and some roots on a wooden table

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Madder

Madder or Rubia tinctorum is a herbaceous perennial plant species that belongs to the bedstraw and coffee family Rubiaceae. The common madder can grow up to 1.5 m in height, it has evergreen leaves and pale yellow flowers. The part of the madder plant that is usually used for natural dyeing is the roots. After two years, the roots are ready for harvesting and can be used as a dye source.
In addition, the plant tops can also be utilized for natural dyeing, they create shades of tan and coral-pink.

Madder roots have been used as a natural dye material for thousands of years and in different parts of the world, for example in India and various parts of Europe. The chemical compound that functions as the dye source is alizarin [1].


If you want to learn how to dye yarn with natural dyes, you can check out this step by step tutorial on my Youtube channel:

a woman holding a yellow skein of yarn. a second picture is showing a basket filled with colorful skeins of yarn. a text saying: How to dye yarn at home with natural dyes

Tips for Dyeing with Madder Root

#1 Gentle Dyeing Process

As is the case with natural dyeing in general, slow is usually best. Slowly heating the madder roots below simmering, letting the dye solution sit overnight before filtering off the dye material or even heating a second time is beneficial to the color depth of the dye solution. Cooking the roots can dull the color.

#2 Mordant with Alum

If you want to create a deep red, you should use alum as a mordant.

#2 How Much Madder Should I Use?

This depends on the depth of color you want to achieve. Madder roots are one of the dye materials that need to be used in high concentrations (equal amounts of dyestuff and fiber) if you want to create a saturated, deep shade of red. However, it is also an efficient dye and you can use the dyebath several times. This means you should always have extra skeins of yarn or fabric on hand so that you can create lighter shades with a second or third exhaust.

#3 PH Sensitivity

You have to be aware that madder is a dyestuff that creates different color results depending on the pH of the dyebath. Acidic dyebaths will shift the color more towards apricot and create a more yellow undertone. Alkaline environments yield shades of pink.

#4 How to Create Clear Madder Reds

In order to achieve a deep red colorway, you have to use a sufficient amount of dyestuff. You should aim for equal amounts of dyestuff and fiber. It is also important to make sure that the dye solution is alkaline enough. If you live in an area with hard water, your tap water should be sufficiently alkaline. If not, you can add a little of washing soda to bring up the pH. You can test the pH of your dye bath with a
pH test strip.

Natural Dyeing with Madder: Natural Dyeing Process

List of Materials

Undyed skein of yarn
or piece of fabric
100 g
You can simply use an undyed, natural skein of yarn. Maybe you even have some suitable yarn already in your stash. If you want to use a yarn that is in the form of a ball or cake, you have to create a skein first. This can be done by using a swift (this is the one I use and can recommend).
I used my Merino Lino yarn base (85% German Merino wool, 15% linen).

For the fabric, I used a small sample of 100% cotton and one of 100% linen.
MordantA mordant is used to set dyes on fibers by forming a coordination complex with the dye. It increases the fastness of the dye.

For the yarn, I used alum or potassium alum (KAl(SO4)2·12H2O) – see below for more information.
The fabrics were mordanted with aluminium triformate – see below for more information.
DyestuffMadder Roots
PotYou can use an old pot or acquire one just for natural dyeing purposes. This is the size I use if I dye only one skein at a time, it has a holding capacity of 6 qt (5.7 L).
Bucket or Washing PanTo scour and wash the yarn.
Kitchen ScaleTo measure the mordant and dyestuff. This is the one I use.
TieTo secure the yarn and avoid tangling. You have to use something that is stable in boiling water and doesn’t give off any color. I usually use some kind of package cord.
SpoonWooden or stainless steel
Dish ShoapWhatever you have on hand.
This is used to scour and wash the yarn.
Wool Laundry DetergentThis is the one I use and can recommend. It is gentle and doesn’t have any smell.

Precautions: Don’t use the same pots and utensils for natural dyeing that you use for food preparation. Always wear gloves. Creating the dye solution, mordanting and the dyeing process itself should be done in a well ventilated area. I often use a cooking plate that I put on my patio.

Natural Dyeing Instructions

  1. On the first day, measure the amount of madder roots you want to use, put them in a pot and add tap water. Let it sit overnight.

    On the same day, scour your fiber in preparation for the dyeing process. If you want to know more about scouring, you can have a look at this blog post:
    How to Dye Yarn with Natural Dyes

  2. On the next day, slowly heat the madder roots only up to 176 F (80°C) and keep the water at this temperature for about 60 minutes. Then let the pot cool down and sit overnight.

    It is also time to mordant your fiber on this day. You can learn more about how to mordant a skein of yarn or piece of fabric in this blog post: Mordants for Natural Dyes

  3. On the following day, add your fiber to the dye pot. In order to create saturated colorways, you can simple leave the madder roots in the dye pot.
    This will result in a more tonal colorway with different depth of color throughout the yarn or fabric. If you want to create an even color result, you can also choose to filter off the dyestuff beforehand.

    Heat the pot was for about 60 minutes, keeping the temperature at 140 F (60°C) maximum. Then let the dye bath cool down and sit overnight.
    If you want to deepen the color, leave the yarn in the dye bath for another day before taking it out.
a skein of red yarn in a dyepot
  1. On the next day, take the fiber out of the dye bath, wash it and hang it to dry. If you want to learn about these steps in more detail, you can download my free Beginner’s Guide to Natural Dyeing.
two hanks of red yarn laying on a wooden table, naturally dyed with madder

Dyeing Yarn with Madder: Color Results

Now, let’s have a look at the color results. Madder yields different shades of red and orange when used in high concentrations. Further exhausts of the dye bath create lighter pink and coral tones.

six skeins of yarn in shades of red, orange and light apricot laying on a wooden floor

The cotton fabric was dyed in a light coral shade with a yellow undertone. The linen fabric took the dye more than the cotton, the result is a beautiful shade of coral/pink. On the picture below, the linen fabric is the one on top and the cotton is down below.

five skeins of yarn in shades of red, orange and coral and two fabric samples in coral and pink laying on a wooden table

I hope you are inspired to give natural dyeing with madder a try. Let me know in the comments below if you have dyed with madder before and how your color results looked!

And if you want some more inspiration on plants and other natural materials you can use for natural dyeing, I recommend that you have a look at these blog posts:

Natural Dyeing with Amaranth

How to Dye Yarn with Coffee

Dyeing Yarn with Onion Skins

Natural Dyeing with Avocado: Pits vs. Skins

Natural Dyeing with Rosemary

Pin It For Later: Natural Dyeing with Madder

two pictures, one of a glass jar filled with madder roots spilling out. the second picture is of a dye pot filled with red dye and a red skein of yarn. a text saying natural dyeing with madder.

Further Reading:

[1]         https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubia_tinctorum

[2] Dean, Jenny, et al. Wild Colour: How to Make & Use Natural Dyes. Mitchell Beazley, 2018

Annika

I am a yarn dyeing artist, writer and educator.
I am also an avid knitter and love to create something with my hands every day.
Read more about me here:
https://www.rosemaryandpinesfiberarts.de/about-the-writer/

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