Digging Deeper into a Single Dye – Madder (Rubia cordifolia)

I’ve been using a lot of madder. I have madder roots from my own garden and extracts on the shelf,  but right now I’m focused on the fabulous ground Rubia cordifolia from India that I purchased from Maiwa. It’s ground very, very fine. Charllotte tells me that it’s ground on a mill stone.

Madder (Rubia cordifolia) on linen

Because the particles are so small, the dye is extracted more easily than from chopped madder root. The color is redder than I would expect from a rubia cordifolia. I love it!

Once the fibers are mordanted correctly I’ve usually been content to make a full strength dye bath. There is always leftover dye in the bath, which most often  gets turned into a dye lake. I didn’t have a full understanding of how much dye was actually in the dye pot or what  remained after the initial dyeing. In order to control my colors and  mix them effectively I needed a clearer picture of dye strength and hue.

I embarked on a systematic observation of the dye. The fiber was linen. It was treated with tannin and mordanted with aluminum acetate. I weighed out the total amount of dye that was needed for my various samples.  Typically I do 2-3 extractions in order to make my dye bath but this time I decided to continue extracting until there appeared to be no more color coming from the ground root. This took SIX 20 minute extractions! I realized that I had previously been wasting some of the dye.

The fabric was dyed with the extracted liquid. The amount of dye ranged  from 6.25% w.o.f. to 100% w.o.f. I also did exhaust baths of the dye.

Madder exhaust bath, linen

Madder is an interesting dye because it contains so many different colorants. The alizarin is what gives us the red, but it also contains other colorants: yellow, orange an brown. The initial dye at each depth of shade was dominated by the red. Exhaust baths contained less  red, while the orange dominated. The colors obtained from the initial dyeing at 50% w.o.f. and 100% w.o.f.were very similar but the stronger bath continued to give me red before the color turned more orange.

madder % 1
Dye % range and exhaust baths

The test was repeated  on wool with similar results.

madder % 3
Madder % range on wool

Dye extracts are what drew me back into natural dyeing but I’m finding that working with plant material is far more compelling. Each plant and dyestuff is unique and since these are natural products they are subject to the changes in growing seasons and processing. Testing my dyes in order to understand the nuances is time well spent. It will make me a better dyer.


32 thoughts on “Digging Deeper into a Single Dye – Madder (Rubia cordifolia)

  1. FINALLY, someone else who has the MAIWA powder! I’ve had only orange results, but keep trying. And i *definitely* have been wasting the bath then…………i’m about to try an alkaline extraction method a la Krista Vajanto.

    1. I did a slow fermentation with madder inspired by Krista Vajanto and got a clear red in water and a more brown shade with the alkaline. I’ll be interested to know what your results are.

  2. Hi Catherine. I’m a little confused. I remember from the workshop that this Maiwa madder was so intense it only required 2-4% extract to wof. What am I missing? Still hoping you’ll visit!

  3. Thank you Catharine. I am experimenting with different tannins and am interested what others use. I have recently picked some Acacia gall nuts and want to see what they do too.

  4. I am just beginning to use natural dyes with cotton. What is the purpose of the tanin? Is it part of the alum acetate mordant?
    I’m looking forward to getting your revised book.

  5. Hello. I’m a french designer and I practise natural dye for several years. I use also madder roots but i don’t arrive to have pink and light pink like you. I like very much this color. I’m not sure I understood. You use the same bath several times without adding madder roots? That’s right? And you repeat it 6 times? the colors are resistant with light?
    Thanks a lot for your answer. (sorry for my bad english 🙂 )

    1. Sophie,
      The six 20 minute extractions were done without adding any more madder root. I was trying to get a sense of how long it took to extract all the dye from the roots. So I can conclude that a two hour extraction will remove most of the color. Usually I would leave the root material in the dyebath with the fiber.
      The pink colors were from either weak baths or exhaust baths. Pale colors are never as light fast as the darker ones but I did do some lightfast testing and I think that all the colors held up very well.

      1. Thanks very much Catharine for your answer :). You say :”Usually I would leave the root material in the dyebath with the fiber.”. You didn’t put madder roots with fibers in the dyebath during this tests? it is the madder roots that you try to extract? not the first bath? It’s a very good news so if the pink color don’t change with light. I will do tests. And did you try dying fibers in soaked cold? thanks Sophie

  6. Hi,I am vikas .using Indian madder(ground roots).I get orangish red but not blood red.how can I get blood red?what should be the mordant percentage as I don’t want to use too much mordant.

    1. The color from madder is very much dependent on the roots themselves, how and where they were grown, the water, and the mordant. Indian madder (Rubia cordifolia) tends to be more orange in color than European madder (Rubia tinctoria). Madder does very well with hard water containing minerals, especially calcium. You can try adding some calcium carbonate (chalk) to you madder dye bath and see if that changes the color at all.

  7. Sophie,
    Usually I would leave the ground roots and the fiber in the bath at the same time. But in this case I did not because I wanted to get a sense of how long it took to extract all the dye from the root material. This experiment did not include cold dyeing but I have done that in the past. It works very well with ground room material.

    1. Thanks a lot :). And can you tell me how I do to work with cold dyeing? The fiber need mordant or not? It is necessary to heat the madder roots bath at 70 degre in the first stage? then cool down the bath? thanks

  8. That should have read “ground root material”! Yes, I begin the extraction with heat, then add the fiber and allow it to sit from 1-5 days. You may also want to experiment with cold extraction. I’m not sure how it will work.

  9. Hi Catherine,
    I’ve just discovered your great and wonderfully informative blog.
    Like you I’ve been experimenting with madder, i think you could spend a lifetime. I’m using the chopped up roots and after extracting dye I’ve just left them in some rain water in a pot on our roof for 2 weeks. The pot is still dyeing but interestingly the root pieces ate no longer making marks on the fabric where they touch so I reckon all the dye has finally come out. I live in the south of Spain and I’ve found rain water gives much stronger colours, but I don’t have much!!!! From the same roots I got super colours from well water in Ireland in the summer. There are SO many factors, the fun of natural dyeing. Thanks again for all the info.

  10. Abbreviations are only useful if people know what they mean. I have no idea what ‘wof’ is and you rely on it for everything. I suggest the first use of any abbreviation, even if you think it’s something everyone ought to know, be typed in full. It will take an extra 5 seconds, but there’s no point in writing out all these results when you’re doing it by a metric that is a mystery to the reader.

  11. Thank you for posting your investigation with madder. I used several of the tips–multiple extractions and adding calcium carbonate–in my recent dye session. Being a beginner with natural dyes, all of my results amaze me but this last batch was really impressive! Really appreciate your generosity in sharing your wisdom here.

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