For a number of years I have been using madder (Rubia cordifolia) sourced from Maiwa (in Vancouver, BC almost exclusively for my dyeing. I particularly appreciate the fact that it is finely ground so that I am usually able to just put the dye into the bath along with my textile. If dyeing yarn, however, I typically will place the ground dye into a net bag to keep small particles of madder from physically attaching to the fibers.
I once heard Michel Garcia speak about the fact that you can nearly double the yield from madder root if it is finely ground. It makes sense. More surface area means that it’s easier to extract the dye.
Early last year I harvested about 5 pounds of madder roots (Rubia tinctorium) from my garden. The plants were started from seed and they had been in the ground for about 5 years. I dug up the entire bed (about 4’ x 8’), pulled up the largest of the roots, leaving the smaller roots in place. I amended the soil, added some chalk, and the plants have continued to grow in the same location. My theory is that I can continue to harvest every few years by leaving the roots in the same place and repeating the amendment process We’ll see…
I cleaned and dried the roots. Some of the dyes are developed by in the drying process so that is important. A few weeks later, I dug up another small patch. With this second batch, it occurred to me that maybe I could grind up the roots before drying them. It was easy to chop up the fresh roots into small pieces with an old food processor that I have designated for studio use. Once chopped, the roots dried very easily on horizontal screens.
Last month, I was preparing a major piece for an exhibition and I wanted to use my own madder. The large, dried roots proved to be problematic. I wanted to grind them as fine as possible but was not sure how to proceed.
I tried a mechanical corn grinder. It was a terrible experience! The grind was very coarse, the roots jammed in the grinder, and it was not at all successful. I tried the old food processor – not powerful enough to be effective. I even tried grinding small amounts in a dye-designated coffee/spice grinder. It was better, but still not very good and it would have taken far too long since the capacity of the grinder was very small.
I did some research, and finally decided to purchase a powerful electric grinder that is recommended for medicinal herbs (roots) etc. It was amazing! First, I quickly broke the roots into smaller pieces by hand, which allowed me to pull out the “chaff” (the stem pieces with no dye). I put the smaller root pieces into the grinder and I had finely ground madder root in just two minutes!
I’ve learned a lot (of course). Madder root, even when dried completely, still has elements (sugars maybe?) that coated the bowl of the grinder with a layer of sticky madder. The bowl of the new grinder cannot be immersed in water so I had to work hard to clean it out. But the madder is all ground and the grinder is now ready to grind my dried sumac leaves and some other tannins.
In our book, The Art and Science of Natural Dyes, Joy and I discuss and show examples of how a dyer sometimes has more control over the color when using madder roots rather than extracts. The source (and type) of the roots is also a factor. Madder contains many different dyes and the two different species contain different combinations.
As I began my tests for the exhibition piece, I did many samples and used madder roots from a variety of sources. The woven shibori project utilized mordant printing with different strengths of aluminum acetate, ferrous acetate, and combinations of the two mordants. When Rubia tinctorium is used with iron mordants, it is possible to achieve distinct purple colors. The purples are not possible with Rubia cordifolia, as the dyes within the roots are different. I was very happy to observe that my own madder was the very best of all!
I am very encouraged to keep growing…and dyeing….
I have begun using my own copy of The Art and Science of Natural Dyes in the studio and in my teaching. No, I do not have all of those recipes committed to memory! I have found it very useful to add tabs to the book, making it easy to navigate and find exactly what I’m looking for.
Note: Maiwa now carries very finely ground Rubia tinctorium roots.