Madder Roots, Harvest, and Comparisons

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!

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Ground madder root @ 50% w.o.f. on cotton with mordant printing. Left to right: Rubia tinctorium from my garden, Rubia tinctorium from France, Rubia cordifolia from India (Maiwa). Note the purples achieved from the Rubia tinctorium with an iron mordant.

 

 

Garden Series: Madder, detail of finished piece
Garden Series: Madder, detail of finished piece

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.

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Note: Maiwa now carries very finely ground Rubia tinctorium roots.

 

 

It’s Goldenrod Season

I  have always enjoyed how the goldenrod grows and blooms alongside the purple asters – a beautiful combination of complimentary colors. Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) is a member of the aster family. There are many solidago species native to North America, and they can also be found in other parts of the world. 

Is goldenrod a good source of dye? Yes, but with reservations. 

Though it is not one of the “classical” dyes, and it’s lightfastness does not match that of weld, it was used as a locally available dye in North American and Europe. Dominique Cardon (Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology, and Science) writes about goldenrod’s  historical use, along with weld and Persian berries, to dye the yellow hats the Jews were required to wear in the south of France in the 13th century. 

I’ve always read that goldenrod does NOT dry well for future use – so I never tried to dry it. I can accept the fact that some dyes deteriorate in the drying process. Black walnut hulls are a good example.

A couple years ago I was teaching a class here in Asheville, NC on dyes that could be sourced from the local food co-op. I used dried goldenrod plant material, as it is used medicinally. It resulted in very good color. So I began to wonder….. CAN A GOOD DYE BE OBTAINED FROM DRIED GOLDENROD? 

It’s one thing to read a statement about a plant – it’s another thing to know and understand that statement. I  had never tried to dry goldenrod. This year I finally got around to doing my own testing.

I gathered fresh goldenrod, and used that to dye aluminum mordanted wool, silk, and cotton. There are many yellow dyes in goldenrod and they may include quercitron, isoquercitron, kaempferol, astragalin, isorhamnetin. Since the dyes in goldenrod are primarily flavonols, a mordant is required. 

I  dried goldenrod from that same harvest. Plants were hung upside down in a dry space with plenty of air flow. Only the flowering heads were used as a source of dye. I was able to accurately determine the weight of the plant before and after drying. 300 grams of fresh goldenrod flowers resulted in 100 grams of dry flowers. 

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100 grams of dried flowers (left) and 300 grams fresh flowers (right)

I dyed with fresh goldenrod at 300% w.o.f, while the dried was used at 100% w.o.f. Because I knew the weight before and after drying, I was confident that I was using the same amount of dye, whether it was fresh or dry plant material.

The results: The dyes seem not to have suffered from the drying process. Careful drying is likely a key element. So yes, I will dry some goldenrod and I will complete lightfastness tests on all three fibers. The goldenrod will not replace the weld that I grow and dry each year, Weld will always be my primary yellow dye as that has proven to be the best, and most lightfast yellow dye. But it is good to know a bit more about the dyes from plants available in my neighborhood. 

goldenrod samples

Thus far I have used only the flower heads for dyeing. Maybe next year I’ll experiment with the stems and leaves from the entire plant. 

 

The Art and The Science of Natural Dyes by Catharine Ellis and Joy Boutrup, available in late fall, is now available for pre-order.

Re-visiting Local Plants.

Last week I was a student in a class with local dyer, Dede Styles, at Cloth Fiber Workshop. Dede describes herself as a “heritage dyer”. She learned the craft from Mary Frances Davidson, another heritage dyer from our North Carolina mountain region, who wrote a book on the local dye plants. The Dye Pot, originally published in 1950, is still in print today.

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Dede discussing her naturally dyed yarns

Dede dyes mostly wool and uses only local plants that she can collect herself (with the exception of cochineal and indigo which do not grow here). Her knowledge of plants, local water sources, and seasonal growing patterns is exceptional. The dye plants she uses are very specific to this part of the country, though some are found in other areas.  They are chosen because they give good color that lasts.

She carried buckets of her own “creek water” to the workshop rather than use city water from the tap and described how she can obtain a certain color with a particular dye using water from her creek.  Water from “over the mountain” will produce a very different hue.

Dede dyes yarn in quantity, outdoors, using large stainless steel, iron, or copper pots. Her philosophy about dye amounts is to “cram as much dye plant material as possible into the pot”.  After cooking, she strains the liquid. All the yarn for a certain project must be dyed at the same time in a single dye-lot since results are not exactly repeatable. As someone who measures everything carefully and precicely, this is a refreshing approach.

Fall is a good time to gather local plants. We observed what was growing around the weedy area near the railroad tracks, paying special attention to stands of goldenrod, sumac, and fall asters.  Dede knows a lot.  She told us that many people think they are allergic to goldenrod, but the ragweed that grows nearby is really the source of the allergens – goldenrod is only pollinated by bees, thus there is no airborne pollen! The white asters seem to produce more color than the purple fall asters, says Dede – likely because the purple asters grow in damper areas – and maybe the dyestuff is diluted. She pointed out the difference between sumac and the similar looking Goldenraintree, which contains no dye.  Some plants are biennials and thus will only be found growing in the same area on alternate years. As we walked, Dede talked about responsible gathering of plants, and the damaging use of herbicides by roadsides and railroad tracks.  Gentrification, she says, is the enemy of wild dye plants. Springtime, when the tree sap is running,  is the only time to easily gather bark from a fallen tree.  And of course, she wanted to be sure we knew the difference between Virginia creeper and poison ivy – neither one of these is a dye plant but they are often found growing together in the same vicinity as the dye plants.

I hope that there are more “Dedes”  out there where you live  – people who know their plants from deep experience and observation and who are willing to share what they know. We owe it to ourselves to honor them and to learn from them. Dede told us that she is working on a book. It will be about the local Western North Carolina plants: where they grown, where to find them, and when to gather them responsibly.

Thank you Dede!

And a follow-up to my own earlier experiments with some locally gathered dyes – flavonoids. Some of them came from my garden (coreopsis, broom, chamomile, marigold, and weld) others from “the field” (black oak bark and goldenrod) and a couple were purchased (osage and Persian Berries). I dyed mordanted silk and subjected them to lightfastness tests. The weld from the garden will continue to be my “go-to” yellow dye.

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Flavonoid dyes after 3 weeks exposure to direct sun

 

What is Local Color?

Most of us working with natural dyes have no immediate tradition from which to learn or elders to teach us. We are re-inventing natural dye, trying to learn from books, teachers and other dyers who are willing to share what they know and, of course, our own experiences and mistakes.

Many of us purchase our natural dyes from suppliers in the form of extracts or dyestuffs that are grown and harvested in other parts of the world. In this way, we can access all of the classical dyes, such as indigo, madder, cochineal, weld, pomegranate, etc. These dyes do not necessarily reflect where we live or where we come from.

I was in Madagascar for two weeks during May for the International Festival of Plants, Ecology and Colors. Following the conference our small group spent time in a  village in the northwest deciduous region. There we saw women harvest raffia from the local palm trees and wild silk from cocoons in the local mangrove forest. Natural dyestuffs are gathered in the immediate surroundings and are coaxed from the leaves, barks, resins, and fruit of local plants. The ONLY dyes available are truly local dyes, which the dyers gather themselves and about which they possess a deep knowledge of experience. Most of the plants used for dyeing are also used medicinally. Importing dyestuffs is not an option here.

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Peeling away bark from tree (Hiragana madagascarensis). Bark is taken from one side only, in order to keep the tree healthy.

 

The  region is rich with sources of natural color, including reds from teak leaves, indigo from the local Indigofera erecta, gold and yellow from barks, and black from tannin and iron-rich mud. Wood ash and citrus fruit provide adjustments in pH when needed.

 

My own local environment does not have such range of color available in “the wild”, though I do maintain a garden of dye plants. I came home from this trip with a deeper understanding of what LOCAL color really means and now have a new resolve to identify local dye sources from my own immediate environment. No doubt, they will be variations of a yellow color since plants containing flavonols and tannins are in abundance.

 

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Local raffia, dyed with local plants
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Raffia weaving: red dyed with teak leaves, brown from tannin and iron rich mud, blue from fresh leaf indigo.

I have already begun the dye experiments in the search of my own “personal colors”. All of the dyes will be put through rigorous testing for light fastness and wash fastness. In the end, I hope to identify one or two dye sources that are abundant and easy to harvest here in western North Carolina. Of course, collection of these plants must pose no threat to our environment.

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Initial tests of local plants on silk with alum mordant and post mordant of ferrous acetate. Garden dye plants included for comparison.

I’ll report back once the testing is complete.

Eucalyptus – What’s in the dye?

Eucalyptus is not native to where I live but I have watched dyers (with a bit of envy) from other parts of the world use these plants as a source of color and tannin. Each year I grow a plant or two for experimentation. These experiments have led me to some interesting observations.

The variety commonly found at our local garden center is Silver Dollar Gum (Eucalyptus cinerea). A friend, visiting from Australia, fondly recognized it in the garden as “gummy”. It will grow as an annual here and I always dry the round “silver dollar” leaves for dye. Sometimes I can even acquire them amongst the floral arrangements in the local grocery store. This year I had a additional  variety (Eucalyptus globulus). It was grown by a friend from seeds that she brought from a tree in her yard in Ethiopia.

Dye tests were done on wool, both with and without an alum mordant, using dried leaves at 100% of the weight of fiber. Plants contain many different colorants. In the case of the Eucalyptus leaves, they contain both a flavonol and a tannin. The flavonols are typically yellow in color and require a mordant to attach to the fiber. The tannins  produce a variety of colors and do not require a mordant.

I placed non-mordanted wool fabric in the bath with the leaves. It was brought to a low simmer (approximately 190 degrees F). The color was slow to come but after about 2 hours the Eucalyptus cinerea resulted in a deep red/orange, while the Eucalyptus globulus  turned a deep brown.

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Eucalyptus cinerea (left) and Eucalyptus globulus (right) on non-mordanted wool

Alum-mordanted wool was dyed in a separate bath. The fiber quickly (within 30 minutes) turned a brilliant yellow from both varieties of eucalyptus. I removed some of the fiber from the dyebath when the yellow was still bright. As the rest of the fiber stayed in the bath, the tannins were released, changing the color of the wool from yellow to either a deep yellow/orange or a yellow brown. After two hours in the bath the mordanted fiber had been dyed by BOTH the flavonol and the tannin.

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Eucalyptus cinerea: (left to right) no mordant, 2 hour bath with mordant, 30 minute bath with mordant

 

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Eucalyptus globulus: (left to right) no mordant, 2 hour bath with mordant, 30 minute bath with mordant

Several years ago I heard Michel Garcia say that the clearest yellow color from plants may come at the beginning of a dyebath, before any tannins are extracted. As the fiber stays in the bath with the dyestuff, the tannins are released and the color becomes deeper and duller. The eucalyptus is a dramatic illustration of this principle but other plant materials also indicate the same principle.

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Alum mordanted linen fabrics were dyed with small, leafed branches of dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria). Time in the bath ranged from 15 minutes to 2 hours. The most brilliant yellow was achieved after 30 minutes. After that time the color got deeper and duller, most likely from the tannins released.
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Henna, (Lawsonia intermis) which contains flavonols (mainly luteolin), naphthaquinone (lawsone) and tannins: (left to right) mordanted wool 30 minutes in bath, mordanted wool 1 hour in bath, un-mordanted wool 1 hour in bath. The mordanted wool is slightly more yellow than the sample with mordant.

I have not yet completed lightfastness tests on any of these samples but they are in process.  I would guess that the deeper, tannin-rich colors will be more lightfast than the brighter flavonols.

Dyes from the Local Food Co-op

I welcome the opportunity to teach a workshop, especially when it will teach ME something new.

A few days ago I taught Dyes from the Local Food Co-op  at Cloth Fiber Workshop in Asheville. The class came about when I was measuring some herbs and spices at our local food co-op. I noticed that a number of the dried materials in the glass jars were the same as the dye plants I was using in my studio: buckthorn bark, annatto, chamomile, and dock root. Obviously, the co-op was not stocking these substances for dyers, but….. it caused me to think about the multiple uses of these plants. For many years I have been taking a tincture of Isatis tinctoria, or WOAD, prescribed by my Chinese medicine doctor. How much overlap would I find between the dye and culinary/medicinal plants?

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French Broad Co-op, Asheville, NC

After taking an inventory of the materials available at the local co-op I decided on a collection of plants for this class. The criteria for the dyes included the following:

  • Each plant has some historical reference as a dye plant, and is preferably included in Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology, and Science by Dominique Cardon.
  • Each has an alternative use, such as medicinal or culinary.

Not all of these dyes are excellent performers. For reasons of poor light fastness or wash fastness I would not choose to use many of them in my regular studio work. But each dye has a story and may have been used throughout history because of its striking hue, availability, and/or affordability, despite a poor performance as a color over time.

Some of the dyes have been assigned a Natural Color Index Number (CI#). This is a reference database of color hues, names, and products maintained by the Society of Dyers and Colorists and the American Association of Textile Chemist and Colorists. It includes both synthetic and natural pigments. The inclusion of these natural colorants confirms the important historical reference  and unique quality of their colors.

Our dyeing was done on silk fabric. Some dyes required mordants, while others did not. Some roots and barks required alcohol extractions, while others extracted in water. Some dyes were affected by alkalinity. Others contained tannins and were altered with ferrous acetate. Alternative sources of the same plant resulted in color variations, suggesting that different parts of the plant were used, or possible changes in the growing season or drying process. When appropriate, we used alternative methods of dyeing such as a one-bath acid dye or fermentation.

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Chris Whiteman photo

The dyes we used:

  • Alkanet, Alkanna tinctoria
  • Annatto, Bixa orellana
  • Avocado pit, Persea americana
  • Black Walnut, Juglans nigra
  • Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis
  • Buckthorn, Rhamnus frangula                
  • Chamomile, Matricaria chamomilla
  • Cloves, Syzygium aromaticum
  • Dock root, Rumex crispus
  • Eucalyptus leaf, Eucalyptus gunni
  • Goldenrod, Solidago canidensis
  • Henna, Lawsonia intermis
  • Mahonia, Mahonia aquifolium
  • Rhubarb root, Rheum officionale
  • Sandalwood, Pterocarpus santalinus
  • Sassafras bark, Sassafras albidum 
  • St. John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum
  • Turmeric, Curcuma longa

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The exploration of natural dye continues….

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Woven Shibori with natural dyes is here!

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.

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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.

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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.

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Dye % range and exhaust baths

The test was repeated  on wool with similar results.

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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.