Exploring the Madder Root
By Harriet Fletcher-Gilhuys, intern at HERD
A strong rooted plant with rich leafy greens and tiny yellow flowers, madder has been a staple source of dye colour for thousands of years. The plant contains alizarin - an organic compound that produces a prominent red known historically as one of the most valuable colours known to man.
Dating back to around 1,000 BCE – records suggest it was a dye source in ancient Egypt with remnants found in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. The Egyptians had already discovered the use of mordants to fix colour and modifiers such as iron to change hues, so although this might seem like a modern invention it is actually a traditional craft.
They were even known to feed madder plants to their sheep to dye their wool red!
The growing and harvesting process seems extensive but the results are very rewarding. Being a perennial, the plant can take two to three years to establish but it will become a staple source of colour for many years and it is an essential plant for any dyers recipe book.
When harvesting the roots, they come out a deep woody colour with a rich red centre. They need to be washed and scrubbed thoroughly, ready to be dried and chopped up for the dye pot. A mineral salt such as alum helps to fix the dye to the wool fibres enhancing brightness and colour longevity.
Simmering on a low heat with help to extract the colour - depending on the season the dye bath will vary from a light pink through to rich red. Both the roots and tops generate colour so used interchangeably can create an interesting palette.
My experience of plant dyeing as a student is that there is not enough information readily available for people to understand how the method works and why it is still relevant today. Although synthetic dyes create quick colourfast results, natural dyes adopt more of a slow fashion approach – generating a variety of seasonal colours from a renewable resource.
This preservation of dye methods not only brings back an artisan craft but it helps to restore the relationship between humans and the natural world.