The Matter of Madder

red tent silks in wind
Red Tent Silks drying on the line.
Madder is the Queen of Dyes – the sole vegetative true red.  I love everything about her. The way the dye bath smells, her capacity to contribute to the magic of the indigo vat, and of course the generous nature of the colors she gifts to the world. The history of Madder is filled with fascinating stories of intrigue and mystery.

This year I committed to the three year journey of growing madder, Rubia tinctorum, for myself. If all goes as planned I will have homegrown red in 2020. Rubia tinctorum has her roots in the temperate zone extending throughout southern Europe, the Middle east and into Turkey.  This is the historical cultivated Madder throughout these regions. (Varius related wild plants were foraged for reds in northern Europe.)

madder plant

Madder red from R. tinctorum is primarily the result of the pigment alizarine, which is present in significant amounts in the roots of mature plants grown in optimal conditions.  (namely lime rich soil)  This red has been extracted for use on textiles, and also for the creation of paints. Alizarine is only one of the pigments – another well known component being purpurin, which as suggested by its name creates a color slightly more towards purple. A variety of flavonoids round out the mix. 

Alizarine was the first natural pigment to be synthesized, and the new man-made red was seen as a technological triumph. Unfortunately, its implementation in 1871 within the commercial textile industry of Europe was so swift that madder farmers could not market their crops, resulting in huge economic upset in madder growing regions, and even the starvation of some farmers who had been striped of their livelihood by a changing marketplace.

The tropical madder, Rubia cordifolia, has been making red happen in India, Indonesia and Asia for thousands of years, where it has been both an important dye and an important medicinal plant. Purchased Madder extract today is often from this tropical madder, which has a different cocktail of potential pigments – slightly more blueish reds than the orange-red of Rubia tinctorium due to a significantly higher concentration of purpurin, and very minuscule amounts of alizarine.ยน

soaking madder root
Dried Rubia tincorum roots being soaked to extract color.
As with all dye plants the pigments hidden within madder provide functions quite different than color for the plant. It is the relationship between the plant and people that coax the color into being. The tinkering of dyers with different combinations of plants, minerals and other natural substances resulted in a variety of methods to capture colors in ways that please us.

There are many superstitions around how to get good color from Madder – which makes sense considering that Madder’s variety of pigments are each soluble at different temperatures and conditions. Creating a muddy brownish red is simple – a crisp clear red requires forming a relationship with Queen Madder, and bowing to her stipulations.

The methods to create the famed color Turkey Redยฒ on cotton was a closely held secret for hundreds of years. It’s spread happened as a result of espionage and multiple intrigues. The recipes for it contain lists of ingredients that sound more like something concocted by a witch doctor than a chemist, and its complex process is like a definition of byzantine. Soaking cloth in olive oil, sheep dung and wood ash, cooking it up in aged madder root dye baths, curing for weeks, hanging in the sun to fade out the flavonoids, dozens of steps and concoctions.

Turkey Red is actually an excellent example of the genius of observant people – when you look at all the ingredients from the perspective of a chemist it becomes possible to see that there was definitely a method to their madness. The resulting color was very wash and weather fast – and explains why Red was such a popular color for flags along side of Indigo Blue. (another very stable dye) They may not have been using formulas, but they were building upon thousands of years of shared collective experiences.
Madder red is a Quinone dye, which can be bound to cloth in a few different ways, either by combining with a metal salt, such as “Alum” usually KAl(SO4)2, or by engaging in a dance between madder, tannin and an acid. Peoples of Scotland and Finland used Rowan Berries with their wild Rubia species to create reds on wools with this method of combining a tannin and an acid. ยณ

Madder is a versatile dye that can be used for wool, silk and cotton.(Unlike for instance Walnut, another quinone colorant, which produces only very pale shades on cotton, while producing very dark browns on wool.) Madder is also capable of an impressive number of hues, not only the famed reds, colors from pinks and oranges through purples and browns are all possible. There is a reason Madder is the Queen.

madder dyed alpaca
Madder dyed alpaca hand knitted into a scarf.
There is something primal that calls me back to madder over and over again. Her red is a deeply powerful and healing color.  I plan on diving more into the mysteries of this plant in the months ahead, not least of which because of my obsession with creating ceremonial red cloths for my Red Tent Project.  As I explore creating red and her other hues on various fibers through various means, I look forward to documenting what I learn in the land of her Majesty Queen Madder.

May your experiments be fruitful as well. 

BC red tent
A madder red silk made into a tent during my stay in Vancouver Canada while attending the Nature of Colour class with Michel Garcia at Maiwa.
*1   a scholarly paper on the constituents of various Rubia species.

*2  – An excellent article on Turkey Red

*3 From the class notes of The Nature of Colour course by Michel Garcia


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