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Natural Dyeing with Madder Root

Prior to the creation of man made, synthetic dyes in the late 19th century, all dyeing was done with natural products. One such dye was extracted from the the roots of the Madder family or Rubia, a type of perennial scrambling shrubs and herbs. These Madder plants grow in many parts of the world, and were popular in Europe during the early 1800s, being introduced from the exotic lands of the Middle East, particularly Turkey. In this post, I will explain how to extract and dye fabric with the roots of the Madder plant. I will be dying a piece of jean cloth from Family Heirloom Weavers to use as interlining in my coats.

One major use for madder root dye was for dyeing the red coats used by the British Army. One can find period recipes from the period, ranging from recipes that sound like you’re making some type of food (adding wheat bran and Fenugreek), to the more grotesque recipes that added human urine. Although I’m one to strive toward’s being as accurate as possible, I am not ready to try that one yet.

Here is the recipe I based my experiments on, found on the First Foot Guards website:

Take 3 pound of Allom, one pound and half of Tartar, boil the stuff in it an hour and half, then pour off the Water and put fresh water into the kettle, make a liquor of ten pounds of Madder, four oz of Potashes, and some urine, and boil it off when it hath dissolved one night.
- The Whole Art of Dyeing, 1705

Since I had no prior experience with dyeing of any kind, I decided to use a similar modern recipe, one which gave more precise instructions. To start off, you need a fairly large pot, made either of stainless steel or enamel coated. Stainless steal is very expensive, so I opted to go with an enamel 50 quart stock pot. The reason for avoiding iron or aluminum pots is that they will affect the colours of the dye.


To start off with, you need to mordant the fabric. Pictured are Alum, and Cream of Tartar. The purpose of the mordant is to help the dye itself to adhere to the fabric. Different mordants can create different colours, as well. All chemicals must be added proportionately, as such:

  • Divide the weigth of the fabric by four

  • Measure out that amount of Alum

  • Use half as much Cream of Tartar

In my case, I was dyeing four yards of fabric, which came out to weigh exactly four pounds. Divided by four, meant I needed to use one pound of Alum mordant, and half a pound Cream of Tartar. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough Cream of Tartar, but everything still turned out fine.

Cream of Tarter and Alum Mordant.
Cream of Tarter and Alum Mordant.

After measuring the out the mordents, fill your pot with enough hot tap water to cover the fabric by several inches. Then add the chemicals. The Alum didn’t do anything exciting, but when I added the Cream of Tartar, the whole pot of water immediately started bubbling. Very cool. Finally, add the fabric, and allow it to soak at least four or five days.

A quicker alternative is to heat the solution and fabric to 180 degrees, keeping it at that temperature, and allowing it to cool overnight.

Allow the fabric to soak in the mordant solution for several days.
Allow the fabric to soak in the mordant solution for several days.

Extracting the Dye

Meanwhile, it is time to extract the dye. The Madder Root I purchased from Aurora Silks came pre-ground. It had a brownish-orange colour to it, and it was hard to believe I’d get that deep orange red at the end of the process.

A small pile of red madder root.
A small pile of red madder root.

There is also the option to buy whole roots and grind them yourself, but I decided to wait until another time. I may also try growing the plants myself, although it takes three years before the roots are ready.

A closeup photo of ground madder root.
Ground madder root.

Tie the roots up in a cheese cloth, so that the pieces do not become stuck in the fabric.

Madder root in a cheese cloth bag.
Place the roots in a cheese cloth bag.

The roots are then put into a pot of hot tap water, and allowed to soak overnight. Next, slowly bring the dyestuff to 180 degrees for 30 minutes. It’s very important not to go above 180 degrees, or the dye will start to turn brown. After the 30 minutes, pour and strain the solution into the dye pot (the mordant solution and fabric have been removed at this point). Repeat this process until dye is no longer being extracted. I ended up doing this seven times, starting at 2pm and ending at 1am the next morning. It takes a long time!

Soak and boil the madder root to extract the dye.
Soak and boil the madder root to extract the dye.

Here are the two pots I was using. The smaller pot on the right is being used to extract the dye, which is then poured into the big dye pot. That pot was huge!

One thing I noticed while extracting the dye was that it looked like a very deep purple. Using some different mordants, you would be able to extract this purple, instead of the reddish orange.

Two pots of dye on stove.
Two large pots to hold all of the dye.

Dyeing the Fabric

When you have extracted all the dye, it is time to add the mordented fabric (which should still be wet; do not allow it to dry out after the mordent process, keep it in that mordent bath). Carefully add the fabric, trying not to leave bunched up areas, or it will dye unevenly. Bring it slowly up to 180 degrees and heat for at least 1 hour or until you get the desired colour. Keep in mind that the colour will lighten after rinsing and drying. Allow the fabric and dye to cool at least overnight. 12 hours later, the dye was still warm to the touch, so I let it cool longer.

Following are a few shots of the fabric actually being dyed.

Fabric being dyed with madder root.
Dying wool with madder root.

Finally, it is time to rinse and dry the fabric. I put it in a large container, filled it with water, swished it gently to avoid felting, and discarded the water outside onto the snow. Having red snow was pretty neat. I did this three times, and then put it in the washing machine on the rinse cycle, gently. Then I allowed it to dry outside on the clothesline. Here is the finished fabric, just prior to ironing. Notice how the right side is darker than the wrong side:

Fabric dyed with madder root.
The finished dyed fabric.

That is due to the weave of the fabric. The cotton dyes differently than the wool weft.

Close up of wool fabric dyed with natural madder root.
A closeup of the fabric.

Another shot under different lighting.

Orange-red madder root dyed fabric.
Another view of the fabric.

The fabric is now all rolled up, ready to be used in my next project! This fabric was readily available in the 19th century, and used as an interlining in coats, aiding in padding and as a backing for the extensive quilting often seen. Some may think it a waste of time to do all this work and not have it be seen, but I believe in being as accurate as possible. While no one will ever be 100 percent accurate, this is at least one step closer. If you have any questions, please leave a comment.

Roll of red fabric dyed with madder root.
The finished product.