Dyeing wool with madder root

Today’s fun is dyeing natural wool with powdered madder root (rubia tinctorum). Madder has been known as a dyers’ plant since ancient times. It was used to obtain shades of red but also brown and violet through mixing with other dyes such as nut shells for brown and indigo for blue. In medieval fashion which fancied bright contrasting colours red was much appreciated. Madder, before it got substituted with carmine derived from cochineal (an insect) was used all over medieval Europe. The name rubia derives from the Latin ruber and means (surprise, surprise) ‘red’ .

In my reenactment group and ngo we try to experiment and make things ourselves, hoping to learn (and have fun!) by doing. While weaving is my main activity, I have never tried dyeing the yarn I use. The process turned out pretty enjoyable and definitely doable at home.

  • I started with soaking wool (about 100 g, ca 300 m) for a couple of hours in warm (not hot) water.
  • Meanwhile, I prepared the dye bath. There are plenty of very precise instructions in the Internet how to measure the amount of dye you need and when to add the mordant but the truth is there is no “perfect red” or any exact result I was aiming at. I wanted to see if it works at all, if the pigment I got was strong, if wool dyeing is doable in your kitchen. So in the spirit of experiment I added in a handful of madder root and a tablespoon of alum. Alum works as a mordant – a substance that makes the pigment stick to wool fibers better.
  • I heated the bath until the madder root powder dissolved but as advised by all (Internet) dyers, I avoided boiling it. If you have madder root in larger pieces, put it in a small cotton or linen bag before placing it in the pot. This way you can avoid the pain of having it all over your yarn.
  • I soaked the wool in the dye pot and left it on heat for a couple of hours. Again, I wasn’t very precise. It was about 1.5 to 2 hours. Stirred occasionally (too much can make wool felt and ruin your effort).
  • I rinsed the wool several times until the water ran fairly clear.

The colour came out beautiful. As I used a bit of light gray and white yarn, I got different shades of orange red. All nice. I used this wool to weave a band with the Oseberg pattern. Can’t wait to use more of it! The only thing is that hand dyed wool can’t be machine washed and when exposed to too much sunlight, the colour might gradually fade away. But hey, this what experiments are all about, we’re learning all the time!



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