madder stash—and more “boring” madder notes :)

The pile so far for the Summer Madder Project project:

Cottons, silks, threads, and trims in wool, silk and cotton, these are the grist for the garment i am creating from this summer of study.

I’m glad i started with a small “canvas” in choosing one of the pockets to start with, as it has led to a lot of note taking and sketching for other components of the garment. I decided too that some areas can be pieced together first, and then “worked”, and others will be worked independently, with “cross-overs” to integrate the whole. I’m also thinking this could become quite an ornate piece of wearable art, and that it may extend past the summer, because of the amount of handwork. That’s okay though: i didn’t set myself a deadline, just a strategy to both keep myself busy after what i consider to be a long dry spell creatively speaking, and to learn more about natural dyes and all the science and mysteries of them.


Even though madder is a substantive dye, meaning it doesn’t have to have mordants, i’ve been experimenting with different premordants with it: celluloses need tannin and alum, or the dye just doesn’t attach properly,   Proteins accept dyes much easier but with other dyes that aren’t substantive, usually they require at least alum. In my experience though, mordants are crucial to getting deeper colours: one can only use so many pale peaches and pinks! I premordant everything now, as it not only influences the colour, it also helps more in lightfastness.

Though we do have hard water from our taps, when i use madder, i always add a Tums (calcium carbonate), and a 1/2 tsp of soda ash to shift it to more reds than yellows/oranges/browns. It doesn’t always work, though my track record says most of the time it does 🙂 (Madder, weld, logwood and brazilwood need hard water, all other dyes do best in soft.)

Next up is some tests with rhubarb leaf mordant. The one we have in the Back40 is massive this year, so it’s perfectly willing to give up some material. I’ve used rhubarb *root* before as a dye, and had a gorgeous, rich, glowing green gold from it, but haven’t tried it as a mordant, because i have so little of it. Unless some house in the neighbourhood with a patch of it is sold and slated to be torn down, i can’t get more either!

And now i need to make some good greens for leaves and vines! I tested some of the rhubarb root dyed cotton embroidery thread i have, and love the rich greens i got with an iron mordant:

I’m going to try comfrey, also from in my garden, but will have to do some lightfast tests, as i can’t find much info online. It gets a page in Jenny Dean’s “Wild Color” book, but alas, no real mention of lightfastness, so i’d rather be safe than sorry. If it doesn’t work, well, at least it becomes a fab compost/fertilizer for the tomato plants!



As i was digging through drawers yesterday, i found one labelled “hibiscus”. OMG. I was SO thrilled when i did this waaay back,, but now look at it! I have since learned that most plant materials that are composed chemically with anthocyanins are NOT lightfast, which is why the damn beets, black beans, red cabbage and berries that so many wax ecstatic about DO NOT LAST. (In that link, scroll down to the “Anthocyanins” notes.)

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