Madder & Chalk

Most sources agree that you need chalk to unlock the true reds of madder. I’ve always had a difficult time reconciling that with my own results, so experiments were called for.


I spent the past summer with a lot of experimental dyeing, and one of my themes was how chalk affects madder red.

Earlier in the year, I had experimented to see if I could remove the yellow tones from madder by soaking the madder in hot or cold water and discarding that water before dyeing (extraction) but according to my experiments, that’s not possible.

So the problem remained: sometimes I get a nice saturated red, other times a less saturated, more orange tone, although I use the same dyeing method.

My earlier experiments didn’t show a large difference between reds from rain water and tap water. The red with rain water is only slightly better than the one with tap water, but that is because the tap water is soft here.

But I have heard from several other Danish dyers that they have hard tap water, and that destroys the madder reds for them. I’ve also seen that myself where I used to live before, in a place with hard water.

This observation is quite consistent – but – is directly contradicted by a large body of work by many different authors, of mostly English-language dyeing books. Here’s a small selection from different authors:

“Chalk or slaked lime is added, particularly in areas with soft water.” John & Margaret Cannon: Dye Plants and Dyeing, p. 76.

“Add a tablespoon of ground limestone or chalk dust.” Rita Buchanan: A Dyer’ Garden, p. 52.

“If the water is deficient in lime, brighter shades are got by adding a little ground chalk to the dye bath.” Ethel Mairet: Vegetable Dyes, p. 42.

“Powdered chalk or limewater should be added to the dye-bath if the madder is ‘acid’.” Quote from Hellot’s “Art de la teinture des laines et étoffes de laine” in Dominique Cardon: Natural Dyes, p. 113.

I could go on like this. Source after source points out that chalk should be added. Some say if there is not “enough” or ir if the madder is “acid”, others just always add it.

It’s not clear where the idea comes from, but it seems to have been in circulation for a very long time. Hellot, quoted by Cardon, published his “Art de la tenture” in 1750, and it has been a very influential book.

The plant it’s all about – madder, Rubia tinctorium. Here a second-year plant growing in my dye garden in the middle of the summer.

In order to understand the effect of madder and chalk, I carried out a series of dyeing experiments on wool.

In all experiments, the proportion of madder to wool was 1:1, and I dyed at approx. 55 degrees C. I let the madder soak in water overnight, then dyed in that dye bath. During dyeing, I held the temperature for an hour, then let the yarn cool off in the bath until the next day.

First, I wanted to find out if it is chalk in tap water that affects the madder color, or something else. And by “something else”, I mostly mean iron, which may be present in tap water, and can affect colors a lot, when present even in small amounts.

For comparison, I began by dyeing a skein in tap water.

Then, I added chalk (from a garden center) in the amount of 4 g/L. That corresponds to about 2 Tsp in 10 L of water, giving a very slightly elevated pH of 7-8 instead of plain 7. The amount was just a guess, at that point in my experiments, I didn’t have a good idea of how much to use. I tried adding that amount both to tap and rain water.

Finally, I tried quicklime, which is a very strong base. So I neutralized it with a strong acid, since base destroys wool.

The results from that first round are below. On the left, yarn dyed in tap water, a paler red, the usual shade with tap water. When I add chalk to tap water, the color darkens slightly, just slightly. With rain water and chalk, the color is a bit lighter that with tap water alone, but very similar. So the conclusion so far is that chalk is the component in tap water that affects the color, not something else like iron.

But to be more sure, and having read that chalk for the garden can contain iron, I also tested quicklime. Calcium in tap water and in chalk for the garden is CaCO3 (calcium carbonate). Quicklime, on the other hand, is Ca(OH)2 (calcium hydroxide), a strong base. It was impossible to measure accurately, so I just took some of the chalky water in my bucket of quicklime and added it to demineralized water. This way, no other metals or minerals are present. I then neutralized the quicklime with a strong acid (I don’t remember which one).

The result of the quicklime experiment is seen at right. A very dusty pale red. So my conclusion so far is that yes, chalk has an effect, which is to make madder red paler and dustier, not more intense red. And yes, the component of tap water to affect the color is chalk. And the more of it (the harder the water), the larger the effect.

Madder dyeing in tap water, tap water with added chalk, rain water with added chalk, and demineralized water with neutralized quicklime.

After this first round of experiments, I started thinking that I had added too much chalk. It might just be that there was a good effect at a certain low amount, but that too much chalk added could ruin the color. Having searched through my entire dye library, I finally found the figure 1-2% mentioned by Mairet. Most books just give nonsensical directions such as “a spoonful per dye pot”.

In order not to miss the sweet spot, I tested addition of 0.2, 1, 5, and 10% chalk. The result below was not entirely what I had expected. There really is no difference between dyeing in pure rain water and adding up to 5% chalk. The color began changing very slightly at 10% added (becoming paler) but the difference is so small that the photo does not capture it.

Wool dyed with madder in rain water with no chalk added, and with 0.2, 1, 5, and 10% chalk added.

I couldn’t really decide if this was a good or bad result. Chalk in relevant amounts does not have an effect. It does not help unlock the good reds, but it also doesn’t do any harm.

But if all the English-language dyeing books are wrong, are the Danish dyers then right? Does the red color improve with less chalk? Below, a comparison of madder dyeing in rain water, tap water, and demineralized water. There is the usual difference between rain and tap water, the former giving the better red.

I took extra care with the yarn dyed in demineralized water. After mordanting, done in tap water as usual, I washed the yarn in rain water several times, and also cleaned the glassware for dyeing in rain water. That treatment gave the best red in the entire experiment, so I have to conclude that less chalk gives better red.

Dyeing with madder in rain water, tap water, and demineralized water. Tap water gives the least good red, demineralized water the best.

Below, I’ve shown all the colors in one picture so it’s easy to compare them.

All colors from the test together. All are 1:1 madder on wool, and cards grouped together were dyed simultaneously in glass jars over a water bath.

So my result is very clear – less chalk gives better reds. But one mystery does remain. Why do all dyeing books from the last 3 centuries state that madder gives better reds when chalk is added?

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Madder’s Family

Madder has several relatives that are also rich in useful reds. These plants are native here in Denmark, and have been used as red dyes a very long time back.

Believe it or not, the year is drawing to a close. So, I want to try to summarize all the many dyeing experiments I did over the year.

This summer, I searched for madder’s relatives, to find as many as possible. Madder, Rubia tinctoria, belongs to the madder family (Rubiaceae) in which you also find the bedstraws (the genus Galium).

Galium species do not contain as large amounts of red dye as cultivated madder does, but several of the species grow wild here in Denmark, and their historical use is well known.

Madder plant growing in my dye garden.

The first Galium species to present itself was cleavers (Galium aparine). It’s everywhere! Anybody who has ever walked outside surely know this plant. Or at least its seeds. They are extremely good at clinging to clothing and dog fur. The whole plant is covered with clingy hooks – the very same that cultivated madder has.

My attempt to dig up cleaver roots quickly came to an end. The roots have the thickness of sewing thread, so a lot of digging is required. But the roots are said to contain dye, so I’m keeping them on my list of maybes.

Cleavers up close. You can see the characteristic clingy hooks on the seeds. The very same that madder is covered with.

Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) is the plant mentioned by most natural dyeing books. I tried growing it in the garden this year, seeding it outside in the spring, but nothing grew.

Whenever you’re looking for a specific plant or mushroom, but haven’t found it yet, it’s simply invisible. But, once you find it, you start seeing it everywhere. The relationship between Lady’s bedstraw and myself developed exactly like that over the summer. Once I found it, it was everywhere! For example this coastal grassland:

Coastal grasslands with very sandy and infertile soil, perfect for Lady’s bedstraw. I took this picture in a region of Denmark called Mols.


Lady’s bedstraw truly thrives in the nutrient-poor, sandy soil, along with yarrow and St. John’s wort.

Lady’s bedstraw growing in a big cluster.

Unfortunately, several walks with a shovel only yielded a very small handful of Lady’s bedstraw roots – so little that my scale didn’t register. Like with cleavers, the roots are extremely fine, and they tangle up with roots of grass etc. In combination with stony, sandy soil, the digging job gets hard. To get your hands on a larger pile of these roots, I suspect you have to grow them in a well-prepared sandy soil without obstacles. Anyway, I tried dyeing with my small handful of roots, but it gave almost no color.

But then, on a forest walk, this plant turned up – hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo):

Flowering hedge bedstraw photographed in July.

Hedge bedstraw is also mentioned by different books as a dye plant, so I brought out the shovel once more. Again, it was difficult. The forest soil is obviously full of tree roots that make digging quite impossible. But I managed to get a couple of handfuls of roots, mainly because hedge bedstraw roots are not that thin. I dug up the roots on July 9th. The next day, after cleaning, the slightly dried roots weighed 30 g.

My pile of hedge bedstraw roots, with reds clearly showing under the out bark.

I soaked the roots in cold water overnight, then dyed my usual alum mordanted 12-gram skeins of Fernris to test the dye. I removed the overnight water because Jenny Dean does, but I should have concluded from my madder experiments that it is not necessary to do so. The water used to soak the roots overnight simply contains a small amount of dye, with the same properties as the dye you extract when you heat the roots in water (the small 6-gram skein laying across the others in the picture below was dyed with the discarded water).

Then, I dyed alum mordanted 12-gram skeins in a 1st and 2nd dyebath, in exactly the same way as if it had been madder: heating up to 60 degrees C, then leaving the yarn in the dyebath until the next day. The first bath gave a convincing red-orange, which would not have been a surprise had it been madder I was dyeing with. The dye is less abundant in hedge bedstraw than in madder, but the difference is actually smaller than anticipated. Here, I used 30 g of roots on 12 g of yarn, with madder, you would get this shade with less than 100% weight of fiber.

After the second bath, which also worked well, I was evidently feeling on top of things, and threw in a 50 g skein. There was not much dye left, but to extract everything that was there, I left the bath with yarn in a jar outside. That was in mid-July.

A couple of times, I heated the entire jar over a water bath to give the process a helping hand, but the rest of the time, it was just standing there. I turned over the yarn to get an even dye, and for a while, it also fermented. Both time and fermentation should help release the dye. Also, I imagine that a skein of yarn in the bath will soak up the dye as it is released, permitting more to come out (alizarin has a rather low solubility in water). In any case, my large skein stayed in the jar for 6 weeks, and turned out a pleasing coral color. And, the dye bath ran clear, so there was probably nothing left in the roots.

Dyeing with roots of hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo). 1st bath (left), 2nd bath (middle), and the large skein on the right is fermentation of the 3rd bath. The small skein across was dyed in the water used to soak the roots overnight.

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Tansy Experiments

Among some natural dyers, tansy is seen as quite boring. It’s a common plant, easy to find, easy to dye with, and it contains the so-common yellow – just like so many other plants. But tansy has a long cultural history, and its yellow dye is of high quality!


Tansy’s common name is simply an abbreviation of its latin ditto, Tanacetum vulgare. I recently ran into a nice (and plausible) explanation of the name in an old Danish book by an important author on natural dyeing, Esther Nielsen. She writes that Tanacetum is probably a derived form of Athanasia (a-thanasos means immortal). Supposedly, the immortality is a reference to the fact that the flowers keep their strong yellow, also when dry.

Tansy, Tanacetum vulgare.

Tansy has been used in herbal medicine for centuries. The plant is poisonous, especially to insects, and was used against intestinal worms. Today, eating tansy is not recommended, and it’s now known that its toxicity comes from the alpha-thujone content in all parts of the plant.

Nevertheless, it was used as a herb in the past, and it does have a very strong smell. I usually boil tansy dye baths outside!

As a natural dye plant, tansy has a lot of advantages. The plant is very common, so you’ll find it growing at just about any roadside – at least here in Denmark, which is in tansy’s native range. Since the plant is so common, it’s completely fine to harvest as much as you need, as long as you cut the flower stalks of, leaving the rest of the perennial.

The yellow color from tansy is very light fast, in my light tests, it always comes out as more fast than weld yellow, which is known for its good light fastness.

According to this paper (Phytochemistry 51, p. 417, 1999), tansy flowers contain a lot of apigenin and luteolin, the same yellow dyes that you find in weld. The leaves contain slightly different compounds (that are similar to luteolin, but not exactly the same). So it makes perfect sense that leaves and flowers give slightly different yellows. I’m not sure, though, why the light fastness of tansy yellow is better than that of weld yellow in my experiments…

After reading about dye extracts (somewhere), I decided to try making a tansy extract. Extracts are obviously a compact way to store dyes, but I thought that they might be interesting for other reasons, for example printing on fabric.

I even found a paper where the authors described concentrating tansy extract to the point that it became a powder. So this is what I tried:

500 g (just over a pound) of fresh tansy flowers and leaves (picked August 11th) were boiled in enough rain water to cover them. I left the pot until the next day, strained out all the plant material, then boiled the extract to concentrate it until it didn’t loose any more water. I also dried it in the oven at very low heat. And the result was a small amount of extremely sticky tansy syrup:

Tansy syrup – dark brown, smelly, poisonous.

So my extract clearly didn’t turn into a powder, but a very dark and sticky syrup. Ages ago, in organic chemistry class, I was taught that syrup means impure product. But I guess that is expected in this case, since I just concentrated a crude extract of the plant, which is a mix of many different compounds.

To test my syrup, I simply dissolved it in water and used it to dye 100 g (3.5 oz) of wool (Fenris) instead of exploring more exciting options. I wanted to see how the dye was affected by being turned into syrup and back again. Here is a comparison with 100 g of wool dyed with 500 g of fresh leaves and flowers (left), 500 g of fresh leaves and flowers dried and then used (middle) and tansy syrup dissolved in water (right):

Fenris pure lambswool dyed with fresh tansy (left), dry tansy (middle), and tansy syrup (right).

The picture above shows, that the color from tansy is the same, whether fresh or dried flowers and leaves are used. And that is good to know – drying does not affect the dye.

The skein on the right, dyed with tansy syrup, is a bit browner than the two others. But other than that, the syrup treatment didn’t really affect the dye potential. Next year, I want to explore plant syrups more!

But once I got started with tansy experiments, more followed. While cleaning up my dyestuff storage, I found some dry tansy leaves from last year (2016). I wondered if long storage would affect the color – in the picture above, there’s no difference between yellow from fresh and dried tansy, but I only stored the plants for a couple of weeks.

I also wanted to answer another question: In order to extract the dye, is it more efficient to finely crush plant matter, or is it OK to throw whole leaves in the dyepot? So I powdered some dry 2017 leaves in my mortar to see if the color intensified, and the result:

12-gram skeins of Fenris, each dyed with 25 g of dry tansy leaves. Whole 2016 leaves (bottom), whole 2017 leaves (middle), and powdered 2017 leaves (top).

The skein dyed with powdered 2017 leaves has exactly the same color as the skein dyed with whole 2017 leaves, so there’s no gain by powdering the leaves. Luckily, since that process is really cumbersome. The 2016 and 2017 leaves don’t give exactly the same yellow, but very close. I don’t think this small difference is caused by an extra year of storage – rather, the fact that the plants didn’t grow in the same place, the difference in weather and harvest time might have caused the small difference in color.

Dyeing with Dried Japanese Indigo Leaves

The easiest way to save Japanese indigo is to dry the leaves. This is also the only option, really, when you grow a small amount of plants.


In traditional Japanese dyeing with Japanese indigo, the harvested leaves were composted (fermented) in a very specific way, sprinkling the leaf mass with water and turning it over. The timing had to be just right, and Jenny Balfour-Paul writes in “Indigo, Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans” that the indigo farmers referred to the packing of the leaves as “putting the baby to bed”. Every time the leaf mass was turned over, sacrifices of rice wine were made to Aizen Shin, the god of indigo.

Composting Japanese indigo was serious business – a difficult and big undertaking. The composting process can only get going if the leaf mass is sufficiently large, on the order of 100’s of kilos (or several hundred pounds). The end result were composted leaves that contained a higher percentage of indigo than the fresh ones. This mass is known as sukumo.

People who only grow a few plants (like I do) have to find a different method. Having read about it on Deb McClintock’s page, I decided to dry my Japanese indigo leaves last year. And I did manage to do so after some trial and error.

The dry leaves look like this:

Dry leaves of Japanese indigo, 2016 harvest.

Some of the leaves look a bit blue, and that does make you think there’s indio. I’ve been wondering why drying the leaves would work (the must have been good reasons for the traditional sukumo method) and I’ve come up with the following story:

In living leaves there’s no indigo, only a precursor called indican. Here, the meaning of the word precursor is a molecule that can undergo some reaction(s) that produce indigo.

Indican production is thought to be a defense mechanism for the plant. In living leaves, the indican is primarily found in a compartment within the cell called the vacuole (shown by a Japanese team of researchers in this paper).

The plant cell also contains enzymes that are able to break down indican, producing indoxyl and sugar, but these enzymes are found in other compartments of the cell.

When you pick leaves and dry them, cell membranes will break because of the loss of water. So at some point, indican and enzymes from other parts of the cell will mix, and indoxyl is formed. When two molecules of indoxyl combine, blue indigo is formed.

I used Deb McClintock’s version of John Marshall’s method but I fiddled about quite a bit, finding my way to do it. The main change is that I didn’t discard the yellow dye, so I get a green-teal instead of blue.

Green-teal with dried leaves of Japanese indigo. From left to right, the skeins are 1st, 2nd and 3rd dip in a vat made from 50 g of dried leaves (3rd skein was naturally grey). The skein on the left was dipped 3 times in a vat made from 25 g of dried leaves. I’m knitting from the first skein already, the striped boy’s jacket in the background.

For my first attempt, I used 50 grams of dried leaves to dye 3 100-gram skeins of wool. The vat stopped working early on, so I added a bit of this, a bit of that. That lead to no recipe, but the result was completely fine.

My next attempt was made during an indigo workshop I taught a while ago, and I know it was hugely optimistic to bring such a difficult project. That vat only gave a slight hint of mint green, but at least we got a lot of brilliant blues from the ordinary indigo vats.

Afterwards, I started thinking that the vat may have gone wrong because the temperature was too low. This also makes sense when thinking about this failed experiment where I kept leaves lukewarm for a longish time.

High temperature during part of the vat preparation seems to be important, and that is a part of the method I ended up with for my third attempt:

First, I simmered 25 grams of dried leaves in water (enough to cover them) for 20-30 minutes. It wasn’t a rolling boil, but some bubbling going on.

To dye blue, the first water should be discarded and new water poured on the leaves. I did not do that, so I kept the yellows from the leaves.

I added 5 grams of sodium dithionite and about 1 tablespoon sodium carbonate. Check that pH is 9, and add more sodium carbonate if it isn’t.

Then, I simmered the vat for 15-20 minutes. It seems wrong to boil a vat after adding reducing agent and base, but in my attempt where I didn’t boil it at this step, it didn’t work.

I took the pot off the heat and added another 5 grams of sodium dithionite. I let it sit until the temperature was 40-50 C, then strained the leaves out. For my first attempt, I left the leaves in to get as much out of them as possible, but that is not a good idea. At this point, they are quite slimy and stick to the yarn.

When the temperature was 40-50 C, I put the pot on gentle heat to stay at that temperature. At this point, the vat is ready for use. I dipped a 100-gram skein of wool 3 times, and it turned a nice teal.

I’m impressed by the dye content of the leaves. 50 grams of dried leaves gave nice color to 300 grams of yarn, and 25 g gave a brighter color to 100 grams of yarn. My last vat was not exhausted, it had turned dark the next day because the indigo had been oxidized. I didn’t have more yarn on hand, but the vat could have given light shades on another skein.

Wool dyed teal with Japanese indigo, accompanied by fresh and partially dry leaves.

But I’ve saved the best for last: light fastness. I tested light fastness of the first skein from the 50-gram vat from July 1st to September 1st. The left side was covered and not exposed, right side was exposed to the light. I can’t really see any difference between them, and that means the light fastness rivals that of indigo blue. And that is quite impressive for a green-teal color!

Light test of Japanese indigo teal. Two months of sunlight did not affect the color.

PS: I’m growing Japanese indigo again this year. I harvested the first leaves on September 17. this year, and they are drying. They look even bluer than the ones from last year…

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Green Variations

One of the great things about natural dyeing is that you can keep overdyeing until you get the color you want.


I recently dug out some green skeins of Norne that were not exactly what I had imagined, and had been sitting in the storage basket for a while. I decided to overdye them to get as many greens as possible. So I wound skeins for dyeing and kept the last part of the skein the way it was.

One skein (skein 1 in photo below) was a medium blue from indigo overdyed with a couple of afterbaths from pomegranate and weld. They gave a rather weak yellow, too weak to match the blue tone, resulting in a quite anemic green.

Another skein (skein 12) had the same problem. Again, a medium indigo blue, this time over dried mugwort dye. I didn’t know at the time I dyed this (as I do now) that dried mugwort only gives a rater weak beige.

Then there was a skein with the opposite problem (skein 5). It’s dyed with a strong (1:1) weld and overdyed with weak indigo, giving a green/Chartreuse that’s just too intense.

Finally, there’s a skein that was actually a good color (skein 9) but I just didn’t have any plans for it. I dyed it long ago with tansy and a madder afterbath to achieve a warm yellow. I wound all the skeins into smaller ones and overdyed them with indigo, weld, and walnut hulls.

Overdyeing and then some more overdyeing, to get as many greens as possible.

Skeins 6, 7, and 8 come from skein 5 and are just overdyed with stronger and stronger indigo, and there’s no surprises there. The strong yellow base ends up as a clear forest green when the indigo component becomes large enough.

Skeins 10 and 11 are yarn from skein 9 overdyed with a bit of indigo and a bit more. Here, skein 10 was a nice surprise, a wilted green, one of my favorite shades of green. I suppose I am really revealing myself as totally ignorant of color theory, but I did not know that this type of green contains such a large proportion of red.

I made a dye bath with 12 g of weld and dyed 25 g of yarn from skein 1 in it. That turned into skein 2 – not a surprise that the forest green emerges when you lift the level of yellow to match the blue in intensity.

Then I made a dye bath with 25 g of walnut hulls. 25 g of yarn from skein 12 turned into skein 13. Again, the ignorant dyer was surprised – turns out army green is based on brown. The afterbath turned yarn from skein 1 into skein 3, another army green.

Skein 4 is yarn from skein 1, overdyed with a rather intense indigo. Here, the weak yellow base gives a really nice teal. Skein 14 is yarn from skein 12 just overdyed with a bit more indigo than it already was.

Finally, there’s skein 15. The yarn comes from skein 12, and was first dyed in the weld afterbath. It didn’t change much, so I dyed it in the walnut hull bath, which had already been used twice. Again, not much change, so I dipped it in indigo. That still didn’t change much so I left it because I ran out of ideas.

Skein 16 and 17 are both dyed with stinging nettle, said to contain a green dye. In the middle of May, I picked a big dyepot full (and they have no problem stinging through thick garden gloves) and dyed two 25-gram skeins. First skein 16, then skein 17 in the afterbath, followed by modification with a bit of iron. None of the skeins 16 and 17 are green but they work really well along all the other greens. Here they all are, along with an indigo-dyed skein, wound in cakes and ready to knit:

All the green yarn cakes, ready to knit.

I am experimenting with knitting very short scraps of all these colors together, more about that another time. So far, it looks like this:

Norne cut in short scraps and knit – color changes by doubling both the new and the old yarn.

But the search for greens doesn’t stop here. In addition to stinging nettles, May is also full of landscapes covered by wild chervil and broom.

I tried dyeing with common broom last year, but picked the plant too late in the season and got very little color out of it. In their “Dye Plants and Dyeing”, Cannon & Cannon write that flowering stems of broom should be harvested in April or early May. I managed to pick them late in May, which is probably fine since the book is English and most of England is south of Denmark.

On alum mordanted Fenris (pure wool), common broom gives me the greenish-beige that Cannon & Cannon promise. They show an almost black with copper, so I tried modifying with copper water for a few minutes. I have a jar that contains the innards from an old wire in household ammonia, and I just added a bit of it. This gave a very pretty green, which is leaning towards brown.

Wild chervil (also picked in late May) gave the expected fragile yellow with a touch of green. To some eyes nothing special, and for sure, there are many ways to get such tones. But I do find it lovely, it just captures the freshness of spring and early summer. Modified with iron, the color darkens and completely looses the freshness.

Yellow and greens dyed with common broom and wild chervil. The large skein on top is dyed with wild chervil, the one below the same but modified with iron. The third skein is dyed with common broom, the fourth common broom and copper.

Red Madder

Madder is one of the most ancient dyes, and one that is described in pretty much any book on natural dyeing. But every book seems to give a slightly different method for obtaining the sought-after madder red. There’s only one thing to do – experiment!

A bunch of madder dyed skeins. They’re all dyed in slightly different ways, so the colors have turned out differently.

Madder was one of the first natural dyestuffs I tried just when I began learning about natural dyeing, many years ago. I followed Jenny Dean’s “Colours from Nature”, the first book I bought back then (now, of course, I have a largish library on natural dyeing).

Dean gives a dyeing method for larger pieces of madder root, not powdered root. She rinses the root in cold water, then boiling water, and then adds the water for the actual dye bath. I tried her method for my first attempts with madder, but only got a series of tan/coral shades. Sometimes slightly more pink, sometimes more towards orange.

After my first attempts, I was ready to just give up. Coral was not exactly my favorite color, and I didn’t make any further attempts with natural dyes. That was until I happened to talk to some dyers at iron age and viking markets. One of them told me, that she always got good reds with madder by using destilled water.

After that, I happened to find a copy of a classic Danish dye book from 1972, “Dyeing with Plants” by Ester Nielsen. Nielsen steeps madder for 24 hours, and mentions nothing about changing the water at any point. Also, she mentions nothing about the type of water. Over time, I arrived at a variant of Nielsen’s method, using rainwater instead of distilled water because rainwater is free. I leave the madder to steep overnight in my dyepot, add alum mordanted wool, heat slowly to 55 C, and then wrap the pot in a blanket and leave it until the next day. So, yarn and madder in the pot together, and no changing the water.

I’ve achieved many clear reds with that method, but sometimes, the color has turned out more orange than red. That’s the case with the yarn for this hat:

Brisingamen hat in madder dyed yarn.

I do like orange, but it’s red you’re after with madder. Also, I’ve become increasingly confused the more I’ve read about madder dyeing, and I am not the only one. As mentioned, Dean uses a hot extraction (a soak in water that is discarded) whereas others, for example Ecotone Threads use a cold extraction.

Madder contains many different dye compounds. According to “Handbook of Natural Colorants” by Berchtold & Mussak, more than 35 different anthraquinones have been detected in madder (anthraquinones are the type of molecules that alizarin, the important red in madder, also belongs to). The different dye compounds have slightly different colors, so the the point of (cold or hot) extraction would be to remove some of the yellow or brownish ones.

I decided to test, whether I could get rid of my orange reds by using an extraction method. For this test, I’ve used my usual 12-gram skeins of Fenris (100% wool) mordanted with 10% alum. In all the experiments, I used 12 grams of madder powder per skein, leaving the madder in the dyepot the entire time. A few writers say that the madder should be removed from the dyepot before fiber is added, but most agree to leave it in.

According to Liles’ “The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing”, alizarin has a very low solubility in water, and that’s why the madder should stay in the pot. As alizarin in solution is taken up by the yarn, more will be released from the madder. In all cases, I dyed the yarn by heating yarn and madder to 55 degrees C keep it there for 1 hour, and then leave the yarn in the dyebath overnight.

In my little experiment, I tested the following, both with rainwater and tap water: steeping the madder overnight and dyeing in the same water, filtering out the madder and dyeing with it in new water, and finally pouring boiling water over the madder and then dyeing with it in new water.

Filtering a small amount of madder in an old fashioned coffee filter.

Results below:

1: Madder steeped overnight in rainwater, yarn dyed in the same water.

2: Madder steeped overnight in tap water, yarn dyed in the same water.

3: Madder steeped overnight in rainwater, filtered, run-off removed and yarn dyed in new rainwater.

4: Run-off from 3 (the liquid that ran through the filter).

5: Madder steeped overnight in tap water, filtered, run-off removed and yarn dyed in new tap water.

6: Run-off from 5 (the liquid that ran through the filter).

7: Poured boiling water over the madder, filtered immediately, yarn dyed in new rainwater.

8: Poured boiling water over the madder, filtered immediately, yarn dyed in new tap water.

9: Run-off from 7 (not repeated for 8, as it would be identical.

The madder dyed skeins – theme and variations.

Skein 1 is dyed with just one volume of rainwater, which is my usual method. Luckily, skein 1 is one of the good reds in my test. Skein 2 is the same method, but using tap water. Skein 1 is only a slightly bit redder than skein 2, so using rainwater instead of tap doesn’t seem to have the importance that I thought. I measure pH of both baths, and they were both neutral after steeping overnight.

Skein 3 and 5 are dyed with madder that was steeped overnight, and then filtered to remove the first volume of water. If it was true that steeping and removing the water would remove yellow and brown tones, then skein 1 and 3 (both dyed in rainwater) and skein 2 and 5 (both dyed in tap water) should be different, but they are not. My conclusion is, that cold extraction does not remove yellows and browns.

That conclusion also seems to be correct when you look at skein 4 (rainwater) and 6 (tap water), which are dyed with the run-off from 3 and 5. If the extraction removed yellows and browns, then skein 4 and 6 should have those colors, but they don’t. They are tan/coral, exactly the kinds of colors I normally get from second, third and later afterbaths. So this could mean that cold extraction just removes a small fraction of the overall color present in madder.

Finally, the hot extraction. Skein 7 (rain) and 8 (tap) are dyed in new volumes of water added to the madder after the hot extraction. They are weakly colored, and the shades are very similar to those of skein 4 and 6. So most of the color is just gone after the hot extraction, and has ended up in the run-off that was used to dye skein 9.

Skein 9 has a good, saturated red-orange color, which is not that surprising. Temperature is the only factor that more or less all authors agree on. The temperature mustn’t get too high, as that brings out orange or terracotta tones, exactly what I’m seeing here. If  the light fastness turns out to be good, then this is actually a very good method for dyeing orange.

It’s nice to observe that this little experiment fits with my very earliest observations with madder. Deans method gives skein 8, a pale tone that would definitely be disappointing if you are trying to dye red.

So, in summary, the conlusions of my little experiment are:

Reds obtained with rainwater and tap water are not very different, and rainwater gives a red that is only very slightly better than the red with tap water. This conclusion is for my tap water, and may be entirely different elsewhere.

Cold extraction is not efficient for removing yellows, and hot extraction removes almost all the color.

I usually keep the temperature around 55 degrees C, but I have never checked myself to see how sensitive the color is to temperature. And I haven’t even begun to look at pH and calcium. My next experiments will be on those factors.

Hypogymnia Lichen Windfall

I return from many of my walks with pockets full of lichen windfall. One of the common finds under trees is two slightly different species of Hypogymnia, a good dye lichen.


Lichen windfall is perfect for dyeing, since it does no damage to just pick up the fallen lichens. I’m therefore writing a small series of posts on the different species of lichens typically found in windfall, and I’ve already written about Ramalina fastigiata.

This time, I’ll have a look at Hypogymnia physodes and Hypogymnia tubulosa, two common species that are closely related (that’s why part of the name is the same). Also, they do look alike – both are grey-green and foliose (flattened, leaf-like). Hypogymnia physodes, here seen covering a small branch, has flat lobes, sometimes with soredia on the outer part. Soredia is one of the way that lichens can reproduce, and break through the surface in lots of little dots, making the surface look grainy or powdery. In Hypogymnia species, the soredia are found on the bottom side, which folds up on the tips of the lobes, making the grainy lower surface visible:

Hypogymnia physodes covering a small branch. Detail on the right shows the lobe tips folded up, displaying the graininess because of the soredia.

Hypogymnia tubulosa looks a lot like Hypogymnia physodes, but has hollow lobes. In the right side of the image below, the hollowness is visible since I cut one of the lobes:

Hypogymnia tubulosa with a cut lobe on the right side.

Both species are very common, and grow in many places, including on trees, stones, and wooden surfaces. They like growing on acidic substrates, and Dobson’s “Lichens, An Illustrated Guide to the British and Irish Species” mentions that Hypogymnia physodes is among the species least sensitive to sulfur dioxide pollution. Hypogymnia tubulosa is a bit more sensitive.

The dye content sometimes differs a lot even for species that are otherwise very similar. So I decided to test if the two species give the same color.

I used unmordanted yarn, since lichen colors are substantive. I made one dyebath with 9 g of Hypogymnia tubulosa, and put a 12-gram skein of Fenris (pure wool) and a 5-gram skein of Bestla (merino-silk) in. Another dyebath was 15 g of Hypogymnia physodes, and two 12-gram Fenris skeins and one 5-gram Bestla skein went into that one. So half the weight of lichen compared to fiber in both cases. I modified one of the Fenris skeins in an iron afterbath.

Both lichens give the same color – a fine, dusty yellow, the completely expected shade from bwm lichens. So in conclusion, no reason to sort Hypogymnia physodes and tubulosa. The merino-silk takes the color a little less well than the pure wool, and an iron afterbath does significantly darken/sadden the color at turn it green.

Left: pure wool and merino-silk dyed with Hypogymnia tubulosa. Right: pure wool and merino-silk dyed with Hypogymnia physodes, further right a pure wool skein dyed with the latter, modified with iron.

Spring Cleaning

In the summer, when all the plants stand tall, I usually collect good bundles of tansy, yarrow, and other wild dye plants. And they have to go before the next harvest.


My dyestuff stores from last year contained big bundles of mugwort and tansy, a smaller amount of yarrow, a box full of dry velvet pax, and dry pomegranate shells (among other things).

Spring has shown itself from its worst side this year, but I’ve managed to get outside with my little stove on an extension cord, working to bring down the amount of stored dyestuffs.

First, velvet pax. I found quite a nice harvest of this mushroom last year, more than half of what i found was from driving through a small forest, spotting the mushrooms, and hitting the brake!

I had 190 g of dried mushrooms. On 100 g of wool, that gave a good green (middle skein in photo below) and the afterbath a green-beige (right). I could not capture the color in the photo, but I was pleasantly surprised how well the dried mushrooms retain the color potential, including the green tones. In conclusion, velvet pax is a very good dye mushroom, fresh or dry.

There’s a beige skein on the left in the photo below. That’s 100 g of yarn, dyed with enough dried mugwort to fill a large dye pot completely. I even gave it an iron afterbath. Thinking back, this is actually the second time i get dull beige from dry mugwort, and the conclusion is that it does not dry well. The fresh plant, on the other hand, gives a nice yellow-green.

From left: dried mugwort and iron, dried velvet pax, 1. and 2. bath.

Next up, pomegranate shells. I had saved a very modest amount of shells, from just two fruits, weighing 85 g dry. I followed Jenny Dean’s “Wild Colour” and put the shells in a plastic bag and pounded them with a hammer. To test the new (to me) dyestuff, I wound two 12-gram skeins of Fenris (100% wool) and a small 5-gram skein of Bestla (silk-merino).

The pomegranate shells gave nice yellows on wool and silk. I modified one of the wool skeins with iron, and that gave a darker, greener tone, that actually looks a lot like the color from velvet pax.

Next time people eat pomegranates around here, the shells will be saved. They give a nice color, and they are available during winter, where little else is there in terms of fresh colors.

Pomegranate shells on silk-merino (back) and wool (middle), and modified with iron (front).

Several large bundles of yarrow, tansy, and mugwort turned into the yellow-beige first dye for a new round of matrix dyed yarn for Baby Vindauga kits. The second yellow os weld, and the skeins are overdyed with indigo as usual to produce the 9 different blues and greens.

Matrix dyed wool in blue and green.

And once I got started, a matrix in purple and blue, using cochineal and indigo, also appeared.

Matrix dyed wool in purple and blue.

The matrix skeins turned into contrast colors for new Baby Vindauga Kits, you can see them at my Etsy shop:

Purple-blue Baby Vindauga Kit.
Green-blue Baby Vindauga Kit.

Indigo & Cotton

More and more things around here fall into my big indigo vat!


I’ve often written about indigo, so I don’t think anybody doubts my undying love for the blue stuff. I usually dye on wool, but indigo works on all natural fibers, so here’s a bit of indigo dyeing I did on cotton.

I found this cotton blouse at the thrift shop, it’s from Thailand, and I like the neckline and the tufted fabric. But, the sleeves make it look very frumpy on me, plus it’s beige and too small.

Thrifted Thai cotton blouse – beige before indigo.

So the top obviously went into the indigo vat, several times. Even with a good strong vat, cotton comes out just medium blue, whereas dyeing wool in the same vat gives a rather dark blue. And also, I had terrible trouble dyeing an even blue even though my vat is large enough.

My finished top after many indigo dips, with new seams all over, sleeves removed and wedges inserted into the sides. The color is uneven, but this photo does exaggerate the unevenness.

Many dips did not remove the unevenness, so I am beginning to understand why the traditional use of indigo is usually for shibori and other techniques that create patterns. Yes, these patterns are beautiful, but it’s also extremely hard to make just an evenly blue fabric. Even in the modern use of indigo for jeans, the threads are dyed first and woven afterwards, and I don’t think this is any coincidence – if the threads are unevenly dyed, it will not show much after weaving, whereas if you dye the finished fabric, everything shows.

Oh well. I dipped the top until I liked the intensity of blue. I may return to it some other time, maybe I’ll overdye with dark tones from iron and tannin.

When I had the right blue, I redid all the stitches that show with thread of a matching blue color. I removed the sleeves and cut 4 wedges out of the fabric. Then, I ripped the side seams and inserted 2 wedges in each. This gave me a new side seam so I could easily redo the side slits. I’m happy with the result, and the shape is now a lot more flattering on me. No pics of me wearing it, though, I’m not really fit to appear in front of a camera today!

But in conclusion, wedges like these can rescue lots of clothing that has become too small for some reason.

Wedges to make the size larger and form a new side slit.

I had a bit of left over fabric from the Thai top, and that went into another project along with some cotton thread that I used for wrapping a shibori project  (more about that one another time). Because the thread was wrapped tightly, it did not dye uniformly, but that’s OK.

Enter pair of destroyed toddler pants. I’m not sure why an almost 3-year old crawls outside on pavement, what I do know is that it wears through the knees in no time. The crotch was also busted, so I decided to try my hand at some boro – the Japanese mending technique. This is the crotch patched. Not pretty, but very functional:

The simplest boro.

Here’s a progress photo. I’ve finished one knee, which was not worn all the way through, but had just worn very thin. I put a piece of fabric from the Thai top on the back, and seamed perpendicular lines of running stitches – sashiko. The other knee has worn through and has two holes.

Pants during boro mending. The sashiko stitching is closer where the fabric was most worn.

This is what I did with the other knee. Seamed around the edge to stop fraying, then I seamed the fabric onto the back side using circular shapes dictated by the holes. My boro stitching may not conform to very orthodox boro rules (if they exist?), but I do give myself some points for the fact that my boro is true mending, not decoration on purpose-made holes. I foresee more mending like this in my future.

Sashiko stitches around the fixed knee.

Lichen Windfall

Lichen windfall is perfect for natural dyeing, since it does no harm to pick up the fallen ones, they will no longer grow. One of the most common and easy-to-recognize lichens in windfall is Ramalina fastigiata.


When walking outside on rainy, windy days, I very often find lots of lichens scattered on the ground under trees. Lichens that the wind has torn down from branches. Sometimes, on the day after a big storm, I’ve come home from walks with all my pockets plus random trash bags filled with windfall. Wonderful windfall with that amazing scent that only lichens have.

Collecting windfall does no harm, since these lichens are not able to continue growing anyway. It’s the best (some would say only) way to obtain lichens for dyeing. When I come home with such a treasure, I usually spread it out on a plastic tray to dry (to prevent mold).

Lichen windfall drying at home. It looks like a big piece of Evernia pruniastri on the left, Ramalina fastigiata on the right, and probably a Parmelia species on the bottom.

But before dyeing with lichen windfall, it’s necessary to sort the lichens and determine the species, since you will need to use the boiling water method (BWM) with some species, and the ammonia method with others:

Boiling water method – it is what it sounds like. Simmer the lichen in water and cool off. Add the yarn to the dye bath and heat it for an hour without boiling.

Ammonia method – the difficult one. Steep the lichen in 1% ammonia (originally, stale urine was used) for several weeks or months, opening and shaking the jar daily to aerate. The red liquid in the jar is the dye bath.

In both methods, no mordant is required, since lichen dyes are substantive (they bind directly to wool without the help of a mordant).

Lichens steeping in 1% ammonia.

In order to type lichens, I recently bought myself a copy of “Lichens, An Illustrated Guide to the British and Irish Species” by Frank S. Dobson. It contains a detailed introduction to lichens, and a detailed key with photos and descriptions.

With my copy of Dobson, I’m planning to take a closer look at the types of lichens that are commonly found in the windfall here in my corner of Denmark. That is, how to recognize them, how to dye with them, and which colors to expect.

I’m beginning with a very common type of lichen, which may very well be the easiest one to recognize: Ramalina fastigiata. Often, large tufts of this will fall, and they are completely covered in small outgrowths that look like tiny suction cups. The outgrowths are apothecia, the fruiting bodies of the lichen. They make spores for sexual reproduction. When the spores germinate in a new location, they meet with a new alga to become a new individual lichen. But the dyer doesn’t have to worry about all that, being able to recognize apothecia is the important part.

A piece of Ramalina fastigiata, completely covered in apothecia. Tufts like this can measure up to about 5 cm (2 inches).

Karen D. Casselman mentions the Ramalina species on the list of ammonia methods lichens in her book, “Lichen Dyes, The New Source Book”.

I’ve previously tested the ammonia method on Ramalina fastigiata and achieved a light rose color (pictures here).

But Casselman also mentions the and Ramalina species in her list of boiling water method lichens, so I decided to test that method on Ramalina fastigiata. I used equal amounts of wool yarn and lichen, and achieved no color at all (no pictures!). The conclusion: Ramalina fastigiata is strictly an ammonia method lichen.