Madder red has been used by humans for millennia. Or, as someone much more eloquent that me put it: “Madder’s diary goes back as far as history’s earliest written pages” (Brian Murphy in “The Root of Wild Madder”).
Whenever I dye with madder, and stop to really think about its history, I’m quite fascinated. Yes, the colors from madder are varied and wonderful, but when you know more about its history and chemistry, then you see more than just color!
At the time of the ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean (Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians), there was an extensive trade in dyestuffs: madder, indigo, and Tyrian purple. This was taking place as early as the 12th century BC (for more details about this, see chapter 1 of “Handbook of Natural Colorants” a quite expensive book, but you can see an excerpt here which includes chapter 1).
In the context of oriental carpets, the history of madder is just as long. Classical Persian and Afghan carpets are dyed with madder (and its old friend indigo), and natural dyeing is the very reason that good carpets age gracefully, and even become more beautiful with age. In a naturally dyed carpet, the colors of wool change a bit differently with time, which adds a dimension to the pattern, called abrash. Notice the bands of lighter and darker background red in this carpet:
The main dye molecule (one out of maybe 20) in madder root, alizarin (AKA 1,2-dihydroxy anthraquinone), is a very good dye. It is one of the most light-fast natural dyes in existence, and its wash-fastness in complex with a metal ion is also very good (this is one of the reasons we use alum, which provides an aluminum ion).
The first few times I attempted dyeing with madder, I was quite disappointed because I couldn’t get the deep red. It turned out that my tap water was at fault. We Danes (at least here in the mainland) get our tap water from the underground where it rests on chalk deposits, so it is full of carbonates that interfere with the dyeing process. After switching to rainwater, I always get good results.
The first madder bath yields a deep red, and the next baths a series of progressively lighter coral shades. I’ve always loved the deep red, but the corals from the later baths have really grown on me.
And now I’ve finished a sweater for myself in such a coral shade of madder. The pattern is Folded by Veera Välimäki, and the yarn is Supersoft (575m/100g). I absolutely love the color, it really brightens the day when you are surrounded by people who mostly wear black and grey. The dye job is not very even, and that is actually what gives a nice fake abrash to my sweater. And I love how lightweight and comfy my it is, just 153 g. That’s because I knit the Supersoft quite loosely on a 3.5 mm needle
The part that I’m less thrilled about is the fit of the sweater in the area around the shoulders. I followed the upper part of the pattern without modification, and the shoulders just don’t have enough fabric in them because the raglan seam is not long enough. I put the folds on the back of the sweater instead of the front, and I think that makes it much more flattering than the original.