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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Easy Knitting

Last week, I brought my yarn and kits to a market, and took the chance to chat with lots of people.


Lots of people stopped by, some drifted by on their round of the entire market, others stopped to chat.

There were two things that most people told me. The first one: they really liked my colors, and didn’t need to be told that I only use natural dyes. And I completely agree! These colors basically shout that they are natural:

My color circle – blue of course from indigo, purple from cochineal and indigo overdyeing, reds from madder, yellows from tansy, greens from indigo + plants, and dusty greens from whole leaf Japanese indigo.

The second one: people seemed to like my designs, but thought they were complicated. And well, I sort of knew that. I use techniques like provisional cast ons, grafting and so on, because it gives better results. I insist that these results are better, but I do understand that many people find such techniques difficult, or think they are.

So here’s my resolution. I will write easier knitting patterns. I’m reworking my Vindauga Baby pattern, making a version that only uses standard knitting techniques. I’m going to keep the picot edge, that one is easy, and very decorative. My plan is to release the pattern again, this time with an easy and a challenging option.

Purple, easy Vindauga Baby blanket.

Finally, I’ve deployed my secret weapon. My Mom! She dug through all my yarn, and found this:

Fenris dyed with indigo (left), with indigo and cochineal (middle), and Norne dyed with whole leaf Japanese indigo (right).

To begin with, she has her hands on the blue-green skein of Norne (that sort of had my name on it). Her plan is simple, geometric garter lace, it’ll be interesting to follow the progress.

Knitting Better Stripes

Knitting stripes is so addictive. Here’s a simple technique to make the color change from one stripe to the next smoother when knitting in the round


I’m working on the design for a girl’s dress in multicolor stripes. It has a turned picot edge and it’s knit top-down. The first prototype is knit in Fenris (100% wool, 450 m / 100 g or 492 yd / 3.53 oz) dyed with madder, indigo, woad, Japanese indigo, and a series of purples from cochineal overdyed with indigo.

Dagmar running over a harvested field on one of the last days of summer.
The dress has a round yoke and turned picot edges along neck, arm, and lower hem. Notice the cluster of trees in the left side of the photo – a burial mount from antiquity.

In order to make the color change from one stripe to the next as nice as possible (even though it’s on the back), I used this technique:

After changing to a new color, first knit an entire round, then remove the end-of-round marker.

The first stitch that was knit with the new color is now the right-most stitch on the left needle – the stitch you were just about to knit. Insert the left needle through the stitch right under it from the right side. Don’t let go of the stitch that was already on the needle. You now have two stitches instead of one, and they are not the same color:

Two stitches together, different colors because they come from two different stripes.

Now, knit the two stitches together (with a k2tog) and replace the end-of-round marker. The change of round has now moved one stitch to the left, but that is OK.

The two stitches knit together, and the marker replaced.

The result is this:

The yoke of the dress with jogless stripes.

Not perfect, but a huge improvement over just cutting the old yarn and adding the new.

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I’ve fussed over this design for a long time. I’ve knit it 3 times, and I’ve had a small army of knitters test the pattern. Now, I’m finally ready to release it!

Brisingamen lined hat – photographs by Lars Bjertrup, Wendy Colding, and yours truly.

The Brisingamen hat is lined all over, and has a design that fell into place when many little pieces came together.

The yarn, for one thing. I’ve long dyed on the Norne base, a single ply pure wool yarn (700 yd / 3.53 oz). It has a very slight stiffness that makes it perfect for lace knitting. I hate knitting lace with very tiny, slippery, unmanageable yarn. Lots of such fine and expensive yarns exist, and people knit huge shawls out of it, it’s just not my cup of tea… The only problem is that Norne is not a very soft yarn.

The solution: knitting only the outside in Norne. Lace is (yea, that goes without saying) full of holes, so the lining solves two problems: it makes the hat warm, and the inside soft. The lining is knit using a new yarn I recently started dyeing: Bestla, a 65% merino and 35% silk mix (656 yd / 3.53 oz). It is amazingly soft. I’m very sensitive to itchy wool, and I find it very soft.

Another big part is the lace pattern. The overall pattern repeat came from a Japanese stitch library, but I fiddled a lot with it.

The first prototype, knit in white, turned out child-sized:

Dagmar wearing the first Brisingamen hat. She’s 7, so even with her thick hair, her head is smaller than an adult’s.

The final version has cables between the large lace motifs:

The Brisingamen hat in madder dyed yarn. Photo by Lars Bjertrup.

The large motifs gradually transition into smaller forms, and end in a rosette of small cables:

The crown decreases.

Finally, there’s the construction of the lining. Care should always be taken when claiming you’ve invented something new, but I have never seen other patterns that use this construction. I started with two provisional cast ons. After knitting a bit, they are knit together. Now, the brim is knit from one set of stitches, and from there, the outside of the hat. Later, the other set of stitches is used to knit the lining.

The lining, soft and seamless.

The result is a hat with double fabric everywhere. Lightweight, but warm, and above all else, soft inside. It will be too much if I toot my own horn any more now, but I really am happy about this design.

You can buy the pattern on Ravelry or have a look at the naturally dyed knitting kits in my Etsy shop.

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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.

A Herd of Hats

What’s the collective noun for hats? “Herd”? “Flock”? “Mob”? “Head”? Or, in my case, “parliament”, or even “pandemonium” may even soon be appropriate. I can’t seem to stop knitting them.


I’ve been working on two new designs for hats, a lacy one that leapt out at me from a Japanese pattern dictionary, and one in stranded knitting that came about by swatching. Yes, swatching.

Brisingamen is inspired by a Japanese pattern, and knit in two layers all over. The entire inside is knit in Bestla, a 35/65 mix of silk and merino, the entire outside is Norne, my 1-ply pure wool lace yarn. It took a bit of hard thinking to come up with a way to line both the hem and the rest of the hat – in the end, I went with two provisional cast ons. That may sound incredibly complicated, but it’s really not. And the result really is excellent. Since the gauge is small, the double fabric is thin, but very warm, even when it’s windy.

Here’s Dagmar on a snowy day a while ago, wearing the first prototype, knit in undyed yarn. It turned out too small for me, but fits her just perfectly.

Dagmar happily wearing the Brisingamen prototype.

For the final version, I only had to do small recalculations. A triple cable replaces the single line of twisted stitches between motifs, and the rib is longer. Here it is, almost done, in yarn dyed with 1:1 madder. I’ve dyed with madder on pure wool so many times, and still love how it takes the color. Silk merino takes the same dye in a slightly different, no less delicious, way. Perhaps it is the silk sheen that alters the look just slightly.

Brisingamen hat, the outer layer is pure wool, the inner silk-merino. Both dyed with madder root.

Folkvang is a tam that was inspired by Bohus patterns. Since I first read about Bohus patterns, I’ve wanted to make something using them as a starting point.

I started swatching to try patterns out. In the beginning, I wanted an arched pattern, so that’s how the swatch starts out (right side). But the arch didn’t behave, and I realized that you would have to work 3 colors in one row to make an arch that separates areas with two different background colors. I hate knitting 3 colors at a time, so I continued the swatch with rectangular shapes.

First, a white rectangle on a blue and green background. It’s OK, but the purl stitches on the long edges don’t add anything. Next, a blue rectangle on beige background. Purl stitches inside the rectangle add texture that makes the pattern more interesting. Now, I was on to something. I changed to white background, kept the dark indigo blue as the contrast color, and added in a bright green band of background color. I was getting close, and was finally happy with the pattern when I let the white background peek into the purled inside of the rectangle, and softened the bright green with a bit of beige.

The Folkvang swatch. White background with contrast colors blue (indigo), dark green (tansy and indigo), beige (velvet pax 2. bath), and bright green (reed flowers).

The vertical lines of blue purl stitches just beg to be lined up with purl stitches of a corrugated ribbing, so that’s what I did:

The Folkvang tam, flying off the needles.

The hem is lined with silk-merino. The outer part is knit in Fenris, which is excellent for color knitting, but really not that soft.

In order not to break up the corrugated ribbing when progressing from the hem to the main body of the hat, I used a new (I think?) way of closing the hem in color knitting.

In the photo below, you see the corrugated ribbing in front. The provisional cast on is undone, and the live stitches put on a needle, sitting behind the work. Now, holding the yarns appropriately for color knitting (blue is my dominant color, so it’s towards the left because I knit continental), I purl the purl stitch with blue, then knit together 3 white stitches with white, one from the front needle and two from the back. This leaves the purl columns unbroken, very satisfying to the obsessive knitter.

Closing the hem in color knitting.


This year, instead of binge-eating and wrapping a load of stuff, then unwrapping it, we decided to go to London on a Christmas trip. I have loved all the times I’ve traveled around Christmas/New Year (Paris, Chicago, New York, and New Delhi) and London was certainly no exception.

It seems that every time I hear or read an interesting story involving plants, Kew Gardens plays a role (for example, a recent radio story about conservation of a native fern on Ascension Island). So I made it a point to go there, although we clearly saw just a very small fraction of the place.

This is a bit of what we saw in the daytime:

Shapes of the Princess of Wales Conservatory.
Meat eating plant, as big as an adult’s hand. If I had wings, I’d fly in there.
The very edge of a leaf of the Victoria waterlilly. I’ve always had a soft spot for this huge plant.

So lots of amazing plants, but I didn’t see any dye plants. The closest was henna, and although it does dye wool (and hair), I don’t really consider it a dye plant.

Henna, Lawsonia inermis


Museum shops are always a temptation, and I almost bought “50 Plants that Changed the Course of History” by Bill Laws when it struck me that it does not contain any dye plants. Back on the shelf it went. I may be willing to accept that madder doesn’t make top 50, but surely indigo should?

We returned in the evening for “Christmas at Kew”, a lit path through the garden. It was cold and crowded, but beautiful:

The light tunnel continuously changed color, and people were glued to the spot.
The Hive, an installation by the artist Wolfgang Buttress, seen from the outside with illuminated trees.
Inside The Hive

We obviously didn’t go all the way to London without visiting Loop. I looked for naturally dyed yarns to see if they were immensely more delicious than the yarn I dye myself – and found three delicious yarns, but I’m happy to say that the yarn I dye is just as yummy. The first one is Shilashdair Luxury DK, which has quite intense colors, some of them quite vigorously variegated.

The second one is Linen Lace by Artisan Yarns. Beautiful muted colors and shiny texture. I seem to have thought just that also last time I visited Loop, because I actually have such a skein in my stash that I haven’t knit with yet.

The third is Plant Dyed by Mehlsen. I have never come across this yarn before, although it seems to be made not far from where I live in Mainland Denmark. Remarkably, they the colors are really similar to the ones I dye! So they really spoke to me, and I was really tempted to buy some of this yarn, but an internal voice of reason talked me out of it.

In the end, I walked out of Loop with “Estonian Knitting 1, Traditions and Techniques” by Pink, Reimann, and Joeste, a big, excellent, clearly edited and well written book. Lots of interesting information and old photos, and lots of techniques.

Naturally dyed yarns at Loop: Shilashdair (left), Artisan Yarns (middle), and Plant Dyed by Mehlsen (right). Photos taken with the cell phone in artificial lighting, so yarn really looks much better

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) was the last big highlight of the trip. This giant chandelier by Chihuly hangs in the entrance hall, it’s hard to say if it’s ugly or wonderful, but it’s certainly impressive. I find his work always is impressive. It’s also oddly at ease in the natural world – I remember seeing his work at the Botanical Garden in Chicago, and the Aquarium in Monterey, California. In both cases, the glass mimicked the living things that surrounded it.

The Chihuly chandelier at V&A.

The V&A had this amazing knitted baby’s gown, which had been displayed at the 1851 World Exhibition in London. It’s hard to really see in photos, but the knitting is so, so tiny. Tiny! The museum text tells us only that “Miss Sarah Ann Cunliffe of Saffron Walden, Essex, knitted this dress” and that “It was made with 1 1/2 million stitches and approximately 5,770 metres of sewing cotton”. We aren’t told which needle size was used, but I would think 1 mm or maybe smaller.

This picture was taken in low light and without flash, and does not do the 1851 baby gown justice.

There is also many wonderful tapestries at the V&A, and since they are made long before 1856, we can be sure that all the dyes are natural. These tapestries are clearly worth studying for those worried that natural dyes won’t last.

Here are a couple of details from a Belgian tapestry from 1718-24 titled “The March”. Some of the yellows have paled (as expected) which leads to a blueing out of greens produced by yellow with indigo blue overdye, but not disturbingly so. I’d call a color that looks like this after 300 years light-fast.

Blueing out of greens in a 300-year old tapestry

The only bad thing about our trip was that my potted Japanese indigo plant died while we were away. I uprooted this plant when I harvested the last of my plants in late October and it has been growing and flowering inside ever since. I cut it down, and looked inside the dead flowers. It looks like seeds, and it will be interesting to see if they will germinate.

Vindauga Baby

The design theme from my Vindauga Blanket just stayed in my brain after I knit the first one, demanding to be knit in more variations! And when that design theme met with my experiments in 2-dimensional gradients (or matrices), the result was the Vindauga Baby Blanket, which I’ve finally managed to publish the pattern for.

You can buy the Vindauga Baby Blanket pattern on Ravelry. I’ve also dyed a small number of kits, you can find them at my Etsy shop. The colorways are purple-blue (dyed with cochineal and indigo – sold out), red-blue (dyed with madder and indigo) and green-blue (dyed with weld, mugwort, and indigo).

From a set of 9 skeins of matrix-dyed yarn (on the left) to the Vindauga baby blanket.

I’ve now written the pattern, had it test knit, and corrected over and over again. It’s finished, and now published in Danish and English. I’ll be the first to admit that actually finishing a pattern is not my favorite part of the process from idea to pattern. But if I don’t pull myself together at some point, then my ideas end up as just that – ideas in my head.

But dyeing the matrix mini skeins is a lot of fun. I’ve worked with these 2-dimensional gradients for some time now, but it’s still difficult to get them just exactly right!

First, I dye gradients of red, pink, or red with madder, cochineal, weld, tansy, or mugwort. I make 3 skeins of each. Then, I overdye with an indigo gradient, giving each of the 3 identical skeins a different indigo overdye. This may not sound difficult, but both steps are hard to control.

When dyeing with cochineal and madder, I find that the first bath always gives a more intense color than the second one. But sometimes, the second and third give about the same. It’s also difficult to control the exact shade of blue with indigo dyeing. One factor is how long you dip skeins in indigo, another factor is the number of dips. But the amount of available indigo in the vat also changes over time. Even after making many sets of matrix dyed skeins, it’s still a challenge!

indigo overdye
Yellow, red, and white skeins soaking on the left. On the right, similar skeins in an indigo bath. The temperature is 52 degrees, pH is 9-10. Everything is under control!

See projects on Ravelry: