Thursday, March 10, 2011

Playing with Madder

It has been almost a month since the big snow storm and we are only now freeing ourselves of its cover. I am so happy to be able to say that spring is finally starting to break through.

While we were suffering through our own local version of a cabin fever, with overcast skies, snow and mud everywhere, we did somehow manage to do some experimentation with natural dyes.

Up to this point our work, with few minor exceptions, has been limited to undyed hand spun fibers, but I hope that natural dyeing will be our main theme for this year.

Our interest in natural dyes, began with a book on Persian carpets we read few years back, "The Root of Wild Madder" by Brian Murphy. So it is not by chance that our experiments began with one of the oldest and popular natural dyes known to man, madder.

The first dye bath was a wild mixture of different fibers, yarns and mordants. We were mainly interested in the quality of our local water in the new house, and kept the fibers in the dye for a little over an hour. Here is what it looked like, straight out of the dyebath.....

....after drying the effects of different mordants became evident.....

(1 hour bath: from left to right no mordant, 25% alum, 8% alum + 7% cot, 2% iron, 2% copper and 40% vinegar, 4% tin + 4% cot and 10% alum). well as the effects of different concentration of the same mordant, as in the example of alum below.....

(from left to right, 25% alum, 8% alum + 7% cot and 10% alum).

....and then the variations brought about by the different modifiers......

(same bath, 25% alum mordanted wool: no modifier, vinegar eyeballed, 4% copper, 4% sodium carbonate and 4% iron modifiers).

(same bath, 2% copper and 40% vinegar mordanted wool: no modifier, vinegar eyeballed,  4% sodium carbonate, 4% copper, and 4% iron modifiers).

(same bath, unmordanted wool: no modifier, vinegar eyeballed,  4% sodium carbonate, 4% copper, and 4% iron modifiers).

(same bath, 2% iron mordanted wool: no modifier, vinegar eyeballed,  4% sodium carbonate, 4% copper, and 4% iron modifiers). if this palette was not enough, it also became evident that different fibers also have their say in the resultant color. In the example below, angora and merino blend is laid side by side with a sample of local Kinnauri wool of the same mordant concentrations.....

At the end of all this, and while we were fairly happy with our water and colors offered by our madder, we decided to run a couple other, less extensive experiments.

The first one was an energy efficient cold dye bath. We left the fibers standing in the cold bath for about 2 weeks, and took some fibers out every 3 or 4 days. We got the most pleasing results after about 5 days. Here they are:

(5 day cold bath, from left to right no mordant, 25% alum, 8% alum + 7% cot, 2% iron, 2% copper and 40% vinegar, 4% tin + 4% cot and 10% alum).

Even though the 5 and 10-day baths were our favorites, the color difference between 3, 5, 10 and 14-day bath durations was really minimal. This is illustrated below with the case and point of the 25% alum mordant, this difference as slight as it is, was nevertheless the most pronounced of all the mordants used...

(cold bath left to right: 3 day, 5 day, 10 day and 14 day bath).

The last experiment took us in the opposite direction. Here we dyed the same yarns, in an energy inefficient, low heat, long duration, 3-day bath. The results we got were partially predictable, but not without surprise.

In all of our experiments we used different concentrations of 4 mordants, namely alum, copper, iron and tin. In the two previous baths the mordants held their character, and often the different concentrations translated into different colors or tones. In this case everything, with the exception of tin turned into a big, brown blob. The first three groups of yarn were mordanted with alum, copper and iron (and they all came out the same color), the last is tin.


  1. Very interesting results! Thank you for the tests and the results on madder, mordants and different results from the varying mordsants and times! I love the pictures! You came out with some very beautiful colors!

  2. After looking at the difference in color intensity in the photo of the 3 different alum per centages, I wonder if the lightfastness has also changed. That might be revealing.

  3. Wonderful color. Heartening to know we can get gorgeous reds and oranges with cold water. How much tin did you use in that last photo? Any other mordant involved? -- Bjo

  4. the reds were not as strong in cold as they were in the hot baths, but i am pretty sure that an alkaline modifier would change that.
    actually the best straight out reds came out of the slow bath, on tin. i will add some of those photos later on this blog page and will try to annotate the mordant ratios.
    as far as tin goes, i used it in the 2%, 4% and 8% concentrations, straight, with cot and with oxalic. as far as i remember from 4% up the reds were good. but i still have to take a closer look at the results and will post the pictures with more exact details later....
    in any case i doubt that we will use tin in larger production runs. the three problems being toxicity, cost (10x more expensive than any other mordant) and esp. the strong damaging effect on wool fibers (even in these small samples). (thought i have to investigate this last claim a little further in other batches).

  5. kris,
    we are checking the fastness now. the skeins are hanging outside and the skies are clear. i should have a good idea in a week or two....we checked the wash fastness on the initial batch and it was perfect with all the problem whatsoever.

  6. Excellent! I appreciate knowing the lightfastness, and especially if it is improved by using greater amounts of the mordant --- and at what point is "diminishing returns" the result. Love the colors, Jarek, and you're really doing a great job keeping careful notes with so many samples and variations.

  7. Thanks for sharing your samples & notes with us...

    I'm trying to establish a madder bed here in the UK but only managed to get one plant to grow last year from 12 seeds...!! but I'm trying again this year...:)

  8. i was just reading over the old blog postings to decide which colors we want to use on our products this year and came across your note....don't be dishearten, our madder was growing profusely till about july and then came the mansoon season and after 2 months not one plant was left standing....maybe we will try again in a couple of years...

  9. Beautiful shades! Thank you very much for sharing. I have a question about the mordanting percentage values, though. Are they in reference to the mordant to water ratio? For example, for the 25 percent alum wool, does that mean the mordant was composed of 3 parts water to 1 part alum?