Madder yields shades of red

Madder yields shades of red? Contrary to the title this post is not about an impending emotional explosion of volcanic proportions. After all, we are trying to stay away from news about the current American political drama.

No, this post is about a root that yields shades of red, including orange. It’s called madder, or rubia tinctorum.

As I’ve said before, this entire process of fiber preparation fascinates me because it is so ancient. We really don’t know when humans decided that clothing was a good idea. We know that people used the skins of animals to clothe themselves and then they somehow moved to cloth. How people learned to spin or weave is unknown but we know it goes back a long way, at least 25,000 years.

Dyeing fiber goes way back too. However, because textiles do not survive the ravages of time very well, there are not very many ancient examples of any size. There is only evidence of fabric production because of tools left behind and impressions left in hard clay. There are also small traces of fiber that show what types of dye may have been used. According to the Web site Wild Colours, traces of madder root dye were found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb around 1350 A.D., but the history of madder dye goes back at least 5,000 years. A recent discovery revealed madder dye on a 4,000 year old Egyptian quiver.   Because I am an American, I found it interesting that our flag was probably dyed with madder in the early days and the red coats of the British Army were dyed with madder.

The use of madder root, which produces various shades of oranges and reds, has continued down through the ages right on down to my kitchen here in 2016. I did not grow the plant myself but was able to purchase it from a fellow Etsian. It is with this that I decided to over-dye my avocado brown silk thread. I had to start early in the week because you need to soak madder before using it. My family thought that the smell was weird but they were interested to see how this batch of yarn would turn out.

And here it is:


Do you like it? I love the burnt orange color. I was hoping for red but it looks like I will have to coax that out with some calcium carbonate since we have soft water. Again, it’s a scientific, chemical process and takes some tinkering but it is fun.

In dealing with madder, I also learned that a little of the root goes a long way. I decided to soak a cup of it without realizing that it expands! I had two cups by the end of the week. Fortunately, it can be used again so I only used as many ounces as I had yarn and then set the rest out to dry. We’ll see what it yields in the next batch.


Pink gone wrong! Well, sort of …

In my short career of dyeing yarn, I have been very pleased with my results. As I dabbled and experimented, I knew that eventually something would not turn out the way I wanted. It finally happened.

Understand, I am not being pessimistic. Dyeing fiber is both an art and a science; both involve some level of experimentation.  Experiments can either yield expected or unexpected results. The unexpected was bound to happen.

From my reading, I found that one can get pink on some fiber types, by making up a dye bath using dyeing avocado skins and pits. Are you surprised? I was, too, and I just had to try it. Besides, using avocados would provide a really good excuse to make guacamole, which my family enjoys. I’m going off on a rabbit trail for a moment with my recipe:


  • 6 medium sized ripe avocados
  • 1 teaspoon onion salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder,  or to taste
  • 1/2 cup to 1 cup sour cream (this depends on how much I want to expand my recipe, the less the better)
  • 2 or 3 splashes of lemon juice

Cut avocados in half and remove seeds. Scoop out fruit from halves and place in a large bowl. Discard seeds and pits or set set them aside to wash for the dye pot.

Add other ingredients and mash together with either a potato masher or a pastry cutter to the consistency you desire (we like it chunky) and serve.

OK … where were we …

Because we were having a family gathering at the time I made the guacamole, I put the pits and skin in the freezer. This may have had something to do with my pink gone wrong so I may have to try this again next time we want guac and just plan to dye it while we’re chowing down.

I had to wait a week to dye my yarn. My silk thread turned out like this:



Not a bad brown, and a little uneven, but definitely not what I wanted. I have also learned that silk does not accept dye evenly unless it’s pre-treated. More on that later.

Here’s the skein of 100 percent alpaca that I dyed:


It’s a kind of peachy brown. I think I’ll keep it and make a small scarf since it’s a small skein.

Another thing I did – that I  probably will not do again – was to dye some sari ribbon with an acid dye at the same time I was doing my avocado dye. Acid dye is a totally different animal and you have to use math to get certain colors from other colors (unless you buy the color from a company that has it). Unfortunately, my math did not turn out right and instead of pink I got a deep wine color:


This is not such a bad mistake, in fact, I really like it. I think I’ll keep this and breathe a sigh of relief that it turned out all right.

Here’s a skein of alpaca acrylic that I tried in the acid dye:


The acrylic took the dye! There is a little uneven dye but it’s pretty so it’s a keeper.

As for the silk, I decided to over dye it. Stay tuned.



Dyeing yarn with yarrow

The common yarrow, achillea millefolium, has fascinated me since I first saw it gracing the fields and roadsides in The Thumb of Michigan when we lived there. In Michigan, the prevalent color of yarrow is white. It’s the same in Colorado where I live now. There are also several colored varieties that people plant in gardens and I am told that these also yield colors when used in dyeing. For that purpose, I planted a pink yarrow this year but it’s too early to tell yet how that will work out. My yellow plant seems to be the only one that has survived so far. I believe this is because the roots of my salvia plants that I planted at the same time as the yellow yarrow tend to take over and new plants have a difficult time competing against it.

In the past, yarrow has been used as a food source and medicinally by both Native Americans and pioneers. Yarrow was used by frontier doctors to stop bleeding and cure inflammation. It was also used to cure headaches and as a tea to help one sleep better. It dries nicely and is used in dried flower arrangements. Imagine my surprise when I also found that it yields color in the dye bath!

Recently, as I continued my experiments in dyeing fiber with plants, I snipped several yarrow flowers and stems from the plant I had growing in my back yard. My flowers on my plant are yellow and using the stems and flowers, it yielded a yellowish-green tint on my fiber with differing results. I wish the picture of my yarn was a little better, but here it is:


On the left is a yellow yarrow flower. In the yarn picture, 100 percent wool derived from Navajo Churro – is on the left. A silk thread is in the middle and an alpaca/acrylic mix is on the right. As you can see, the wool came out the brightest. It is yellow-green – the crayon that I most often avoided in my crayon box as a child – but here on my yarn, I rather like it. You can’t tell very well, but the silk came out a light yellow as did the alpaca/acrylic. Had I had 100 percent alpaca it may have been a little darker, since acrylic does not take up dye in natural dyeing.

One interesting thing is that if I had a modifier on hand, like rusty iron, to dip my yarn in after the dye bath, the yarn may have turned green. As of this moment, I have an old coffee container filled with nails, vinegar and water, rusting away on my porch. Next time, I’ll report on how this iron mordant affects the process.


Dyeing Yarn Naturally

As part of The Fleece Project, I will eventually have to dye my wool, that is unless I want a creamy white blanket.

Creamy white is nice, but there are too many beautiful colors out there to leave the entire blanket uncolored so I have started reading and searching the Internet.

What I have found is fascinating!

I have always been interested in history and since I began really connecting with fiber, I have wondered how people in the past have colored their garments. Of course, I knew that they used natural items like berries, but how did they do it? How, indeed, did someone figure out all of this stuff?

The second question is not so easy to answer, but the first has quite a bit of information. In my search for knowledge, I connected with a book called “A Garden to Dye For” by Chris McLaughlin. What a fun book!

McLaughlin writes in an easy style that encourages her readers to give dyeing with natural products a try and, though written with a gardener in mind, there is plenty of information on dyeing for anyone to get started.

I have experience with vegetable gardening, and some success with flowers, so I thought I’d give it a try. My first experiment was with marigolds.


Here is the yarn I started with. On the left is Navajo Churro from fleece that I had purchased at the Taos Wool Festival and had spun myself. In the middle is a worsted weight 100 percent silk skein and on the left is a skein of alpaca and acrylic.


Now acrylic will not take dye very well but I wanted to see how it would interact with the alpaca that will take dye.

The first step is to tie the skeins in three or four places. You’ll want to tie them loosely so that the dye will work its way under the yarn. It also helps to tie it with colored yarn so that you can find it easily. After weighing my dry skeins, I washed them in a pot of  water that I had heated to 150 degrees. This is at a simmer, not a boil. I washed them with a Ph-neutral soap. In this case I used some shampoo that I had bought at a health food store.

After scouring, or washing, the yarn for about an hour, I rinsed the yarn and placed it in another pot of simmering water along with my mordant.

A mordant is a substance that opens up wet fiber so that it can accept dye. For my yarn, I used a mixture of alum and cream of tartar that McLaughlin uses in her book.  I mixed this with some warm water and poured it into my simmering pot along with the yarn and pushed on the fiber with a spoon so that the alum/cream of tartar completely dissolved. This mordant bath takes an hour as well so I used that time to cut my marigolds and clean up the kitchen a bit.  I would have gotten my dye bath started to save time, but at that time I only had one pot to work with.


Now, we have pots in our kitchen, but for dyeing you want to use either a stainless steel or enamel pot. Once you use this pot for dye, you will have to retire it from use for food. After all, you wouldn’t want to cook in the same pot that you used for plants, some of which may be poisonous.

After the mordant I simmered the marigolds in the dye bath and then strained the water. The water was a pretty orange because I had used a mixture of yellow and orange flowers with the green bits still attached. Here is how the yarn looked after I dyed it.


I love how brightly the churro wool (left) turned out. The silk (middle) looks to me like clean straw and the alpaca/acrylic resembles a creamsicle. I was very pleased with the results and will try this method again.