Plant-Based Dyes: Indigo, Madder, and Weld

If you can cultivate these three primary color plants, then you can create your own bright, natural dyes.

| Spring 2017

On my journey to creating natural color, I was deeply inspired by a workshop I attended at Darthia Farm in my hometown of Gouldsboro, which is located on the rural coast of Maine. These artists and farmers were growing the traditional primary-color dye plants of madder, weld, and indigo, and they were saving and sharing seeds. I’m forever grateful to have received my first madder seeds and indigo starts from the very community I grew up in.

This primary inspiration has led to nearly 20 years of my own dye-plant cultivation, and I continue the practice of saving and sharing important dye-plant seeds and starts. Identifying which plants you would like to work with for dyeing and deciding how to integrate them into your own garden is also a satisfying addition to the usual landscaping and gardening. Growing your own ancient primary-color dye plants will also provide you with natural colors that have been staples for thousands of years. In their fresh form, these ancient primary dyes can produce surprising color vitality. This is especially true of weld. When made with dried plant material, the color is still a very vibrant yellow, but when weld is harvested fresh, the color is an even more fluorescent, lemony, clear-golden hue.

Marvelous Red Madder

Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is a perennial herb native to the eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia. It’s the most important source of “true” red in plant dyeing. Madder root has been used as a natural dye for more than 5,000 years and was cultivated as early as 1500 B.C. Madder was used as a coloring source by the Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, and was generally used for all red textiles before it was supplanted by synthetic dyes in the early 20th century. Traces of madder used as dye have been found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb, in burial grounds in Scandinavia, and even in the ruins of Pompeii and ancient Corinth. The first American flags were most likely dyed with madder root or a combination of madder and cochineal — a beetle-sourced red dye originating in South and Central America.

Easy to grow, madder has an excellent germination rate from seed, and it’s especially drought-tolerant; it has done well in my garden with little watering. It takes three or more years for the roots to reach peak maturity and yield their full color potential upon extraction. When I harvest the root, I dry some for long-term use in my studio and use the rest fresh.

Madder is a long-lived perennial of the family Rubiaceae, the same family as coffee. In late autumn, the plant’s long tendrils and leaves begin to wane, the berries dry, and the seeds look like black peppercorns. In cold climates, fall is the opportune time to harvest the roots as well as save the seeds before the ground freezes over, as the plant is already dormant and free of sticky vine leaves. It’s also a good idea to plant your madder in two different beds so you can harvest it in rotation from year to year, as I do, so fresh madder root is always available. Large madder harvests from your garden can be dried and stored indefinitely.

Madder root color is sensitive to temperature and to the mineral content of water. It works best with slightly hard water, and adding a tab of calcium carbonate (chalk) or even an antacid tablet to your dye bath will be enough to achieve clearer reds by making the water more alkaline.

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