DIY Madder Dye

Learn how to use Madder to create your own vibrant red dyes from your garden.


| Janaury 2018


In A Garden to Dye For (St. Lynn’s, 2014), Chris McLaughlin teaches you how to make the most of your garden by harvesting different plants to create your own clothing dyes. She walks you through each type of plant, explaining where the color comes from and how best to get it for yourself. In the following excerpt, she walks you through using Madder to create your own dyes.

Madder (Rubia tinctorum)

Madder is not a sexy plant. You could plant it in a cottage garden or dress it up in a festive container, but no one is ever going to stop and get all googly-eyed over it. In fact, they may wonder when you’re going to get around to weeding. But what madder doesn’t have up top, she more than makes up with her bottom; that is, her roots. Dyers can’t get enough of her – madder holds the red of the ages. In fact, historically, there probably isn’t a better known dye plant.

Madder is an easy-to-grow perennial herb if you have halfway decent garden soil and sunshine. She may be plain-Jane, but her tastes run rich, so toss in some extra compost for her. After you’ve planted this valuable dye plant, you’ll still want to purchase roots elsewhere to tide you over until you can harvest your own roots, which is in about three years. (Yes, it’s still worth it.)

Where the Color Is

All ranges of red, gold, orange, burnt umber, and burgundy colors are tucked away in the roots. Dyers approach processing madder in various ways, but here’s how I do it: I add my roots (equal weight in roots to the fabric or fiber) to a non-reactive pot and then add enough water to sufficiently cover the roots.

I let that soak overnight, and then pour the water out, add the roots to a blender and fill the blender up with fresh water. In place of the blender method, you can use a mortar and pestle to crush it all up and then fill the pot up with fresh water. Then I put the pot on the stove and slowly bring it to a simmer. Don’t let it boil or you’ll muddy up the red. Let it simmer for just under an hour and then strain out (or not) the madder root.

Add your pre-wetted fiber to the dyebath and let it simmer in there for about 30 minutes – or let it soak overnight for the strongest color. Add more fiber until the bath is exhausted. When you’re done with the bath, make the most of the roots by starting a whole new dyebath. Some dyers have better luck bringing out the truer reds the second time around.





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