Madder dyestuff

A Recent Article for Toby’s Gardenfest

Natural Dyes, Colour all around you.

Throughout history, since weaving textiles became common, people have used natural dyes to create colourful garments. People in medieval times would not have worn the dull browns we might think, but a range of subtle green, brown, yellows and oranges, all from foraged plants, berries, leaves and bark. The most rare, difficult to obtain and process colours, like purple for Royalty, were reserved for the wealthy and reflected the wearer’s status. At this time in history, most woven fabrics wear woollen or linen/flax and it is only later that cottons and silks became available. The process for dyeing onto animal fibres is different to dyeing on plant fibres, and trial and error would have taught what worked best, often with stale and pungent urine as a fixative!

Fortunately we can now use mineral salt fixatives for our natural dyes! Most natural dyes need this fixative or “mordant” (from the Old French, Morder, to grip) as this helps the dye colour literally grip the fibre and remain fairly colourfast. Some dyes have their own “built in “ mordant, especially barks and tree dye stuffs like Oak Galls and Acorns.

Natural dyes, of course have no harsh petro-chemicals in them and so are ideal if you are dyeing fabric or fibre to make something for someone with sensitive skin. Its also a positive choice to reduce your carbon footprint, enjoy nature’s bounty and create something special and unique. The colour palette natural dyes give you are generally soft and subtle, and surprising colours go well together, for example mustard yellow of Rhubarb root (Rheum Rhabarbarum) and rich rust of Madder roots. (Rubia Tinctorum). Interestingly, lots of plants which have been used for centuries to dye with have tinctorum as part of their Latin name.

Each season, the garden and hedgerows give us a foraging and harvesting opportunity, and many will continue to give colour throughout the season. Early stinging nettle leaves give a pale greenish yellow, but as the summer comes and goes, the colour darkens, and by the autumn, the colour is more of a khaki. In fact, the first khaki uniforms were wool dyed with stinging nettles for the First World War. (So many uniforms needed, and not enough red dye which was traditionally used for British uniforms.)

stinging nettle
stinging nettle

Spring gives us gorse flowers, bracken fronds, daffodils, and young comfrey leaves. A favourite of mine is Dyer’s Chamomile (Cota Tinctoria) which gives a reliable and stable yellow and can be overdyed to give other shades, such a lime green with weak copper solution.


Summer gives us a riot of colour from flowers in the garden, hedgerow horse parsley, (Smyrnium olastratum) hawthorn berries, (Crataegus monogyna) rose hips (Rosa canina) and elderberries (Sambucus nigra) to name a few.

The gentle colour changes in nature around us in autumn are reflected in the gentler dye shades you can obtain. Alder cones, (Alnus glutinosa) acorns and oak galls, (Quercus robur) Willow (Salix alba) and copper beech (Fagus sylvatica purpurea) all give beautiful tones of honey, beige, brown and grey.

In the winter, after a storm, lichen can be collected, but ONLY from fallen wood/twigs, and only in small quanities. (I have never had any success with getting the lilac pinks you can get from lichen, so my advice would be don’t bother!) Lichens are endangered so best left alone on the forest floor.

The winter is the time to use the dye colours you have grown and harvested, like Madder which grows like a weed in my garden! (Rubia Tinctorum) This year has been a great year from drying dye stuffs naturally in the sun, but the can be successfully dried in paper bags, hung up in a dry shed or outhouse. Kitchen ingredients like onion skins and tea can be used to dye with too, that’s an article for another day…..

When foraging natural dye plants, follow the common sense rules;

Only pick what you need, and no more,

Don’t strip one plant of dye stuff, spread your foraging,

Get any permission from the land owner to harvest what you need,

Be very sure of what you are harvesting, and if necessary wear protective gloves and use secateurs,

Don’t put yourself at risk by climbing up trees or foraging on main roads

If in doubt, don’t pick. (That’s why I never use fungi to dye with, I’m not sure what I’m picking and don’t want to poison myself!)

Collect the dye stuffs when they are dry, so that no mould will develop and either use them immediately, or dye then for later use. Generally, you will need 200% dye plant to fabric/fibre weight if using fresh, and 100% if using dry dye stuff. The mordant you use with your dye stuff will depend on what fabric/fibre you are using.

Once the fabric/fibre has been mordanted, the colour is “extracted” from the dye stuff, often by gently heating to make an infusion. Some dyestuffs, like acorns, oak galls and alder cones are better crushed; madder, nettles and rhubarb roots need to be chopped, and some flowers like daffodils need to be pulled away from the calyx before infusion. They all need to be strained as all those bits in your wool fibre is a nightmare!

Once you have the dye liquid, you are ready to go! Only use a pan which will not be used to cook in again. Dyes are pH reactive, so stainless steel is best, aluminium can change the colour you expect. Even the pH of your water will make a difference, especially if you use spring or rain water.

Dye your fibre gently, particularly wool which can shrink and felt in the pan, and once you are happy with the intensity of colour and/or it is not getting darker, remove your fabric/fibre, leave to cool, then wash in cool water until no further colour comes out. Dye gently in the air, out of the sun. Hnad dyed yarns and fabrocs like this will not have an even, sold colour, that’s normal and part of their beauty.

You may notice there is still colour left in your pan. That’s because some dyestuffs are more generous than others and will give more colour. You can try dying another batch with this “exhaust” dye; the colour will be tonal but paler. I have managed to get 600g dyed Polwarth wool from 100g dried Rhubarb root using the exhaust.

Colours can be modified by changing the pH of the solution in the dye pan, try adding vinegar or bicarbonate of soda to blackberry or red cabbage dye to change the colour more red or purple. Copper and Iron modifiers are often used too, and oak galls can “sadden” a colour and reduce it’s brightness.

Most of all, enjoy the colours of nature and the beauty they give us.

If this has interested you and you would like a go for yourself, have a look at and for luxury yarns, dye kits and naturally hand dyed yarns. We sell DIY dye kits which have everything you need, perfect to have a go or give as a gift.

Further Reading:

I can thoroughly recommend The Wild Dyer by Abigail Booth and Wild Colour by Jenny Dean.

Useful Websites:

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