Madder – grow your own dye stuff

Madder is my favourite dye stuff; to grow, use and for the colours it gives; here’s why….

About Madder

Madder (Rubia Tinctorum) has been used for centuries to give a range of beautiful rich red, orange and peach colours. Evidence of its use has been found in India dating to the third century BC. It was certainly used to give the rich reds seen in Turkish carpets and ancient woven textiles. The colour comes from the roots of the plant. It is said to be the only true plant red.


The roots of madder grow very easily in the UK. If you want to grow your own dye plants, its a good one to try. I recommend you grow it in a large pot though because the roots spread a long way and plants pop up everywhere if it’s not contained. Its the roots that give the colour, and the older roots give the strongest reds. Two to four years root growth is ideal. I have found madder reluctant to grow from seed, so buy roots from a specialist dye plant supplier. Its a perennial, so once you’ve got it, you can keep harvesting the roots and replanting.

Madder p[lant
My plants in the garden

In the spring lime green shoots will appear, followed by a wild, trailing sort of plant. The flowers are tiny and yellow which become green beads of seeds. Once your plants have got to this stage, in their second to fourth year since planting, its time to harvest them.


To do this simply dig up the madder roots, sort through and select the thick and juicy ones and keep them to one side. Replant the thin, weedy ones for another year’s crop. Its worth digging right down to the bottom of the roots as this is where the thickest ones are.

Once you have the thick roots, rinse off all the soil and leave to dry. The chop up the roots with secateurs (mind your fingers!) into 1cm chunks. You may need to rinse the root chunks to remove any remaining mud. The chunks can then be dried in a dehydrator for later or used straight away.

To use madder…

See Jenny Dean’s Blog here for detailed information about how to use madder to dye with.

To use madder, soak it in warm water for 12 hours to encourage the release of the colour. Use a ratio of 1:1 dried roots to alum mordanted fibre or 4:1 fresh roots to alum mordanted fibre for the strongest reds and orange. It can also be used without a mordant. The dye solution can be used all in one with the fibre, or strained and used like that. To use the dye it needs to be gently heated in a dye pot with the yarn or fibre. Once you have dyed the first amount of fibre, there will probably be some dye colour left. Use this with more alum mordanted yarn or fibre to get a paler colour. (Exhaust dyeing) Madder can sometimes give four or five exhaust dye baths of decreasing colour to pale apricot and pink.

If you don’t have a garden or enough space or time to grow your own madder, why not buy a pouch and have a go at dyeing with it anyway.

dyed with madder
dyed with madder, Peach Sparkle
Here are the samples I have dyed with the madder this year

Your Comments

  1. Don’t you use calcium carbonate with madder?
    You don’t mention heating the dyebath…..

    1. Thank you for your comments. Calcium carbonate can be used to alter the pH of the dye bath to more alkali which in turn alters the tone of the colour to more red/brown and away from orange and rust tones.
      I have edited the blog to include heating the dye, it was my omission. Best wishes.

  2. Actually, it’s less the pH alteration we use calcium carbonate for but the calcium. It’s that which is the significant addition – you can use any alkali to shift the tones, washing soda will do just as well. Calcium provides an extra generally considered essential to madder, and to weld for that eye watering yellow we can only get here in the SW by adding calcium. We can certainly use pH to change the shade but we need calcium for the ‘pop.’

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