Natural Dyes: Madder and Weld

You’ll be “dyeing” to tinge your wardrobe with the warm reds and bright yellows produced by these heirloom plants.

Dyeing with weld. Photo by Flickr/underdutchskies

Natural dyes come in a rainbow of colors — as long as you know where to look. Plants, lichens, shells, and even insects contain all the compounds you need to make any color from soft yellow, to electric pink, to forest green. Many natural dyes also respond well to nontoxic dye-fixing mordants, such as alum and iron.

This article is the first of a two-part series on plants from which you can extract natural primary color dyes; red and yellow are covered here, and the second half of this series, to be published in our Spring 2020 issue, will focus on making blue hues with indigo and woad.

Red: The Root of the Madder

Madder (Rubia tinctorum), a perennial dye plant, displays clusters of small, yellow flowers in summer, and shiny, black berries in fall. Native to southern Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa, madder prefers loamy, moist soil, and plenty of sunlight. It offers a rambling groundcover, or grows like a vine with the right support. However, the plant’s best gifts hide underground; its medicinal roots can be processed to extract a red dye, with stronger red hues appearing in more alkaline soil conditions.

Wild madder. Photo by Getty Images/arousa

Madder needs 2 to 4 years to mature enough to produce the rich, lightfast (fade-resistant) reds that make the plant so popular among dyers. It spreads its underground roots and rhizomes, and produces rooted shoots wherever the trailing aboveground stems touch earth. But it’ll take over your garden unless you plant it in a deep (1-foot minimum) raised bed or a large, deep container. Plan to spend some time training the shoots back inside their bounds throughout the growing season as well.



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