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The Madder Dye Pot - dyeing a cotton scarf

Madder is a superb natural dye that confers many colour shades. It has been widely used for thousands of years to add colour to garments. The Anglo Saxons used madder as a source of red during their six centuries from 410-1066AD. Even after the introduction of synthetic dyes in the 1850's madder continued to be used as a natural source of red, and many wool mills, particularly in Wales continued to use madder into the 1950's for Welsh handwoven garments.

Madder is from the plant genus Rubia which consists of around 80 species of the family Rubiaceae, several of which can be used as a source of dye. They are grown globally throughout the Mediterranean, Asia, Africa and the Americas, and Rubia tinctorium can be grown in the UK and Europe though less common.

The first important step is weight your fabric to get the dry weight (the WOF). This is important because recommended amounts of natural dyes, and required mordants such as aluminium acetate is measured in terms of percentage (%) of the weight of fibre or fabric.

The next step is to scour (or wash) the fabric (in this case a natural Khadi cotton scarf). This step is essential as it removes dirt, debris, oils, etc from the fabric, therefore enabling the mordant to more efficiently bond to the fibre. The best scour for cotton is hot water with soda ash or you can purchase concentrated scouring solutions. For scouring we recommend soaking for 2-3 hours or even overnight. Rinse thoroughly.

The next step is to mordant the fabric. For cotton the recommended mordant is aluminium acetate used as 10% WOF. Here the aluminium acetate is dissolved in hot water and added to the mordant pan. Add the fabric to the pan - it important the fabric can move freely in the dye bath. Heat to boiling, turn down the heat and then simmer for 30-60 minutes. Drain and rinse the fabric in clean water.

Next set up your madder dye pot. Weigh the desired amount of dye. In this project we are using madder at a strength to deliver a vibrant colour so 40%. As this scarf is 260g, then the required amount needed will be 104g of madder (i.e 40% WOF).

Mix the madder to a paste with 3 parts warm water and the madder powder, leave to stand for a couple of hours to help extract the dye pigment (aqueous extraction). Then add the madder to the dye pot. New step is to add the mordanted fabric, stir and bring the dye pot to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 1 hour.

Leave the pot to cool, for a few hours or overnight. After the cooling period remove the fabric, and wash with a neutral detergent, and then dry.

If you want several colour shades, the pH can be adjusted, you can reduce the amount of madder, or also conduct exhaust dyeing. We will cover these topics in a separate blog.

Our madder dyeing and scarf kits are available on our website - They contain everything you need to get going with your madder dyeing project.

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