FEEDBACK FRIDAY: This Week in Natural Dye Questions

This week: Getting madder to be really red on cotton and does madder root go bad?

Every week, we are emailed with questions from our natural dye community asking simple and complex questions that we thought might be worth sharing. Of course, all of your burning questions are answered by natural dyer in chief, Kathy Hattori, Founder of Botanical Colors.

Do you have any advice for getting a rich red on cotton with madder? I’ve been able to get lovely rose and dark brick red but no vibrant red like I can get on wool. Thanks!

True red on cotton is tricky, which is why the old recipe for Turkey Red (Turkey the country, not the bird) was so secret and prized. That particular process took weeks, many, many dye baths and lots of really strange ingredients (rancid oil, dung and animal blood) which produced luminous and brilliant red shades. The Modern Natural Dyer has a very good Shade Card on page 98 that have some strong madder reds. There are a few tips that might make getting a good red possible:

  • Mordant with aluminum acetate and wheat bran, or calcium carbonate. I’ve found that calcium carbonate adds a very slight brown/purple tone to the color, and wheat bran produces a clearer, brighter, but not as saturated a shade.
  • If you are interested in using linen, I’ve been able to dye some really strong, intense reds on this fiber.
  • Use a small amount of calcium carbonate and dissolve with the madder extract to increase the reddish shade.

Can dried madder root be too old to produce reds?

It’s possible that old madder root can lose its potency over time as a natural product. Most madder root has a shelf life of about 3 years when kept dry and airtight, and ground madder may become weaker over time sooner than whole madder because it’s in powdered form.