I am getting madder

I’ve been interested in natural (vegetable) dyes for a long time. Rather than planting a dye garden or gathering wild plants (and spending too much time extracting dyestuffs!), I invested in a collection of Earthues plant extracts. I’ve only dyed wool with acid dyes and food coloring, this is a new experience for me. The procedure is not particularly complicated, but it takes more time to color fibers, especially when compared with synthetic dyes. (It’s not for instant-gratification types.)

Scoured, dry wool (in this case, more of the Corriedale cross from the quasi-Amish) was weighed. Before dyeing, the fiber had to be mordanted. I soaked the wool for 30 minutes in warm water with a squirt of dishwashing detergent. I drained the wool, squeezed out the water briefly with my hands. Next, I dissolved alum (the Earthues book recommends 12% of the weight of dry goods) in warm water, added wool and enough water to cover the fiber, and heated the pot slowly (~45 min.) until it was 200 F. The pot was held at that temperature for 1 hour and cooled overnight.

I decided to use madder root extract (color range is supposed to be pink to dark red) at 4% weight of fiber (WOF), supposed to produce a medium-light shade. I followed the generic dyeing instructions (‘cuz I’m dumb and didn’t read the dye-specific page) and heated the dyebath to 200 F for an hour. Well, as it turns out, the dye component of madder degrades at temperatures above 160 F. Oops. In addition, I didn’t rinse the fiber after mordanting, I just extracted it by hand (pressed on it in the sink) and put it into the pot. I think I allowed a lot of “loose” alum (not bound to the wool) into the dyebath, and free alum molecules reacted with the dye and didn’t allow it to interact with alum fixed on the wool. In the end, I think the effective madder concentration was much less than 4% WOF. The dyebath was milky orange when I pulled the wool out. I threw the rest of the liquor away.


It’s not bad – a healthy “white person” flesh tone. (Hey – were any of you on the Knitlist last winter when I got reamed a new hole by asking for “flesh tone” (meaning peach) yarn, and number of people felt compelled to email me about my ethnocentric racist tendencies?)

For the next batch, I decided to use more of the Corrie and remembered to rinse the fiber after mordanting. The extract was made at a 10% WOF concentration, supposed to be a dark shade. The dyebath was taken off the heat after it reached 160 F (well, it crept up to 164 F for a little bit). What a difference in color! I rinsed and rinsed this like a crazy person, but the wool still exuded tons of red and started to feel crispy-dry after the 4th or 5th rinse. I emailed Earthues to see if I’d messed something up (got a speedy and detailed response), and the level of dye run off apparently is normal for my newly soft water conditions. They reported rinsing madder up to 8 times!


Both lots have much more orange color than I was expecting. This has to do with the soft water. More on that in the next installment.

13 thoughts on “I am getting madder

  1. This dyeing stuff is very scientific but I try to follow because I really like your blog. I have a good friend that is trying to learn about growing the plants that produce these dyes. Until she mentioned them to me, I didn’t know it could be done naturally.

    And I do remember the incident on the Knitlist last year. You didn’t offend me, some things are what they are with no hidden connotations.

  2. Nifty color. Thanks for the detailed report. Did you have to order the alum with your natural dye powders, or were you able to find it in the store somewhere? I’ve been looking for it locally, but can’t find any.

  3. I was lucky enough to have my first experience with Earthhues under the guidance of someone who is experienced working with the extracts, and I got a good lesson in proper mordanting etc.

    That being said, I have a kit of Earthhues extracts that are sitting on the shelf, waiting for me to get up the nerve to start cooking my handspun. I’ll be listening with rapt attention to your experiences.

  4. The flesh tone yarn looks beautiful. That’s so funny about the Knitlist. They are so sensitive! I was on the Knitlist for a short time when I started knitting. Its much better out here in blogland!

  5. Well, you’re in for it now. Once you start natural dyeing, things are never the same again. You can’t walk out your front door or drive down the road without looking at some plant you have never dyed with before and thinking, “Hmm, I wonder what color you could get with that?” And then there is the experimentation, because some flower dyes, when modified with ammonia (or some other modifier) will actually shift colors! You’re doomed, I tell ya, doomed! I love dyeing with chemical dyes because of the preciseness of it, and I love natural dyes because you never know what is going to happen.

    Here is a great page on mordants. http://www.griffindyeworks.com/mordents_mods_list.htm Just reading that page is an education into itself.

  6. What a great experiment! Thanks so much for detailing it for us and your colors are wonderful, the peach pale and delicate and the coral/orane sharp and feisty!

    Yeah, I remember the hoo-raw about the “flesh colored” yarn. You have to take these people with a LARGE grain of salt. Their color perception is severely hampered on account of their having their heads up their butts.

  7. Loved reading about your dye experiments. Both batches are lovely, too.

    Re the “flesh tones” gripes: Feh. I guess they have a point, but this kind of crankiness to innocent remarks always make me think of a mocking Bloom County cartoon that defined a new word: Offensensivity. (Offense + sensitivity).

    Cheers – Carolyn B.

  8. Hi June,

    You can also leave your wool in the dyebath to let it cool overnight or even leave it in a warm place for a month or more and get deeper colors. Perfect for those of us who really don’t feel like rinsing 8 times.

  9. I’m glad you finally tried out the dyes! And your results are both beautiful! Hopefully some day I’ll get around to trying them too.

  10. talk about crazy PC action there. Who cares if you refer to flesh tone stuff? There are all kinds of flesh tones (mine happens to be carrot-y since I am overdosing on self-tanner). You might as well be descriptive. Would it be more better if you said you wanted a chocolate brown color instead of a flesh tone to be more PC? Or maybe a nice green banana color? Or maybe bright blue?…. don’t get me started. I happen to like that peach color and wonder if we can call the Crayola people and ask if they can have take the same recipe and call it “healthy fleshtone white person.” What up?

  11. It’s uncanny how you always seem to anticipate what is troubling my sleep recently. I’ve been growing japanese indigo and calendula in my herb garden this year for such experiements. I have seen the earth hues around at fests: fascinating. Thanks, June. Oh, and also thanks for understanding exactly what I meant by uneven spinning: grist eludes many people. Cheers

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