I have been growing madder every day, for nearly two years. Seeds of madness, sorry, madder, were sown in trays in Spring 2013 and planted out in a raised border. Branches and tendrils came up in a frenzy through the summer of 2014, then burst out in berries in September.
Despite shoots racing up, then tumbling over the path, I have never restrained the madder, oh no. Every leaf is precious, sucking up the sun and drawing down strength to roots destined to produce alizarin red dye. Last week, I decided the topgrowth had died back completely for winter and could at last be tidied up.
In Jenny Dean's book, Wild Colour, she mentions that pink dyes can be extracted from even the straw like remains of this herbaceous perennial plant. While feverishly waiting for the ripe time to unearth some mature roots, this bucket of clippings could settle a deep anxiety over whether I am nuturing the true, the blushful Hippocrene. Should some random, scrambling weed turn out to have been enjoying my sunniest wall and good cow manure, I fear raging paroxysms and conniptions may ensue.
This frostbitten foliage got chopped up with secateurs, stuffed into a net bag and brought up to just below a simmer for an hour. The water turned a murky beige. Reading around, overheating seems to be a very bad thing for madder dyes, so I just put in some alum mordanted fleece while the dye bath was still hand hot and left it for 24 hours. Salmon pink - hooray! After that, another big handful of wool went in and was heated gently, reaching a sort of ballet tights flesh tone. Finally, half of that was left in the bath to be heated with a splosh of iron in vinegar, which turned it pinkish brown.
"Well, bring out the flags and whoop de doo. Preposterous, going all delirious over that pile of pastels."
Elinor Gotland has started a January detox, before she goes back to continue filming 'The Girl with the Sheep Tattoo'.
"Just think how much more dramatic the madder root dye is going to be! Fancy another herbal tea?"
Had I complied with her recommended destination for my lovely dyed fleece, I would now be queuing up in A&E or on the front page of tomorrow's tabloids. Possibly both.