Friday, 29 April 2016

Contact Dyeing with Dried Madder Stems

Hardy geraniums start to come out of hibernation in April.  I've accumulated quite a few varieties in the garden, over the years since I found out how well the leaves pick up iron from a dye bath, printing a tracery of their shape on the silk they are pressed against.  As it happens, the ones that were growing originally are the best and most reliable type, though I don't know their name.  
In spring and early summer, these leaves also have the added extra of releasing some green and yellow dye of their own.  Trouble is, there's nowhere near enough to colour a whole piece of fabric and this time of year, few other fresh materials are growing freely enough to make the main dye bath.  I picked a load of dandelions to simmer in one pot and put a heap of dried up daffodil heads in another, alkalinised both baths
with a teaspoon of soda ash and gave them an hour to simmer. Having laid out two pieces of silk mordanted with alum, one chiffon, the other medium weight habotai, scattered with geranium leaves, I went fossicking about in paper bags, realising most of my dried dye plant flower stores would make pretty inconspicuous prints, only slightly different shades of yellow.  Coreopsis ought to add a bit of bronze, onion skins are
relatively powerful and I've previously made a pink dye bath from dried out madder stems, so this seemed a good opportunity to find out if stems had enough dye in them to make a contact print.  Folding the chiffon in half, I piled some on to the second layer to be folded and tucked a piece of madder root that the dog had dug up into the end of the silk.  Rolled around a plastic drain pipe and tied up with string soaked in a jar of rusty nails in water, the bundles stayed in the dye bath for five days, being gently heated on three occasions, as madder root dyes need a long, slow dye process and I guessed the stems might do best treated in the same way. Once the bundles had dried out, the first thing I learned was that the tiny thorns on madder
stems play havoc with chiffon.  Bit late in the day to remember how closely related madder is to common goose grass.  The stems themselves had changed from looking dry fawn to deep pinky red.  Once disentangled, I was most pleased to see they had made red lines on the silk. 
"Just as well, isn't it, Beaut?  I can't see any sign of those hardy geranium leaf prints you were going on about."  
My companion, Elinor Gotland, is always quick to spot the flaws in my dyed silk, she has an eye both covetous and unforgiving.  I pondered the problem.  Could the plant have changed?  Surely not.
"Actually,  I did suspect at the end of last season that my jam jar full of nails in water and vinegar was running out of oomph, only I'd have thought a winter of festering some extra nails in there would have beefed the iron back up."
Elinor sighed.
"Time you used the proper stuff, no more messing about with dodgy home brew.  Good job I bought some iron for you at Wonderwool.  Can't have you messing up any more silk for the want of a horseshoe nail."
"Well a rusty one might have done, but thanks very much. Ooo, speaking of home brew, is that a bottle of wine in with your shopping?  The show may cater for a spinner's every need, but I
never guessed Wonderwool had an alcohol license."
"Oh, this?  Just a gift from some of my adoring fans.  The dear things get terribly star struck."
"Gosh.  Heaven knows how they got any shopping done after the thrill of meeting you."
Elinor gave me a sharp look.
"Enough with the irony and get on with mixing up that iron."
I painted some ferrous sulphate splodges over the leaves I could
see near the surface of the second silk bundle and gave it a final simmer in the daffodil dye bath.  I was a bit heavy handed with the iron solution, overall, maybe not the best iron leaf prints ever, but it did the trick. Post Wonderwool downer much alleviated by finding there is nothing wrong with my geranium plants and Elinor's wine was absolutely lovely.


  1. Loquacious, isn't she...that there mouton!

    Harking back, you probably don't want her in your tea!

    Oh hi Elinor....didn't see you there. How is the wine?


  2. nice effects! would you have a polytunnel or greenhouse? you could grow tibetan madder there, where the long scrambling stems could be put to good use! mine has climbed through other plants and I have to pull it out - might use it for dyeing, though the stems and leaves don't give the strong colours I'd get with roots. have more stems than roots though:)

  3. I do have a greenhouse, I've never heard of Tibetan madder, just googled, but can't find a seed supplier. Do you remember where you bought yours? Sounds interesting to grow.

  4. I don't think you can propagate it by seeds, I got my plant from here:
    (rubia cordifolia), but it's a german source. they do deliver to uk, but the postage is high:( I could try to propagate by layering to send you a plant, but although they usually root fairly readily - you'd have to be a bit patient:) I checked poyntzfield herbs, but they don't have it on their list:(

    1. They have sold out, but I left my email for when they get more. Always another year. Nice site, I shall bookmark it for a proper trawl through, looks like a really interesting selection. I saw they had safflower, very tempted, though the first time I germinated those, they had a horrible time in Wales and never flowered.

  5. yes, they do have a lot of choice - and I had similar problems with safflower over here. I think our summers are simply not warm enough for the plants to set proper flowers:( I also tried serratula tinctoria, but the single plant that germinated didn't grow back the following spring:( the trials and tribulations of growing your own dye plants:) same for indigo - it's simply not warm enough over here, not even in tunnel or greenhouse.

    1. I jusy heard from a friend who has been in Oman - she bought me some dried safflower - she thinks. Now I am really, really looking forward to her next visit :)