Friday, 26 August 2016

Growing Madder and Madder Root Contact Prints on Cotton Fabric

Eighteen months ago, I germinated a big handful of saved madder seeds. Some seedlings were planted out in garden borders and pretty much disappeared.   Could be the ground was too wet last winter, because my usual suspects, the slugs, have little taste for madder. Other seedlings had an arid time after being transplanted into a large wooden barrel, because the hose doesn't stretch that far. Despite dry spells, they have grown plenty of foliage, I'll just have to wait another year or so to see how the roots are doing. Quite a few more seedlings have survived cramped into one litre pots, putting out the odd tendril of leaves while sitting neglected round the back of the greenhouse.  
"Mariana plants, these are, not madder."  My companion cradled a fresh green spray and looked up at me reproachfully.  "With blackest moss these madder-pots Are thickly crusted, one and all - listen, Beaut, you can hear them moaning - 'Our life is dreary, Fran potteth us not on,' they said.  'We are aweary, we are aweary, we wish that we were dead!'"
"Oh, don't bleat on, Elinor, I might find room in the raised borders this autumn, but I reckon madder won't survive a Welsh winter in heavy clay soil." 
So, the Mariana madders do get an occasional visit from a small grey ewe of poetic bent, a squirt from the hose when I remember and once in a while, the dog investigates the area and carries off a plastic pot to chew.  I find an abandoned madder plant decorating the lawn, howl with rage, feel bad about them all lurking untended, then repot the latest casualty.
One potful got badly injured, tossed about til hardly any compost still clung to it.  Rinsed under the hose, there were many fine, fibrous roots and a modest system of thicker ones.  Far too little for a proper madder vat and only orange colours, rather than the deeper red and brown of an older, bigger plant.  At the time, I was about to have another go at contact dyeing with coreopsis.  An old cotton shirt had had its worn
collar and cuffs cut off and been mordanted with alum acetate.  On its right front, I laid out coreopsis flowers and leaves in the form of a plant and put the madder root in the root position, below, with a couple of hardy geranium leaves. The left front of the shirt was laid over the right and the double layer of cotton was rolled up around a section of downpipe.  The shirt sleeves were laid over the roll and the whole lot was tied up with string which had been soaked in iron solution. 
 A dye bath of about 100g fresh coreopsis flowers had already been simmered to release the dye molecules.  No need to bother sieving them out, as this dye work was never intended to come out evenly coloured.

I did make sure to keep the temperature lower than usual, around 60 degrees Centigrade, for the hour of simmering the pot again with the shirt roll in it, because I've read madder root dyes go brown at too high a temperature.  I know the red takes time to soak into wool, so I left the shirt in the pot overnight, gave it another hour at a low simmer and another day to soak before leaving the roll to dry out.
Elinor and I sat watching himself trying on his funky, upcycled shirt.
"Doesn't he look like a flower power hipster?  That madder root did print a good blood red."
"A hipster who's just had a nasty accident with his nipple rings."

Comments like that account for the delightful harmony in my home.  I left himself muttering darkly about getting halters and muzzles for sheep and Elinor shrieking "Oooo, you bondage freak!", while I put a couple more mordanted cotton and linen shirts in to soak.  After several contact dye trials with fresh madder root, I have found that just the one simmer and overnight soak is enough to get a strong red print, though it is important to let the roll dry out completely over the course of several days. After unrolling, being in too much of a hurry to wash and iron the shirt definitely takes a great deal of the initial colour out and reusing the roots for another dye print is disappointing. Though they remain perfectly intact and still look red, madder roots only give a pale pink print the second time around.

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