Dye wool with madder

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Madder root, or Rose Madder, is a traditional woody shrub that has been cultivated and used for thousands of years to create red tones. While I’ve used other sources to create red, I’ve found this one to be the most reliable. However, it is temperature sensitive, so carefully attention is needed when applying heat.

You’ll need a clear plastic storage tub or tote with a lid.

Step 1: Prepare the yarn.

Mordant the wool with alum. I use a 10% by weight-of-goods proportion of alum to wool. Botanical Colors has a great tutorial on mordanting with alum.

Step 2: Preparation of dried madder root (if using powdered madder extract, proceed to Step 3).

If you are using dried madder root, you’ll need to rinse it before using. Heat some water to about 90F, and add the dried root. Cover with a lid to retain the heat, and to soak for 3-4 hours. Then strain off the liquid and retain the rehydrated roots. This will get rid of some of dust and brown tones in the madder and make the vibrant red colors some out more readily.

Fill your clear tub about 2/3 with water, and place in a sunny location. Put your rehydrated madder root in and let it soak for a couple of weeks, or until the dye liquid is a rich red. Strain out the root

bits and save these for another session – they’ll still have a little dye in them.

Step 3: Dye the fiber.

If you followed Step 2, you’re ready to dye. Just add your wetted yarn to the dye bath.

If you’re using extract, then fill your clear tub 2/3 with warm (80F) water and add extract to achieve the level of color saturation that you want. In the photo here, you’ll see I achieved two different shades from one concentrated madder bath. The darker yarn was two 100 gram skeins with 2 teaspoons of madder powder. The lighter yarn was dyed in the same dye bath after the first two skeins were removed. I estimate that you could dye a pound of yarn with 2 teaspoons of powdered madder extract, for a medium shade of coral/red. Add more extract for a darker shade.

After the madder powder is dissolved in the water, add your wetted fiber.

Depending on the ambient temperature and the concentration of your dye bath it will take between one week and two months to achieve a saturated color using this sun-tea method. You’ll want to check on and gently rotate the yarn in the dye bath every few days to ensure an even distribution of the color.

Step 4: Rinse and dry.

Keep the yarn in the dye bath until it appears a few shades darker than you want the final color to be – it will dry lighter. Gently lift the fiber out of the tub and allow the excess dye liquor to drain back into the container. You can use this for another batch also.

Then transfer the yarn to a bucket of clean water and let soak for a couple of minutes. If necessary, lift the fiber out of the rinse bucket and place into a third bucket or pot of clean water, to rinse a second time.

In a shady spot, hang or drape the wet yarn to dry. You might want to bring the yarn inside after it stops dripping, as humidity in the air can keep it from drying completely outside.


Have you tried dyeing with madder? Leave a comment here or on the accompanying video and let us know how it turned out.

Published by Sarah Scully

Sarah is a librarian as well as an avid knitter and occasional knitwear designer. She also enjoys cooking, gardening, hiking, reading, painting, and writing with fountain pens.