Did you know, Madder roots were steamed to create a superior dye?

November 2024, we lifted our first 3 year old organic madder crop, with the aim of taking root cuttings to create a larger crop and grow a regular yearly supply. There is much to learn about madder and for me, madder has always been the most intimidating of dyes. Tackling much about the historical elements for the online professional natural dyeing course, this plant is becoming more intriguing the more time I spent on research. Today, however, I would just like to share the steps we have made so far and more will come as the year goes on. 

robin on madder bed

A gardener's best friend: Can you spot the robin? Whenever Tristan works in the garden, the little red breasted fellow is a constant companion.

Lifting madder roots

Madder prefers humus rich soil, something that is hard to spot here, giving our Irish rather wet winter climate. You can glimpse  little fire specks of red amongst the mass of soil and woody root. The roots are a good size - a sign that the soil condition is favourable.

individual madder roots

Collection of madder root cuttings

combined images madder at different stages

Left: The centre of a steamed madder root ~ Right from top: roots after harvest, roots steamed

Traditionally, the steaming of madder was done by the farmer after harvest. They dug up to 2.5m deep conical pits in the field of harvest and lit fires within, to heat the earth. Once hot, the washed madder roots were added to the hot ashes, pushed down by feet and piled 1m high above the opening before being covered with blankets and sprinkled with water, steaming overnight. The entire process operated very much like a clay pizza oven! As time went by, the steaming process was undertaken by highly paid specialists, who could steam two lots of madder every 12h. 

But back to our humble farmer! After 20h, the roots were brought to the nearby dry house, were they were dried in heated stacking towers, dry rooms or outside - weather permitting - and depended on the country. The best and highly prized roots were harvested in September and during the winter, but long queues at the drying house, often delayed harvests as long as May to many a farmer's disgruntlement. 

With the discovery of Garancine and later on, synthetic dyes, the quality of Madder declined due to poor cultivation, loss of traditional steaming and grading processes. 

madder stained cloth

How did we steam our madder?

Above, you can see the cloth the roots were bundled in and steamed above a water bath for about 3h and left overnight. 

comparison of madder

From left: imported Madder from Iran, Madder homegrown dried, Madder homegrown, steamed and dried.

Through the steaming process, sugars and resins cause internal fermentation, which transform the yellow dyestuff into the desired crimson colour. Steaming will reduce the roots to a third, with further drying the roots will loose at least another 60% of its steamed weight. 

And this is it for now. How to make a superior madder root dye. In the next post, we will cover the next few steps: Grinding, the benefits of ground madder and other good things to know! Talk soon and thank you for reading! Jennifer x



4 Kommentare

  • Jennifer Lienhard

    Thank you for all the lovely comments! I am delighted to hear that everyone enjoys the history part as much as I do! Andrea, you can only do the steaming process with fresh roots, unfortunately. Do try in a year, it is definitely worth while :) Madder prefers a humus rich, well drained soil. Give it a feed with good rotten farm yard manure and a thick straw mulch on top. That might sheer them up. Good luck! Jennifer

  • Lou Gambrill

    This is so interesting Jennifer, all the hidden treasures natures offers us!

  • Jane Mills

    I just love to read the history of madder – what a revelation! You must love trying out the old ways and then figuring out an easier solution! For years I used an old water bed heater – flat plastic sheet with hidden electrical element – to heat rolled leav es – eventually found a fish kettle in a charity shop! Keep telling th this historical stuff – keeps it alive!

  • Andrea

    Thank you very much for this interesting information. I have some dried madder from Morocco and was wondering if it still could be steamed to profit from this treatment, do you know? My own madder plant is not doing too well in my (German) garden, our soil may be too heavy. But in a year or so I may try steaming the roots. I am looking forward to further info on grinding.

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