What’s Madder?

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Madder is a plant used for animal fodder and as a source of red dye. It has been used for centuries in Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Madder can be used on cotton, leather, wool, and silk but requires a mordant to fix the dye. It was also used in traditional herbal medicines. Natural madder dye is inconsistent, so synthetic forms are preferred today.

Madder is an evergreen plant native to the Old World. This plant was historically used as a source of animal fodder, but was commercially important for its red root, which was used to manufacture a dye known as madder or rose madder. The color ranged from medium red to deep red with a pinkish tinge. It was one of the first dyes to be duplicated synthetically, in the form of alizarin crimson in the 1860s.

People have been using madder for centuries. Archaeological evidence shows that the Egyptians used it as a dye for fabrics and that it may have also been used in cosmetics. The color also appeared in ancient Greece and Rome. It was one of the most popular red dyes in use in Europe, leading people to compare people’s lips to the craziest in verse, as the color was so commonly known.

Madder can be used on cotton, leather, wool and silk. However, you must use a mordant to fix the dye or it will flow. Mordants bind to dyes to make them insoluble, ensuring they bind to the material to be dyed, but they do not prevent fading and possible washout. In the case of this dye, alum was a commonly used mordant.

In addition to being used as a fabric dye, madder was also employed in some traditional herbal medicines, in the belief that it could be used to treat intestinal ailments and jaundice. The stem, flowers, roots and seeds were all used in medicinal tinctures and preparations which could be ingested or applied topically, depending on the formula. Many people thought that the plant was good for the skin, especially in women, perhaps because it would leave a slight redness after application.

Like other natural dyes, madder can be extremely inconsistent. Depending on how the roots are grown and handled, the color can vary and even when a mordant is used, it is often not colorfast. As a result, most people today prefer to use the synthetic form when wanting to create Madder’s signature pink hue. However, natural pigment is still available in specialty dye shops, for people who like to experiment with traditional dyes, and enterprising craftsmen can also create their own dye, assuming they can find wild plants or cultivated ones, which can be a bit of a challenge.

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