Japanese Indigo Seeds 2019

Back in April I cleaned up some Japanese indigo seeds from plants I grew in 2017.

Here’s the little bag I stored them in as I cleaned them:

On April 7th I put them inside damp paper towels to sprout, as I’ve done before. You can read about earlier Japanese indigo sprouting efforts in my earlier posts here and here.

Here’s what one hundred Japanese indigo seeds looks like:

From what I’ve read and experienced, Japanese indigo seeds do not stay viable for long. You’re supposed to use them in the next growing season. if you try to store them longer than that, expect poor results. Since I do not plant Japanese indigo every year, my germination rate is always pretty low. I set up a sheet with 100 seeds to make the math easy.

This year I bought a seedling mat to keep them warm. I thought it might help with germination. Here’s the type I bought:

Here’s how I set it up:

The mat certainly worked to keep things toasty. In fact, I added a towel on top of the mat to keep the seeds off the direct heat. But as it turned out, I got way too impatient to wait for the seeds to sprout on the paper towels.

A Weighty Madder

OK, yes, the title is just an excuse to use a pun. In reality, once they were dry, the madder roots I harvested were not very heavy at all. But they did prompt me to do quite a bit of thinking and math about the yield of this “crop”.

In my last post I shared an image of four trays of roots, rinsed off and set up to dry on Saturday March 30th. Here’s a refresher. I love how they glisten and glow:

On Sunday March 31st I dug up three more trays just like them.

When they were freshly harvested, and before I rinsed them, the roots weighed just over 15 lb. I weighed them again after I rinsed them, thinking that the loss of soil weight would give a more accurate measurement. But instead, the added water weight increased the overall weight, which didn’t really help me figure out how heavy the roots were by themselves. So, I’m sticking with 15 lb. for this math.

Over the next couple weeks the trays sat in the apartment, outdoors, and in the van, depending on the weather. By Thursday April 18th they were dry and crispy. Plus, I was on April vacation and had time to deal with them.

Here are some photos of the trays before I broke up the roots. There were seven trays altogether, but I figured four images is enough to get the idea.

Here are some close-ups. I took a ridiculous number of close-up photos because the closer I looked, the more amazing all the intricate tangles, textures, and colors were. Matthew characterized them fondly as “dusty sticks” and we agreed that happily examining dusty sticks is pretty typical of the way I like to spend my free time. So, here are some images of dusty sticks for your enjoyment:

In this photo below, you can see that my rinsing method wasn’t very thorough. There’s a clump of gritty soil lodged in the center of a curly twist of root. The pale straw-looking pieces are above-ground stalks:

In the photo below I’m interested in the dried skin that’s flaking off. It would be good to understand more about what’s happening there.

I like how the broken end in the root in this photo below looks like a mouth. The maw of madder.

The total weight of dried snapped-up roots was only 2 lb. 6 oz (or 38 oz).

Here is the inside of the bag:

If my math is right, that’s approximately an 84% loss in weight. I ended up with about 15% of what I started with.

This surprised me, and made me wonder what the overall yield from the whole plot might be. The area I dug up that weekend was 115 square feet. This works out to about .33 ounces of dried roots per square foot. (38 ÷ 115 = .330 and to double-check, 115 x .33 = 37.95).

The remaining area that I haven’t dug up yet is 25 square feet, which means I could get 8 more ounces from that section (25 x .33 = 8.25). Which means the yield from the whole plot would be 46 ounces, or 2 lb. 14 oz.  That’s almost 3 lb. if we’re rounding up. So, 140 square feet can yield just below 3 lb. of dried roots. Which doesn’t seem very productive to me, especially because you have to wait three years to harvest them, theoretically.

However, since I don’t really have anything to compare it to, I don’t really have a basis for judging whether .33 oz per square foot is a good yield or a bad yield. I decided I’d better do some reading. This is my first foray into this question, so I may come up with different and better information in the near future.

This article from a book on Google Books called A-Z vol. 4 supplement, written by Andrew Ure and Robert Hunt, published in 1878 by Longmans, Green, and Company, reports on page 160: “The quantity of fresh roots obtained in France from one arpent of ground (of 48,000 square feet) varies from 4,000 to 6,000 pounds.” The authors cite other units of measurement in other countries (units like morgens and cwts) but I didn’t have the patience to find out how to translate them to things I understand. So, let’s stick with France for now.

If 48,000 square feet yields 4,000 lb. of fresh roots, one square foot would be .0833 lb. or 1.33 oz.

Using my 15% figure for the dry weight, that would be .995 oz. of dried roots per square foot for the low range of the harvest. If 48,000 square feet yields 6,000 lb. fresh roots, that would be .125 lb. per square foot fresh, or 2 oz. and .3 oz. dried. Ha! Maybe my yield is actually as good as a French madder farmer in the 1870s! Phew, that’s a relief.

If you’re checking my math and you find it’s nutty and wrong, please email me.

Madder roots are currently on sale for $21.95/lb at Aurora Silks, $19.78/lb. at Dharma Trading, $40/lb (sold by the ounce) from Long Ridge Farm, and $28 for 500g at Botanical Colors (just to name a few vendors that I could check on line quickly this afternoon). So, that means every three years a madder bed filling 140 square feet of garden space could grow somewhere between $60 and $120 worth of roots.

I think I’ll stop there for now.

Digging up Madder Roots

On Saturday March 30th and Sunday March 31st I dug up a good portion of my madder bed. I already posted about the other garden clean-up I did that Saturday. This post is about digging up the madder roots, specifically, so I’m telling the story a slightly different way.

You are supposed to harvest madder roots when the above-ground parts of the plant are dormant. I always think that I will dig roots in the fall once the tops have died back. My notion is that after a season of growth, the roots will be fat and juicy and full of color. For some reason, that fall harvest time seldom happens.

More often, I dig up roots in the spring when I’m trying to curtail the spread of the madder into the pathways and adjacent beds in the dye plant garden. That’s really more like “weeding” than harvesting. I worry sometimes that after a cold winter of storing up nutrients to help the plants survive, there’s not a lot of oomph left in the roots to yield good dye. Nevertheless, given my work constraints and other factors, that has been my typical pattern.

Even with these annual curtailment efforts, the madder has gradually taken over more and more of the garden.

This spring, though, I have aspirations of planting a lot of Japanese indigo and woad, so I wanted to open up some space for additional beds. The weather smiled upon me on Saturday March 30th. The forecast had called for afternoon rain, but at 3 pm it was still gorgeous, 60 degrees, and not in the least rainy. The snow had all melted, the ground had thawed, so I seized the opportunity.

Here’s the “before” photo of the madder bed. Nothing to see here.

With the very first pitch-fork-full of soil, I struck roots. Well, OK, technically the tool I prefer is a hay fork, but it’s pointy and slightly curved and perfect for digging.

The thin pinkish-purplish squiggle in the photo above is a worm. The slightly thicker orange-red squiggles are madder roots. Below is a particularly impressive knot of roots demonstrating its power and sentience:

I was excited to find such a big knot because (brief detour from the narrative)….

This madder bed has been in place for about ten years. Most of the sources I’ve read agree that madder roots are ready to harvest after three years. I have harvested from this bed several times since its initial three-year growth period, but I’ve often been dismayed at the thickness of the roots. They are nowhere near as thick as the commercial roots I’ve bought from places like Aurora Silks or Tierra Wools. They are, in fact, thin.

I have given this matter (a madder matter) quite a bit of thought. First, I suspect that three years of growth here in Western MA is not the same as three years of growth in a warmer climate with shorter winters. In my garden, the plants are dormant for much of the year. They aren’t early to rise in the spring, and they are the first plants to die back in the late summer. Presuming that above-ground photosynthesis is necessary for below-ground root growth, my roots don’t have a lot of growing time. Comparing three-year-old madder roots from a longer-season climate with three-year-old roots around here might be like comparing human years and dog years.

Second, I do not have any way to determine or control the age of the roots I dig. Madder is a bedstraw. The plants send out new runners and put down new roots all the time. Old roots bust out with new shoots. Even in one area of the bed, old and new roots must get jumbled together. It’s likely that a lot of the roots I’m digging up aren’t actually three years old, even though the bed is much older than that.

Third, I have been woefully negligent about testing the soil or adding amendments to the madder bed. The roots would probably grow thicker with additional compost or manure.

OK, back to the narrative. I was thrilled to find thick roots. Finally! Here is a close up of that exciting knot:

Madder is exciting, in part, because the roots are like veins of lava. They look all earthy and rock-like, but inside there is fire!

On Saturday I dug up the west and south sides of the bed. In the foreground are the four trays that I filled that afternoon:

I brought home those four trays to weigh, rinse, and set up to dry. Here is an unwashed tray of roots. Sentient, right?

Here I am scrubbing the roots in a 5-gallon bucket of water to remove as much soil as possible:

Here are some of the wet roots in the bucket:

Here is the Saturday harvest all rinsed and set up to dry:

And here is the bucket of muddy water. I am not sure whether the pink tinge comes just from the soil or from the color that rinses off the roots:

On Sunday I went back again to do more digging, but this time I was racing the rain. The forecast called for rain starting at 11 am, and this time they were right.

In the morning on Sunday, I dug up the east and north sides of the bed. Here’s the “after” photo:

I didn’t take the time to photograph the rinsing process that morning, because at exactly 11am the rain began.

Upcoming Events!

I will be teaching four craft, weaving, and fiber arts camps for kids this summer at the Common School. Registration is open now for Summerfun 2019.  You can see the descriptions on the Common School website.

Sew Plush
Ages 8-11
June 24 – June 28

Weaving Whirlwind
Ages 9-13
July 1 – July 5 (no camp on July 4)

Fiber Arts
Ages 9-13
July 15 – July 19

The Art of Nature
Ages 8-11
July 22 – July 26

Here’s a photo of the yarns we dyed with my fiber arts camp last summer, using madder roots, weld, tansy, marigolds, and indigo. We did not grow the indigo, but everything else came from the Common School’s dye and fiber plant garden:


For teachers of young children, I will be doing a workshop on growing and using dye plants on June 8th, 2019 at Antioch University’s In Bloom conference here in Amherst, MA. I’m excited to be able to offer this workshop on location at the Common School, where we can walk over to the farm to see the dyeplant garden while the dyepots are steeping at school. More information is available on the Antioch University website.

Here are some images of yarns we dyed with my class at the Common School this winter, using dried marigolds, frozen orange cosmos flowers, and dried bronze fennel. We made them as part of our “Senses” study. Students helped to collect the flowers earlier in the fall, and sprouted some bronze fennel seedlings of their own to take home. This project engaged our sense of smell as well as our sense of sight.


If you are neither a child nor a teacher of children, never fear. There will be more Local Color Dyes events to come in 2019. I will keep you posted!

November 21st 2018 Woad Vat

Yesterday I ran a woad vat! This is worthy of an exclamation point because all day yesterday, I was sure that it was the latest date I had ever run a woad vat.

Normally by this time of year, all the dye plants have been killed by frost and the gardening season is over.

As I started writing this post, I decided to consult my records regarding late-season woad vats. It turns out I was wrong about the latest date of my woad vats in years past. Here’s the proof:

Continue reading “November 21st 2018 Woad Vat”

Farm Aid Exhaust Baths

I have finally exhausted all the dye baths from Farm Aid! Here are some photos of the process, plus some of the ratios and measurements for each plant material. I didn’t keep close track of the times and temperatures during the demo itself because it was so busy. Each bath with the plant material heated for at least an hour, and some of them heated for longer.

As I mentioned in the first post, I used madder root, weld, orange cosmos, and marigolds. All the yarns at the demo were 4 ounces of 4-ply wool. They were pre-mordanted with aluminum sulfate at 1 tablespoon per 4 oz. fiber, and cream of tartar at 1 teaspoon per 4 oz. fiber. As I got further along with the exhaust process, I switched to alpaca yarns, pre-mordanted at the same ratios. All the exhaust baths were heated to about 140-160 degrees, kept at that temperature for an hour, then cooled overnight. Continue reading “Farm Aid Exhaust Baths”

Farm Aid 2018

On Saturday September 22nd I did a natural dyeing demo at Farm Aid 2018 in Hartford, CT. Yes, Farm Aid, as in Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews. It turns out that Farm Aid isn’t just a concert, it’s a day-long festival celebrating family farms and local agriculture. The festival has a huge focus on education. My table was in an area called the Homegrown Village, featuring dozens of organizations with creative, informative, interactive exhibits and activities. I was in the Homegrown Skills Tent, along with cheesemakers, beekeepers, papermakers, seed savers, and herbalists: a very interesting crowd!

It was a big thrill to be part of it. And I mean “big” literally. Despite the boggling complexity of logistics involved in pulling off such a huge event, everyone was incredibly friendly and helpful. I owe many thanks to the electricians who hooked me up with power to run my electric stoves, and then rescued our extension cords at the end of the day, to the volunteers who helped us unload and pack up, and to the person who was coordinating our whole area, Jessica Kurn. Thanks to everyone’s hard work and positive attitudes, it was a really fun day.

Continue reading “Farm Aid 2018”

Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft 2018

On Memorial Day Weekend I did a dyeing demonstration at Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair in Cummington, MA. I’ve done demos there before, but this year was special. I was dyeing hand-spun yarns from a variety of sheep breeds, spun by Lisa Bertoldi of Weft Handwoven Linens, and supported by a grant from the Northeast Handspinners Association.

Here was the table with examples of my own naturally dyed handspun yarns, some of my favorite books, fliers for the Northeast Handspinners Association, and a 6-pack of marigolds:

Continue reading “Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft 2018”

FIBERuary 2018

Since it has been so many months since I last posted, I am trying to catch up in chronological order. My last series of posts was from December 2017. This one is from February 2018.

Thanks to the efforts of Carole Adams of Whispering Pines Farm, and Liz Sorenson of Sheep and Shawl, among others, we have a new local tradition here in Western MA called FIBERuary. During the month of February, Carole features local fiber farmers and fiber artists on the FIBERuary blog, and Liz hosts a speaker series at her shop in South Deerfield, MA. 

I have been a contributor to the FIBERuary blog on a couple occasions, and a speaker at their speaker series. In these hot and humid days of August, I decided to share an expanded version of the post I wrote this February. It’s about one of my favorite dye plants, weld: Continue reading “FIBERuary 2018”

More Madder on Cotton

If you read my post about the tannin-iron-madder experiment, you may have noticed that I divided the original dyebath in half. I didn’t explain why at the time. My rationale was this: I  worried that the iron would affect the subsequent colors I got from the exhausted dyebath.

For the rest of the experiment, I prepared small pieces of cotton cloth with three different treatments, which I’ll describe below.

You can read my original post here for a description of how I made the madder dyebath and prepared the fiber.

Usually when I’m extracting madder roots, I use calcium carbonate and soda ash to make the water mineral-rich and alkaline. The soda ash is inspired by a comment by Rita Buchanan in A Weaver’s Garden that “the pigment alizarin dissolves better in alkaline solutions.” In Jim Liles’  recipe for “Amish Madder Purple” he directs you to use calcium or chalk in the dyebath (though he specifies calcium acetate). He doesn’t mention pH, so for that sample I didn’t mess with the pH (which was 7). Continue reading “More Madder on Cotton”