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.

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”

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”

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”

Tannin, Iron and Madder on Cotton

Way back in December, around the time of the winter solstice, I ran some dyeing experiments with heavy cotton twill cloth. I have had some frustrations with cotton over the years, some of which I’ve documented here on this blog. On cotton yarns and cloth, I often get colors that are much lighter than I want, or a different shade than I was expecting.

Nevertheless, there are some colors and techniques that have always intrigued me. So in December I tried a recipe for “Amish Madder Purple” from Jim Liles’ book The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing.

Cotton, like other plant-derived fibers, is primarily composed of cellulose. Cellulose is harder to dye with natural dyes than protein fibers. Protein fibers come from animals, for example: wool from sheep, mohair from Angora goats, alpaca from alpacas, llama from llamas, and angora from rabbits. Plant fibers can come from a wide range of sources, such as cotton, linen (from flax), hemp, and ramie (from a type of nettle). Continue reading “Tannin, Iron and Madder on Cotton”

Inside-Outside Part Two

In this post I will describe more details about the dyebaths we made at the Inside-Outside Conference in Keene on October 21st. We ran four dyebaths with madder root, marigolds, weld, and orange cosmos.  As usual when I am running or leading an event, I didn’t get any photos. Hopefully the notes provided here will be useful even if they are lacking in visual information.

First of all, the fiber we were dyeing was woolen yarn. We dyed four skeins, each of which was 4 oz. I had pre-mordanted the skeins many weeks earlier with aluminum sulfate at a rate of 2 Tbsp. per 8 oz. (2 skeins could fit in a pot). The skeins had dried in the meanwhile, and had been soaked in water on the day of the workshop to “wet them out”, i.e. make sure they were thoroughly wet before dyeing. Continue reading “Inside-Outside Part Two”


On October 21st, 2017 I presented a workshop on growing and using dye plants with kids at the Inside-Outside Conference in Keene, NH. The conference was a collaboration of several local organizations, including Antioch University New England, the Monadnock Region Placed-Based Education Committee, the Harris Center for Conservation Education, the Caterpillar Lab, Symonds Elementary School (where the conference was held), and the Keene School District. The theme was “Promising Practices in Nature- and Place-Based Elementary Education.” You can view the full brochure here.

The audience was K-6 educators from a variety of educational settings. I don’t mention this very often on this blog, but I actually am a teacher! I co-teach in a combined first and second grade at the Common School in Amherst, MA, where I’ve been working since 2004. Most of the time, I am in the classroom doing all the usual academic things: reading, writing, word study, math, science, social studies, arts and crafts. I do fiber and dye projects with kids when I can, and the rest of the time I squeeze it in on weekends and vacations. Continue reading “Inside-Outside”

Bookmark Failures (Successes Coming Soon)

This post is the latest installment in a longer saga about weaving bookmarks with naturally dyed 40/2 linen. The saga spans many months, if not years. I have posted about these bookmarks in the past. You can read my most recent post about it here.

Or you can just catch up on the back story in this post!

My linen bookmarks are woven with 40/2 linen. They are not too time-consuming to produce, though the pricing still works out to a meager hourly rate when I take into account all the steps involved in the dyeing plus the weaving. Continue reading “Bookmark Failures (Successes Coming Soon)”

Seeds and Life and Death

The fiber and dye plants at my plot at Bramble Hill have done a brilliant job of setting seed this fall. It’s very exciting. Since it is nearly All Hallows Eve, or Samhain, or El Dia de los Muertos, depending on your tradition, I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between the dead and the living.

Harvest and abundance, frosts and death. Seeds carry us through from one season to the next, from the death of fall to the life of spring.

Orange cosmos are usually prolific, but this year seemed especially so. Here are some images of the cosmos plants back on October 19th when I harvested the Japanese indigo. A chaotic tangle of flowers, stalks, and seeds. Death and rebirth.

orange cosmos chaos Continue reading “Seeds and Life and Death”