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How to dye fabric red with a drought tolerant plant you can grow yourself

Only recently have I begun to see why natural dyeing has become such a popular topic in the gardening and sewing worlds.  Last month during the Ethnobotany Symposium at UC Berkeley, two young Spaniards, Miguel and Valentina, visiting from Abbatte, a textile producer in the mountains of Segovia, north of Madrid, taught a serene workshop in which they demonstrated how to dye wool and alpaca yarns with a handful of roots from the Madder plant.  The results were so stunning that I'm starting to get excited about trying it myself.

Here's how they did it:

Step 1:  Mordant the fiber.  Mordents (from the latin mordere meaning "to bite") helps prepare the fiber to accept dye.  Miguel and Valentina used Alum, a traditional mordant that has been used since antiquity.

While the fibers rested in the mordant bath for about an hour, we walked outside to the dye bed in the botanical garden to see how madder grows.

Madder is a very drought tolerant plant, vine-like in form.  It can sprawl along the ground, growing to about a foot high, or can be trained up a trellis.  Dye is made from the roots which can be harvested when plants are about 3 years old.  You can buy seeds here.  You can also buy the roots already harvested here.

(Side note:  This process is the opposite of convenient in almost every way, which is what appeals to me.  In our era of impatience, it's almost obscene to tend a plant for 3 years in order to dye enough yarn for a sweater.  The poetry of patience calls to me as a kind of antidote to modern angst.)

Step 2.  Dye the fiber.  The mordanted fibers are transferred into the prepared dye bath where they stay for about an hour, being gently stirred.  (Much more complete instructions here.)

Step 3.  Dry and admire


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