The Early Days of Indigo & Madder Fabric Dyes

Star of the West Revisited

Many reds, pinks, rusts, browns and purple dyes came from the root of the madder plant during the 1800s. It was difficult getting the colors to"take" on cotton, so various additives were employed, including animal blood and urine among others. Still, the colors were very unstable. So earlydyers found that if they added a mordant (a substance that helps the dye attach to the fabric) they could solve this problem. The most commonly used mordant wasalum, which produced reds and rusts, while an iron mordant was used to produce blacks and browns. The mordants not only fixed the color, they also added ameasure of predictability in which shades of madder would result.

Indigo dye originated from the fermented leaves of the Indigofera plant. The fabric was dyed in a method know as vat dyeing. The fabric is submerged in vatsfilled with the dye and allowed to dry or oxidize. To deepen the color, the process is repeated until the desired shade is achieved. Indigo dyed fabrics dateback as far as 2400 BC in various regions of the world. It became popular in the US with the arrival of enslaved Africans, whose knowledge of indigo cultivationand dyeing eventually made it the second largest exported crop in South Carolina in the mid to late 1700s, second to rice.

Together, indigo and madder fabrics offer quilters not only beautiful hues, but a rich and interesting history as well. Check out INDIGO& MADDER by Paula Barnes.