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    Madder Dye

    Map Academy

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    A natural red colorant extracted from the roots of the Indian madder or manjistha (Rubia cordifolia) and common madder (Rubia tinctorum), madder dye is known for its vibrancy and fastness.

    Indian madder is a cultivated species of madder that contains high amounts of alizarin, which is the main compound responsible for producing red in most natural dyes. Common madder is native to West Asia and the Mediterranean region and has been grown and used as a dye across Asia for centuries. The widespread habitat of madder plants as well as the long history of the trade of Indian cotton cloth has resulted in multiple varieties of madder being cultivated and used throughout Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Mediterranean coast and northern Africa.

    Madder has been used across the Indian subcontinent since the second millennium BCE, with traces of the dye found in cloth from Mohenjo-daro. The dye was also found on textiles discovered in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutenkhamun, dating to the fourteenth century BCE. Chintz, kalamkari and other Indian textiles coloured with madder were extremely popular in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Madder dye began to be directly exported to Europe after cotton cloth began to be produced in the West. Textiles dyed, painted and block-printed with madder as well as other red dyes, such as those derived from lac, Indian mulberry and safflower, were also regularly exported to eastern Africa, West Asia and Southeast Asia from the first millennium CE onwards.

    The roots of the madder plant are gathered when it is between two and five years old. They are then cleaned and crushed into powder or small fibres. In pre-industrial India, soft water was first heated without bringing it to a boil before adding the cloth and salt- or oil-based mordants, preferably alum, to the water. The cloth was then allowed to sit in this solution as it cooled, before being removed and wrung. A dyebath was then prepared by wrapping the crushed madder in cotton cloth and placing it in a separate vat of water, followed by the mordanted cloth. Since alizarin has low solubility in water, this method allowed the red colour to disperse through the water slowly, so that the bath was evenly coloured and the cloth dyed uniformly. The dyebath could be reused to obtain lighter shades of red or pink.

    Madder dye was replaced by synthetic dyes by the late nineteenth century. Today, the dye is used to a small extent in traditional textile craft.


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