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Dyeing Red (with an SCA focus)

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I originally wrote this for a class at the West Kingdom (SCA) Arts and Sciences Tourney in July 2004.

Last updated: Oct. 2004. Made it fit into my website framework.

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Dyeing Red (with an SCA focus)

Copyright © 2004 L. Meyer (known in the SCA as Halima de la Lucha)

Table of Contents
"Bug Reds"


The most common red dyes used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance were madder roots, "bug reds" like cochineal and kermes, and brazilwood.

Other red or reddish dyes used in period were henna and safflower (which gives red and yellow).

Many red dyes shade over into purple or violet, including the "bug reds", madder with an iron mordant, and alkanet. Other sources of purple were overdyeings of red with blue (from woad or indigo), lichen purple, and shellfish purple (Tyrian purple).


Madder roots give a red, shading into orange, with the usual alum mordant. It can produce purple with an iron mordant, or brown if overheated. Madder dyes are extremely colorfast (Liles, p. 102) Madder works well on all natural fibers (if they are properly mordanted).

True madder is Rubia tinctoria. It is native to the Mediterranean region and Asia Minor (Van Stralen, p. 74). Many other related plants give combinations of the same dye components, e.g. lady's bedstraw (Galium verum), wild madder (Rubia peregrina), Indian madder (Rubia cordifolia). These may have smaller roots than true madder, making them more difficult to harvest, or may contain less dyestuff; but some relative of madder could be grown very widely throughout Europe or Asia.

True madder can be purchased from dye suppliers today, as chunks of root or ground. If you buy the chunks of root, you get the most color from them by grinding them in an old blender -- but soak them in water first, at least overnight!

If you grow madder, be aware that it spreads invasively, by roots and runners. In some states, it is considered a noxious weed. Growing it in a raised bed makes it easier to harvest the roots (and helps stop them from spreading). Make sure that there's adequate calcium in its soil, to get good reds. You can dig the roots after two years, but three or four is better - larger roots are easier to process and give more dyestuff. After harvesting the roots, "slow and thorough drying is important, as it allows an enzyme in the root to act on the alizarin, thus creating the strongest dye colours." (Grierson, p. 76)

Madder roots contains several dye components, notably alizarin for red, but also quite a few others including some yellows. This can make it tricky to get true red, rather than orangey red.

The temperatures involved are important. Modern dye books say that too high a temperature gives brown. A Plictho recipe says "Let it [the madder dyebath] come near the boil but that the cauldron boileth not" (p. 108). However, another Plictho recipe says "Throw in the madder when it is about to boil, then the wool, and let it boil for half an hour, stirring constantly. On washing it becomes well dyed, that is, red" (p. 110). It is possible that washing it makes it alkaline (see below), given the kind of soap they were probably using. Experimentation could be interesting. A friend once saw fluorescent orange produced accidentally by boiling madder.

Dean says simply that "the temperature should be kept well below a simmer to achieve clear reds" (p. 125). Van Stralen says to keep the dyebath under 185 F, or simmer it; boiling (212 F.) gives brown; temperatures below 158 F. give more orangey tones (p. 74). Liles recommends heating the dyebath slowly from room temperature up to 160 to 180 F, taking about an hour, then dyeing for another hour; he says "never permit the dyebath temperature to drop or to exceed 190 F. or the color may be dulled" (p. 107).

An acidic dyebath causes a more orange or coral shade (Dean, p. 28). Carol Leigh of Hillcreek Fiber Studio recommended omitting cream of tartar when mordanting wool with alum for madder, since cream of tartar is somewhat acidic (a post on the NaturalDyes list at

Madder generally gives better color in hard water. Dean says that hard water gives an alkaline dyebath, but soft water is slightly acidic (p. 125). Also, hard water contains calcium. Adding calcium to the dyebath gives a better red if the madder was grown in calcium-poor soil (Liles, p. 104).

The color can be modified after dyeing. The following assumes alum was the mordant originally used. "If the resulting dye colors are too orange in tone, add an alkaline modifier (see p. 59) to make them pinker. An acidic modifier (see p. 58) will brighten the colors and make them yellower. An iron modifier (see p. 59) gives browns with madder, while copper used as a modifier (see p. 59) or mordant usually produces salmon-pink shades." (Dean, p. 125)

Dean also says that madder will give a rich aubergine purple if pre-mordanted with iron, and dyeing is followed by an alkaline modifier.

Using sufficient madder also helps in obtaining red rather than orange. Liles recommends using at least 8 oz madder for 1 lb wool to obtain red, or even 12-16 oz madder; 4 oz madder will give orange-red, and less than 4 oz madder usually gives orange. (p. 127)

Liles says that alizarin penetrates fibers slowly, particularly plant fibers; thus long times in the dyebath are recommended (p. 106).

Several madder recipes in the Plictho use "strong water" (aged bran water). Footnote 155 to the Plictho says that bran would form an acid water, but bran may have additional effects beyond this.

Some modern dyers are experimenting with soaking madder in alcohol (grain alcohol or the cheaper denatured alcohol at paint stores).

"Bug Reds"

Several closely related scale insects, members of the family Coccidae, give a red that can shade into violet. In period, this dye was called "grain".

"With respect to fastness, the cochineal, kermes and Indian lac reds are not much inferior to the madder reds" (Liles, p. 102). These dyes were most suitable for wool and silk (Liles, p. 102), and produces a brighter red on them than madder does (Liles, p. 128).

Kermes (Kermococcus vermilis) was a scale insect found in the Mediterranean area; it grew on oak trees. Romans in the 300s dyed with kermes; it is mentioned in Pliny (Sandberg, p. 57-8). Other forms of kermes grew on various types of grasses in Armenia (Sandberg, p. 59). The red dye is contained in the female's egg sac (Dean, p. 15).

Cochineal is New World; it comes from the female insects of the Dactylopius species. It is available from dye suppliers today, and grows wild on prickly pear cactus in southern California. It was imported from the New World into Spain before the end of the 1500s (Sandberg, p. 44); it had a higher content of active dye component than the Old World Polish and Armenian insects (Sandberg, p. 48). "Once the sea routes to the Americas were discovered, cochineal became available in Europe in the 16th century. It quickly replaced kermes red, because of its much stronger coloring power" (Dean, p. 15).

Lac, another scale insect which gave red dyes, was used in southern and southeast Asia. It was exported to medieval Europe, although dye analyses have not detected it on red medieval cloth. Lac also gave shellac and was considered medicinal in the Middle Ages.

Another scale insect, Polish kermes, lived on the roots of a host plant, in eastern Europe. It was also known as St. John's blood, because it was harvested in Midsummer around St. John's day (Sandberg, p. 61).

Cochineal contains carminic acid; kermes (on oaks) contains kermesic acid; the root kermes, like Polish kermes, contains both (Sandberg, p. 60). The dyes are very similar chemically (Liles, p. 128).

Kermes was an expensive luxury dye in the Middle Ages. It was used in Europe in the 900s. Medieval tapestries were dyed with it, and kept their color well. Cardinals' robes, formerly dyed with shellfish purple, were dyed with kermes after 1467. Much silk was dyed with kermes in Venice, and the color was known as Venetian scarlet (Sandberg, p. 62-63); though Liles says on p. 137 that Venetian scarlet was on wool. Recipe 46 in the Plictho (p. 108) is "To dye cloth a very beautiful scarlet, in the manner of this City of Venice". It doesn't specify wool or silk, just cloth; it uses "grain", with alum, tartar, "strong water" (aged bran water), and optionally arsenic to make it more brilliant.

There are some recipes in the Plictho for "half scarlet" or "half grain" which use both grain and madder; my guess is that this was because grain was expensive.

As usual, the pH of the dyebath matters. Acid (with alum) makes kermes red more brilliant (Sandberg, p. 57); "fiber which has been dyed in an acid cochineal dyebath changes instantly from red to blue-purple when stirred in an ammonia dip" (Van Stralen, p. 40); Van Stralen says that tartaric acid makes the color more orange-red; without it, the color is more wine red (p. 82). She also says that an ammonia (alkaline) afterbath gives purple, especially on wool, though less on silk.

"To extract the most color, you need to grind the cochineal into fine powder" (Van Stralen, p. 82); she uses a coffee grinder, but said it wears out the blades.

Cochineal was used as a red food dye until about 1940 (Liles, p. 127).

Though expensive, cochineal is powerful.


"Extracted from the heartwood, this strong red dye was known to Europeans from the 13th century as a source of textile color in India and Malaysia. ... Brazilwood comes from the heartwood of two species, Caesalpinia sappan, found in the East, and Caesalpinia echinata (also known as Pernambuco), native to Brazil. The wood and the dye were known as 'bresil' or 'brasil,' meaning 'glowing like fire.' When early 16th-century explorers found forests of similar trees growing in the part of South America now known as Brazil, they called the region 'terra de brasil' and so the country became named after the tree" (Dean, p. 78).

The Asian brazilwood was sometimes called "sappanwood" (Dean, p. 78).

These dyes produce a more fugitive red than madder or the "bug reds"; they usually fade to a reddish brown or even off-white (Liles, p. 102, p. 138). Liles left brazilwood-dyed cotton in three weeks of full summer sun, and all faded drastically.

Brazilwood dyes all natural fibers (Liles, p. 102); it is often combined with madder or cochineal (Liles, p. 138).

The Plictho gives several recipes with brazilwood as the only dyestuff, but combines it with madder in several others.

Dean recommends pouring boiling water over the brazilwood and letting it steep overnight (p. 78); she recommends 1 pound of brazilwood per pound of fiber. Some modern dyers are experimenting with alcohol extractions instead of water. Van Stralen says to soak it in rubbing alcohol or alcohol mixed with water to cover (or plain water, but alcohol works better); soak it briefly, to wet the wood, then spread it on a tray for a few hours. "Exposure to moisture and air transforms a nearly colorless compound in the wood called brazilin into the active dye compound, brazilein." (Van Stralen, p. 78)

"Brazilwood is sensitive to the pH value of water used for dyeing. Acidic water or acidic modifiers produce orange shades and alkaline solutions yield rich plum colors" (Dean, p. 78). Footnote 77 to the Plictho says "Brazil tends to vary from a yellowish color in strong acid solutions to a blue color in the presence of alkalies. These points are made obvious upon examination of this formula. Rosetti clearly points out that the solution of the brazil made with vinegar dyes cotton red, whereas the thick part or sediments of the brazil, upon addition of urine and upon being allowed to stand, gives an archil [purple] shade."


See dye_bibliog.php; also
Grierson, Su. The Color Cauldron: The History and Use of Natural Dyes in Scotland. Scotland, copyright 1986, reprinted 1989. ISBN 0 9510132 11.