Steamed or Roasted Madam?

“After bluing sprinkle the wool with ashes and trample it down with them in a convenient manner. Then press the liquid out of potter’s clay and wash off the blued wool therein. Rinse it in salt water and mordant it. You will know if it is sufficiently mordanted when it sinks down in the kettle and the fluid becomes clear. Then heat rainwater so that you cannot put your hand in it. Mix roasted, pulverised and sifted madder root, i.e., madder with white vinegar, a half a mina of madder to a mina of wool, and mix a quarter of a choenix of bean meal with the madder root. Then put these in a kettle and stir up. Then put the wool in, in doing so, stir incessantly and make it uniform. Take it out and rinse it in salt water. If you wish the colour to take on a beautiful gloss and not to fade, then brighten it with alum. Rinse the wool out again in salt water, let it dry in the shade and in doing so protect it from smoke”.

Recipe 153 Caley The Leyden and Stockholm Papyrii

When Mel put out the call for those interested in participating I was fairly quick to respond. I’ve always described myself as a Medieval Dyer – it’s my favourite period for dye skills and the one I have most knowledge and references for, but … playing with other dyers and earlier period recipes was too much of an enticement. We all had to choose which recipe/s we would like to tackle and the obvious choice to me was number 153 as it required madder to be used (I have a bit of an obsession with madder).

Reading through you will realise that it requires other recipes to have been used first. 104, 105 and 106 refer to woad, it’s preparation and use, then mordanting recipes are numbers 146 and 147.

For this post I’m concentrating on the preparation of the madder root only – it’s a bit unusual!

In the summer of 2020 (before this project had been mooted) and with time on my hands I decided I could start on some research I had been wanting to do for a long time. Madder has always been my favourite dye to use, but it is so complex that there is always something new to learn.

At that time I was at my home in Pas de Calais (Northern France) close to a town called Hesdin. This is a part of old Flanders and was a principle growing and processing area of madder in the Middle Ages. There was a madder mill in Vieil Hesdin, now long gone, sadly, but there are many references still to that old industry to be seen if you know what to look for – Garance in French – which was of course a further incentive to delve deeper.

The modern method with madder roots in general is to pull them up when they are 3 years old or more – they need time for the aglycones and glycosides which give the colour within the root to develop. They are then dried and either chopped or ground ready for sale. Historically this was not the case.

I have a favourite book by Robert Chenciner called Madder Red A history of luxury and trade. In the book he explains how the madder was treated on the field in the Caucasus and other areas of cultivation –

Before drying the roots were improved by steaming. The roots contained sugars and resins which cause internal fermentation, which helped convert the original yellow dyestuff into the desired crimson”

Chenciner R 2000 Madder Red A history of luxury and trade Curzon Press Richmond ch7 p 120

There is a description of the digging of a pit in the field it being lined with clay and then a fire lit within the pit. When the clay turned white the madder roots were stacked in , as many as possible, the pile stacked as high as 1 metre above then water generously sprinkled over them. They were covered with blankets or home made carpets to keep the steam inside. When the volume of the roots was reduced by about a third the roots were removed with a pitch fork and a fire lit in the pit ready for the next batch.

Not the most comprehensive of instructions, but something to work with!

I have never heard of any modern growers or suppliers processing their madder in this way – and enquiries to processors I know resulted in nothing – so with time on my hands I decided to give it a go.

With most of my working life (prior to lockdown) being spent “on the road” my dye garden is non existent, so fresh root was not something I could easily lay my hands on. Luckily my friends Susan and Ashley of Natures Rainbow came to my rescue – I contacted them to ask if they could let me have some fresh root to play with and being the wonderful people they are, I was supplied with a variety of ages and types of fresh root which I then started processing.

cardboard box filled with bags of roots

Never having tried this out before and there also being a delay between digging up and the roots reaching me, there may be some discrepancies in how good the steaming results could be. There were several iterations of “steaming pots” and many mistakes made, but eventually I found a method that seemed to work. (I need another batch of fresh madder though to really check the method out. )

A clay pot on the right – suitable for Roman dyeing on the left a tagine, interestingly the pits were called tondir which reminds me of the tandoor ovens of India for bread and cooking meats.

These 2 images show the madder roots before steaming – with a very yellow core and after – the root is clearly shrunken and red all the way through.

The Papyrus recipe clearly states “. Mix roasted, pulverised and sifted madder root, aha! I thought – I have some roasted madder root – with all those various iterations of steaming there were inevitable mistakes and some had resulted in “roasted” madder.  You may even think burnt!

roasted madder roots.

These roots will be “pulverised and sifted” next ready to make up the dyebath.

When I read old recipes and see historical textiles I am greatly saddened that we do not give greater credit to our forebears and their skills. They had clearly worked out that processing the madder before drying was of benefit, they may not have used the chemical terminology that we do in the present day, or know exactly what was going on within the chemistry of the root but they had good brains!  It does make me wonder whether the Medieval Dyers were simply extending and improving the work done by the earlier Dyers to draw out the various glycosides and chemicals needed to give a good red colour from madder.

Alternatively the translation is by a language scholar, whose skills I would not question, however maybe a little knowledge of the dyers skills could be of benefit when translating too  – could roasting have been steaming – or vice versa?

Deb Bamford, The Mulberry Dyer, Leeds and Northern France

3 thoughts on “Steamed or Roasted Madam?

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