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Twenty Ancient Dyestuffs and Eleven Mordants

Twenty Ancient Dyestuffs and Eleven Mordants

by Nicholas Von Robison

Originally published in Guild of American Luthiers Data Sheet #236, 1983 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000


1) Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is one of the most ancient dyes, and its color fastness ranks among the best. It is such an excellent source of red that its name (rubia) means red in several languages. In Holland during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, it was the principal source of wealth. By 1792, encouraged by Charlemagne, France was the top grower. We are told that the French Revolution ruined the farmers. They were later revived by a decree of Louis Philippe, who made red caps and trousers mandatory for his army. In England imported madder was also used for army uniforms (redcoats). Before the “Madder Disaster,” England’s total imports came to one million pounds sterling. When alizarin, synthetic madder, was synthesized in 1869, a yearly world madder production of 70,000 tons declined to nothing. Historians speak of untilled and abandoned madder fields and of thousands of starving farmers (Schaefer, The Cultivation of Madder). Today madder can be hard to find; and sweet woodruff, one of the madder family that produces a less potent red dye, may be substituted. If you prepare the dye from roots, be sure not to use too much heat or boil it too long as the color may shift to a muddy brown.

2) Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), also called eastern hemlock or spruce pine, is an important tannin dye. The bark, either fresh or dried, produces a wide range of colors from rose to slate gray. The nice thing about this plant is that it grows over a wide area of North America so it is easily procured with very little expense. I get mine from a landscape gardener who always saves me a bag of trimmings from one of his pruning jobs. A sharp knife will easily strip away the dark outer bark to reveal the red-purple streaks inside. It is not entirely colorfast.

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