Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Madder Style Prints

Star quilt with madder-style setting blocks and border
In the quilt above, the quilter combined indigos, Prussian blues and other fashionable fabrics with madder-style prints in the blocks. Madder browns have an unfortunate tendency to deteriorate or "tender" fabrics. The darkest brown in the quilt above, mordanted with iron, has oxidized, leaving large holes where the dark stripes were. The batting is showing through.

A detail of the star quilt.
 It's an interesting quilt because of all the mismatched strips added to the triangles to make them fit. And doesn't that madder-style print at right look like tiny rotary cutters???

Madder-style prints were popular for clothing and quilts---
the fabric of everyday mid-19th-century life.

These young women photographed with their books
in the 1860s are wearing prints that might have been dyed with madder.

Cottons dyed with madder are among the most common fabrics in nineteenth-century quilts. Madder pleased both mills and customers because it was colorfast and inexpensive, yet versatile.

Dye from madder root could produce the bright orange,
the paler and duller oranges and the chocolate browns in these prints.

The calico printer treated the yardage with different mordants (metal salt solutions such as iron or aluminum) and dipped the cloth in a single dye bath made from madder root. Each mordant reacted differently with the dye, producing colors ranging from red-orange through purple, brown, and almost black. The madder coloring agent would not bind to areas that were not mordanted.

Madder is a vegetable dye derived most efficiently from a perennial plant with the Latin name of Rubia tinctorum. Like many dye plants, it is an Asian native. Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist who traveled to Asia in the first century AD, described the amazing transformation of a piece of cloth treated with colorless mordants emerging from the dyebath in a rainbow of shades. The plant and its secrets traveled to Europe where madder thrived in Italy, France, Holland, and Spain. Other names for the dye are al izarin in Arabic and garance in French.

Madder produced a plum colored purple known as puce.

Madder was particularly popular with quilters between 1840 and 1890.

Madder dyeing produced a brick red or orangey-red,
not the bright red that the Turkey red process did. The browns tend toward reddish.

Photograph from the late 1850s(?)
A print skirt and a big dog.

Reproduction Quilt
Sorghum Taffy Strip Quilt
made from my Civil War Homefront collection from 2009.
Blues and honey-colored yellows accent the madder-style prints.

Prints from two Moda collections: Civil War Homefront and Civil War Reunion

In my latest Moda reproduction collection Civil War Reunion I've colored several prints in a Dusty Rose colorway with an authentic madder orange. It's a shade to buy when you see it as the color so popular in 1860 might not be available in the future.


  1. Thank you for this post. I have always wondered what it meant, 'madder' colors.

  2. What a great lesson about MADDER prints.

  3. Thank you so much for posting about madders. They are my my favorite prints :)

  4. Madders are my favorites, and are particularly wonderful when used with indigo. I loved seeing both of these quilts, and the photographs - especially the woman with the dog!

  5. Thank you so much for all the information on different dyes that were available during the Civil War. I am looking forward to you enlightening me about, so called, "Turkey Red",too. Thanks!
    Vic in NH

  6. We had a lovely quilt historian at our Guild meeting last evening. It has been an added treat to follow up with reading about the madders we saw in her collection. Thanks.
    Displaced Yankee in Statesboro, Georgia