“…my version of the story of madder is based on three Russian sources written about 1860. Naturally they do not agree with each other, drawing from different informants and covering an encouragingly wide field of disciplines. Where possible later sources are used to fill the gaps and to update the various discoveries in areas such as dye analysis, archaeology and history  “

 These opening lines from Madder Red: A history of luxury and trade, by Robert Chenciner sum up well the difficulty in finding the true origin of, or creating a timeline for many ancient materials and techniques especially when the material comes from the earth or vegetation.

The reality is that people are curious and experimental so were and are constantly discovering and creating, making things from what they have–uses and discoveries that only become more widely known when there is interaction with another culture. This new joining of minds then creates another method, pattern or idea, so that origins of the first two are now obscured.


What we do know for sure is that Rubia tinctorium, or the common madder, is an herbaceous plant that yields a red pigment containing purpurin and alizarin. Madder red, also known as rose madder is one of the most ancient and widely used textile dyes; it is referred to in the Bible, by Pliny the Elder, and in madder lake form was used in paintings in the famous tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun and in renaissance Europe. Words for madder appear in the Ancient Oriental languages, in Biblical period languages, in Classical and Old European languages and in modern oriental and European languages.

As a natural dye grown throughout the world, it has been known for its use in textiles for thousands of years, in the Indus valley, along the Coromandel coast and as the characteristic red colours of Persian carpets (Shiraz qashquai) and the gentle rose-reds of kelims; mixed with black, pale yellow (from pomegranate, or turmeric), white and indigo it appears in all tones, from the palest hint of pink to the deepest purple.


See natural dyes.


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