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What shade of red is madder?

What shade of red is madder?

Madder is a brilliant shade of red that has been used as a dye for centuries. The name comes from the common madder plant, whose roots produce a red pigment called alizarin. Madder has a long and storied history, particularly in Europe where it was used to dye the iconic red coats of the British military. But what exactly qualifies as a “madder” shade of red? That depends on the specific chemical composition of the dye as well as factors like dyeing techniques and material. This article will explore the origins and chemistry behind madder, examine its shifting shades throughout history, and help define what that quintessential “madder red” really looks like.

Origins and History of Madder

Madder has been used as a dye since antiquity in places like India, Egypt, and the Middle East. But it became especially popular in Europe starting in the Middle Ages. The common madder plant (Rubia tinctorum) grows wild in temperate zones across Eurasia. Its roots contain several chemical compounds called anthraquinones that produce bold red colors. For centuries, madder root was cultivated, pulverized, and boiled to extract the precious dye.

By the 18th century, the British army had adopted scarlet red coats dyed with madder for its official uniforms, which soon became an iconic symbol of the British Empire. Madder dye was also used for military uniforms in France, America, and various German states. It was the dye of choice for European tapestries, rugs, and cashmere shawls. As chemical knowledge advanced, scientists were able to identify and isolate the primary red anthraquinones in madder root, mainly alizarin and purpurin. This allowed madder red to be produced more efficiently using chemical synthesis.

Chemistry of Madder

The distinctive red color of madder comes from the anthraquinone compounds alizarin and purpurin. Alizarin gives a bright red hue, while purpurin contributes more of an orange-red. The ratio of the two determines the exact shading of red produced. In natural madder root dye, the alizarin concentration is about 1.5-5% while purpurin makes up 0.5-2%. The remaining components of the root serve as mordants to help affix the pigment to textile fibers.

The chemical structure of alizarin consists of an anthracene core with hydroxyl groups (-OH) bound to the central ring. This anthraquinone system absorbs green and blue light from the visible spectrum while reflecting more red wavelengths, creating the vibrant crimson color. Alizarin can form coordination complexes with metal mordant ions like aluminum and iron that improve its binding to fabrics.

Variations in Madder Red

While alizarin is responsible for the quintessential “madder red” hue, there is still variation based on the dyeing process. Factors like the mordant used, mineral content of the dye vat water, fabric material, and dyeing techniques can all shift the final color.

Factor Effect on Madder Red
Mordant Alum mordant gives a bright pinkish red; iron mordant gives a deeper bluish red
Water minerals Calcareous water shifts the red towards purple
Fabric Silk absorbs the dye more evenly giving a rich crimson; wool can give mottled reddish-purple shades
Technique Varying the time and temperature of dye baths changes the depth and saturation of red

The madder-dyed Turkish rugs and French tapestries of the 18th-19th centuries display quite a range from bright ruby red to deep winy purple-red. As chemical understanding of dyes increased, dyers could manipulate the compounds more selectively to achieve desired shades of red.

Defining the True “Madder Red”

Given its variability throughout history, what represents the quintessential madder red shade? For the purest expression of the color, textile experts look to examples dyed with alizarin obtained from madder itself, not synthetic alizarin. The most iconic madder red is the military red of British soldiers’ coats from around the late 18th to early 19th centuries.

This legendary red was dubbed “Turkey red” because the British believed it came from the Levant. In truth, such uniform red was achieved by master dyers in Scotland and England. Their secret Turkey red process involved multiple extended soaks in the madder bath with careful control of mordants and pH. Turkey red had a bright, vivid crimson that would run toward ruby or slightly purplish on wool. When alizarin itself was first chemically isolated and applied to textiles in the 1860s-70s, it produced similar rich, bluish-red tones.

Many recognize the red uniforms of British soldiers leading cavalry charges or marching with rifles on their shoulders. *That* particular crimson – neither orange nor purple, with a small dash of blue – defines the iconic hue that is madder red.

Madder Red in Fashion and Decor

Though madder fell out of use in the 20th century after synthetic alizarin replaced natural dyes, it still influences design and fashion. “Madder red” is often used as a descriptor for fabrics and decor items colored with alizarin dyes. Contemporary textile artists also employ natural madder root dyes to reproduce historical red tones.

Madder red works beautifully as an accent color in rugs, wall hangings, furniture upholstery, and more. It has an earthy, vintage feel that adds warmth and sophistication. Madder-dyed clothing like dresses, jackets, or scarves can make a bold statement. Some designers evoke madder reds in modern collections inspired by British military uniforms or Turkish kilims. The next time you see a rich, slightly bluish crimson, you can expect it’s a nod to the history of madder dyeing.


While madder red can range in shade from bright pink to deep burgundy, the archetypal hue will always be that exalted crimson of British soldiers’ coats. The secrets of Turkey red unlocked the purest expression of madder’s potential. And modern chemical knowledge helps preserve the color’s legacy. Madder red remains a staple of designers and artists looking to infuse a bit of vintage character. Next time you come across a fabulous crimson textile, take a closer look; it may just be colored with history.