Red Natural Dye - Cochineal, Madder, Brazilwood and Kermes

Below are the most commonly used and reliable of the red natural dyes of which there are actually very few. Madder is the most well known of the red plant dyes. Cochineal is also well known but is actually an insect that is collected from a cactus plant. Kermes is also an insect dye, less common than cochineal and more difficult to find.

Only Madder is found in Blue Castle Natural Dyes. It can be found in Blood Red, Turkey Red, Eco-Orange, Desert Black and Hill Brown.

The information below on red natural dye is reprinted for your interest and based on old recipes using whole dried plant and insect material, not dyes from Blue Castle. A number of mordants are mentioned some of which are rarely used now due to their toxicity. And of course, no mention is made of our wonderful and eco-friendly Herbal Mordant.


Madder consists of the ground-up dried roots of a plant Rubia tinctorum, cultivated in France, Holland and other parts of Europe, as well as in India. Madder is one of the best and fastest natural dyes. It is used also in combination with other dyes to produce compound colours. The gradual raising of the temperature of the dye bath is essential in order to develop the full colouring power of madder; long boiling should be avoided, as it dulls the colour. If the water is deficient in lime, brighter shades are got by adding a little ground chalk to the dye bath, 1 to 2 per cent.

(1) RED

Mordant with 25% alum to the pound or kg of wool. Boil for 1 hour, let cool in mordant, wring out and put away in bag for 3 or 4 days. Wash very thoroughly. Then dye with 5 to 8 oz madder / lb wool (280 gm to 450 gm / kg wool according to depth of colour required, and a handful of bran for every pound of wool. Enter in cool bath and bring slowly to the boil in an hour or more. Boil for a few minutes.


Mordant with Alum (25%). Dye with 4 to 4-1/2 oz. madder to lb. wool (250 gm to 1 kg wool) and a very small quantity of logwood, about 1/2 to 1 oz. to 3 or 4 lbs. of wool (25 gms to 1 kg. wool).


For 1 lb. wool, mordant with 2-1/2 ozs (75 gms) Copper Sulphate. Dye with 2 ozs. to 4ozs. (50 to 120 gms) Madder according to depth of colour required. For yellow brown add a small quantity of fustic -1/4 oz. to the lb. (16 gms to 1 kg).


Mordant wool with 3% Chrome*, wash well and dye with 5 to 8 ozs. madder (140 to 220 gms), bringing slowly to the boil, and boil for 1 hour.

Various shades of brownish red can be achieved by a mixture of madder, fustic and logwood with a chrome mordant* in varying proportions such as 28 per cent Madder, 12 per cent Fustic, 1 per cent Logwood for a brownish claret; 5 per cent Madder, 4 per cent Fustic, 1/2 per cent Logwood for tan.


This natural dye comes from various leguminous trees, including lima, sapan, peach wood, quebracho and palo de Brazil. Bark chips need to be soaked overnight and require about equal weight chips to weight of wool. Alum is the best mordant. Iron can be used as an after-mordant to deepen the colour. Some old dyers use Brazil wood to heighten the red of madder. It is not a very light-fast dye.

The following two dyes, Kermes and Cochineal, can be classified as natural dyes, but not plant dyes since they are insects.

Kermes, or Kerms, from which we get the "Scarlet of Grain" of the old dyers, is one of the old insect dyes. It is considered by most dyers to be the first of the red dyes, being more permanent than cochineal and brighter than madder. In the 10th century it was in general use in Europe. The reds of the Gothic tapestries were dyed with it, and are very permanent, much more so than the reds of later tapestries, which were dyed with cochineal. Bancroft says "The Kermes red or scarlet,though less vivid, is more durable than that of cochineal. The fine blood-red seen at this time on old tapestries in different parts of Europe, unfaded, though many of them are two or three hundred years old, were all dyed from Kermes, with the aluminous basis, on woollen yarn."

Kermes consists of the dried bodies of a small scale insect, Coccus ilicis, found principally on the ilex oak, in the South of Europe and still used there.

William Morris speaks of the "Al-kermes or coccus which produces with an ordinary aluminous mordant a central red, true vermilion, and with a good dose of acid a full scarlet, which is the scarlet of the Middle Ages, and was used till about the year 1656, when a Dutch chemist discovered the secret of getting a scarlet from cochineal by the useof tin, and so produced a cheaper, brighter and uglier scarlet."

Kermes is employed exactly like cochineal. It has a pleasant aromatic smell which it gives to the wool when dyed with it.


The dried red bodies of an insect (Coccus Cacti) found in Mexico are named Cochineal.


Mordant with Bichromate of Potash* (3%). Dye for 1 to 2 hours with 3 to 6 oz cochineal to 1 lb. wool (250 gm to 1 kg). With alum mordant (25%) a crimson colour is made. With tin mordant (10%) a scarlet. With iron mordant (6%) a purplish slate or lilac.


Mordant with 6 per cent Stannous Chloride (tin) and 4 per cent Cream of Tartar, boiling 1 hour. Dye with 15 to 20 per cent Cochineal, boil for 1 hour.

Enter in both mordant and dye bath, cool, and raise slowly to the boil. To obtain a yellow shade of scarlet, a small quantity of Flavin, Fustic, or other yellow natural dye may be added to the dye bath.


Into the same bath, put 1 oz. tin, 1/8 oz oxalic acid, 4 oz. cochineal for 1 lb. wool(54 gms tin, 7 gms oxalic acid, 240 gms cochineal for 1 kg. wool). Enter silk and boil for 1 hour. With less oxalic acid, a less scarlet colour will be obtained.


Mordant with 20 per cent alum or with 15 per cent alum and 5 per cent Tartar. Dye in separate bath, after washing well, with 8 to 15 per cent cochineal. Boil 1 hour. A slight addition of ammonia to the dye bath renders the shade bluer.


Mordant with Alum (25%). Dye with 2 oz. Madder, 2-1/2 oz. Cochineal, 1/4 oz. Oxalic Acid and 1/2 oz. tin per 1 lb. wool (120 gms madder, 140 gm Cochineal, 12 gm oxalic acid, 28 gm tin per 1 kg. wool).

(6) PURPLE (for 5 lbs. wool)

Mordant with 3 ozs. Chrome*. Wash. Dye for 2 to 3 hours with 13 oz. Cochineal, which has been boiled for 10 minutes before entering wool. A tablespoonful of vinegar added to the dye bath helps the colour.
Wash thoroughly.

*If you are considering using chrome or potassium dichromate (bichromate of potash), tin (stannous chloride) or copper (copper sulphate) with your natural dyes, read this article first - WHY WE DON'T USE CHROME ANYMORE! by Darvin DeShazer, USA
(The International Mushroom Dye Institute)

Blue Castle Fiber Arts is a small on-line fiber arts business and importer of natural dyes from India. We are located on the beautiful shores of Lake Ontario in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

This website focuses on our easy-to-use natural dyes and you will find plenty of information about them and how to use them. You can also visit our supplier's website here: Sam Vegetable Colours.