The “madder” part of this lovely phrase refers to a natural dye from a Eurasian herbaceous plant, Rubia tinctoria, the root of which was used since ancient times as a regal dyestuff. Thus “ancient” madder. Since the 19th Century the dye has primarily been used on silk, producing beautifully deep, muted and soft colorations of red, green, chocolate, medium blue, and yellow. Silk dyed in this manner is characterized by a dusty-looking finish and a feel (referred to as a chalk hand by the experts) very much like a fine suede, and a matte finish. And not just any silk. A special “gum” silk, is used. The silk is first boiled to remove its natural gum (an organic resin), dyed, and then the fabric is bathed in a new gum-based solution that gives it its characteristic soft handle and heft.
Today the process is employed mainly for neckwear printed in England in a paisley or small geometric pattern. The coloring agent in madder root – called alizarin — was in fact first chemically extracted and then synthesized in 1869 by two English chemists. Although the dyeing process, even today, requires a variety of painstaking steps, synthesized alizarin brought the price within the reach of commercial producers, and paisley-designed silks of ancient madder became popular in the second-half of Victoria’s reign for neckwear and scarves.
Paisley madder ties have been a status symbol on college campuses since the 1930s, as a natty alternative to the traditional striped tie. Paired with a tweed sports jacket, they’re as conservatively colorful and slightly idiosyncratic today as ever.
-G. Bruce Boyer