Throughout history, people have dyed their textiles using familiar, locally available materials and archaeologists have discovered evidence of textile dyeing dating as far back as the Neolithic period. Plants, invertebrates and minerals are all sources of natural dyes with the majority derived from plant sources such as roots, berries, bark, leaves, lichen and fungi.
I have always been aware that there are a vast number of plants from which you can obtain dye. I have also always presumed that most of them would produce decidedly earthy colours compared to the bright synthetic dyes we take for granted in modern life, I could not have been more wrong.
Please note that not all lichens produce a dye so please do your research before you forage for them. Many grow exceptionally slowly, so it is essential to gather responsibly to avoid damaging colonies. We currently have two lichen dye projects on the go.
Also known as Cudbear, this lichen was traditionally used in the Highlands of Scotland to produce a vivid purple dye. Growing almost exclusively in the far North of Scotland, the sample I used I purchased from a lovely lady at the Wilderness Gathering who is an expert on Natural Dyeing. This lichen needs to be fermented in an ammonia solution to extract the intense colour which can range from bright pinks and purples to maroon.
More commonly known as Oakmoss this widespread lichen is found growing throughout the northern hemisphere. Used extensively in perfume production it can often be found on the ground beneath oak trees making it an easy lichen to gather. I collected the jar full that I've used in the dye below from the ground during my dog walks and I typically find a couple of pieces each day. Utilizing the ammonia method outlined below it yields a lilac/purple dye, alternatively, a yellow colour can be prepared by just boiling the Oakmoss up in water.
Preparing lichen dye
Half fill a glass jar with the lichen. Add a mixture of one part ammonia to two parts water. Oxygen is required for the chemical reaction to take place, so the advice is to fill the jar three-quarters full with the solution and to remove the lid to replenish the oxygen every so often. Keep the jar in a warm place and shake vigorously each day. The dye should be left to ferment for at least three months to achieve an intense dye colour.
To use the Dye
Pour half of the dye liquid through a strainer into a saucepan. Return the strained lichens to the jar and top up with a new ammonia/water mix - you should get another couple of batches before you lichen is 'spent'.
Add water to your dye pot and submerge the material you are dyeing (having prepared it by soaking in water first). Bring to the boil and simmer gently for about an hour or until you achieve the colour you want. Remove your dyed product and leave to dry. A new wet item can be added to the pot once the dye has cooled and the process repeated.
Each subsequent dye will be lighter as the dye pot becomes exhausted resulting in a colour variation. Our photos show this in the three darkest skeins. The lighter ones were achieved by popping the wool skeins in the bath for a minute or two before removing them. The dye we used for all the skeins, and the unspun fleece came from the Ochrolechia Tartarea lichen. The Evernia Prunastri is still steeping, and we will share our results from that in a future post.
Lichen dye does not need a mordant. The colour will fix and should not fade. Some lichen dyes are photo-sensitive so the dyed item will change colour when exposed to intense sunlight. I hope to experiment with one of these lichens soon.