Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Thursday, 31 July 2014

I Lichen Like That: The Natural Dyeing Adventure Continues

One of the places we stop while heading to Kelowna is a private campground on the edge of a lake.  Huge cedar-hemlock trees stand through and surround the property.  There's a trail through an old growth forest.  As we walk along the path, we come to stillness among the flora and the remnants of a fire from a century ago.  Even Morris, the ever-barking terrier, is silent in these woods:

(These burned out tree trunks are at least five feet across their base. You could live in one and in some of them, it looks as though people did.)

Every time I visit, this campground offers me another gift-the wind blows through and down come blankets of lichens.  Lichens are unique organisms, in that they are a composite of a fungus and an algae (usually) or a bacterium.  The two co-exist, with the algae or bacteria assisting in photosynthesis.  Lichens are found in virtually every eco-system in the world. Most people are familiar with lichens which grow on tree trunks and rocks; those flat orange discs you see on old gravestones are lichens.  Lichens are slow-growing, but long-lived. They're susceptible to climate changes and air pollution, so their population numbers are often used to track air quality.  From early times, lichens have been used as food for people and livestock, medicine and dyes.  Harris Tweed cloth was dyed with lichens, which contributed to their decimation in that region; the famous cloth is now coloured with synthetic dyes. (Because they are increasingly rare, I no longer go in search of lichens. They are in abundance in this campground, so I gather the ones that scatter along the driveway and our site; I leave anything in the forest alone.  It's illegal to pick plant life from provincial or national parks and it's not a good practice any time, unless you know what you're collecting, have permission to do so and take just a small amount of material.)

It's the dyeing properties of lichens which fascinate me-you can get some idea of the spectacular colours available from some lichens by clicking on the link here.  Depending upon the variety used, dyeing with lichens gives a range of colours from light tans to screaming fuschia.  If you work a little magic, some of the rarer species will give blues. Some of the colours are light and wash fast, but the purples and blues tend to be very fugitive when exposed to light.  Although the colour survived repeated washings, when I left these socks sitting near a sunny window for only a day, the sock toes demonstrate the damage done to the colours:

There are two ways to dye with lichens, by boiling them in water or by a longer, more involved process using a cold water/ammonia bath.  Dyers recommend trying both.  The windfalls I've collected over the past seasons have given me this lichen:

I am not a lichenologist (yes, there are such people) and given the number of similar lichens I found when researching this one, I won't hazard a guess as to what it might be.  It's similar to other lichens I've used which produce browns, so that's what I'm hoping to get.  I'm cooking out the crushed lichen today.  Note that the dye bath is quite pale.  I thought this meant that there wouldn't be much colour, but my old dye books assure me that a pale bath is common, as the colour goes directly to the wool.  We shall see:

This is the best use of pantyhose I know!

Whatever colour I may get, it's the smell of the boiling plants that seduces me, a distinctive fragrance of grass and wood and time.  The odour clings to the wool, even after repeated washings, but it's a pleasant sensation, nostalgic, taking me back to the paths we walk, in the forests, near the lakes, by the mountains.



  1. I had no idea that you can use lichen to die fibers, thanks for this great and informative post. I love the pictures of those woods too. Elle

    1. Thank you. The bath from yesterday gave me a yellow-green, which was much brighter after I added a pinch of tin.

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