Tag Archives: usnea spp lichen

Dyes of antiquity: Usnea spp lichen

I could tell the Guild member who suggested that I be the one to use some of the plant dyestuffs that have been left at the Guild was as appalled as I was to see that there was a large plastic bag full of packs of lichens in one of the cupboards.  They were packaged up in such a way as to suggest they might have been purchased dried from a supplier in a time when understanding of the precarity of lichen was less widespread.  Concern for the wellbeing of dyers and the planet is widespread at the Guild now and I assume, it was widespread there in the past when levels of information were different, too.  I think it would be well recognised now that these are not sustainable dyes.  And to be honest, the descriptions of the colours some of these lichens will give made me wonder why anyone would disturb something so slow growing when there are prolific sources readily accessible in the suburbs.  No point asking now. No way to know when these lichens were harvested, either.  I am guessing, many years ago.

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The only thing sadder than these lichens having been killed for dyeing would be composting them without using them at all–So I chose one of the types of lichen for which I could readily find instructions and began what is going to be a lengthy investigation. Out of the bag with ‘Usnea spp’ and into rainwater for a long soak.

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I took Karen Casselman’s advice and steeped for some days in an alkaline solution before heating and cooling several times.

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On the big day (9 days after beginning), I strained out the lichen—using a pair of preloved pantyhose which had been thoughtfully brought into the Guild for just such purposes to strain out all the itty bitty lichen particles.  Then the diluting, heating and dyeing began.  One of my new rolls royce sampler cards (two different mordants, two different applications of each) and 50g of Polwarth entered the pot.

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I simply don’t have the experience to know whether I did something wrong, or the age of the lichen made a difference, or what-but both my sample card and my fleece turned tan while the dye bath remained orange.

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Not so special, in my opinion.

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The stash of dyestuff also included many items that were labelled, and some which were identifiable without labels, and then there were some like this:

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I checked with my sweetheart, who was a long time woodworker.  She said ‘looks and smells like meranti to me’. This looks quite unlike osage orange, sandalwood and logwood (all of which were present in the trove from the Guild).  I did a test… and nothing exciting happened. This batch of wood shavings went to the compost.

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The rest was sorted out and repackaged and relabelled where necessary.  Ready for further dyeing adventures!

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