Lichen: I pass it endlessly when hiking in the woods. They grow on rocks and hangs from trees. It covers branches on the forest floor. It's everywhere if you take a moment to focus. But what is lichen exactly? They are not plants. They are a symbiotic relationship between two living organisms: fungus and green algae or cyanobacterium that produce food by photosynthesis to feed its cohort the fungus (and the fungus provide moisture for the algae). They are an intricate part of microclimates and ecosystems. Many are very sensitive to air quality and some takes decades to grow even a inch. There is a lot to learn about lichen. My first lesson on the subject was with the president of the San Francisco Lichen Society who generously spent time with me crawling on the forest floor. I contacted her in my quest to map ecosystems by means of color. Yes, lichen have a surprising array of color that can be extracted as dyes. They can go deep crimson red and purple to bright yellow. In this instructable you will learn about wolf lichen, a type found in the Sierra Nevada in California, and other places at elevation too.
There are three types:
- Fruticose lichens grow erect or pendulous in three dimensions and have no distinguishable upper and lower surfaces.
- Crustose lichens look somewhat like the name implies. They form a crust over their substrates, like rocks, trees, and sidewalks. The lower surface of crustose lichens attaches firmly to many surfaces and forms brightly colored patches of a thick, rough naturalized texture.
- Squamulose lichens can be described as something between foliose and crustose they have left lobes and have scale-like shapes, and they attach by the lower surface like tiny shingles.
Step 1: Collect the Lichen
The Letharia vulpina or Wolf Lichen is a fruitose and is found on conifers in the Sierra Nevada. The brilliant fluorescent yellow color is seen growing on branches everywhere in the mountains. I found this one at 5000 feet. This lichen is not for eating as it contains the toxic vulpinic acid that gives it its color. In a dyeing context, it will give a bright yellow color similar to the natural color of the lichen.
Collect the lichen off fallen branches and trees. It's important to note that collecting lichen should done in places where it is plentiful. It's especially nice to collect after a wind storm when the forest floor is covered in branches and twigs. Once again, to identify this lichen just look for a densely branched bright yellow to yellow-green color. This lichen is poisonous so do not eat it!
Step 2: Start the Dye Bath and Weigh Your Dyeing Material While It Is Dry
First weigh the material you would like to dye and soak your fabric in water before putting in the dye bath. In this case I am dyeing industrial felt.
Using a boiling water method ( the other method uses ammonia and takes months), put the lichen in the pot and cover it with water. It's best to let this soak overnight.
The ratio of lichen to water is 2 cup of lichen for 1 ounce of fiber.
Lichen dyes are substantive, meaning no mordant needed. All lichens contain acids that hold precursors of colors. It's not until after you dye that you can play and use modifiers to alter the color.
Step 3: Add Your Material to the Dye Bath and Simmer
The the next day, boil the water with the lichen and reduce to simmer. Add your presoaked fabric, in my case, wool, to the dye bath covered completely by the water and simmer until desired color. Maintain a temperature of 190 degrees for about an hour. You can let this bath sit overnight for more intense colors. It's all an experiment and many factors determine the ultimate color: the age of the plant, the pH of the water, the type of fabric all are factors.
Step 4: Remove the Material From the Dye Bath, Rinse and Dry
Once you reach the desired color, take your piece out of the dye bath and rinse under cool water until it runs clear or put it in a bucket of clean water and rinse until clear. Then hang it to dry. Most modifiers (salt, vinegar, baking soda) do not do much to the color. The only big change is seen when you add the piece to a copper bath ( use caution when using copper sulfate, it is VERY toxic). In this case, the color turns a bright green! It's amazing the colors we can extract from foraging on an everyday hike in the woods.
Step 5: Recommended Reading and Collecting Sustainably
Casselman, K.D. 2011. Lichen Dyes:
The New Source Book. Cheverie Nova Scotia: Studio Vista Publications.
Start with lichens that are most plentiful ( there are so many) and collect from branches that have fallen or detached from the trees. Scraping rocks is highly discouraged, these take decades to grow.
Here is a recipe, published in 1540 by the Venetian Giovanni Ventura Rosetti (or Rosetto) in his Plichto dell'arte de tintori:
Take one pound of Orselle of the Levant, very clean; moisten it with a little urine; add to this sal-ammoniac, sal-gemmae, and saltpetre, of each two ounces; pound them well, mix them together, and let them remain so during twelve days, stirring them twice a day; and then to keep the herb constantly moist, add a little urine, and in this situation let it remain eight days longer, continuing to stir it; you afterwards add a pound and a half of pot-ash well pounded, and a pint and a half of stale urine. Let it remain still eight days longer, stirring it as usual; after which you add the same quantity of urine and at the expiration of five or six days, two drachms of arsenic; it will then be fit for use.