How to Dye Wool with Fresh Lichen

Lichen Dye
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There are a few species of lichen that grow prolifically in the woods around our house, and I’ve been wanting to use them for a dye for quite a while. After gathering them and preparing a fermented ammonia dye vat last year, my first experiment didn’t turn out as expected. Fortunately, there is another quick method that worked to easily produce a stable, saturated yellow.

Gather a substantial quantity of fallen lichens. Remember that many species grow very slowly, so resist the temptation to scrape lichens off their host tree or rock. Instead, gather fallen lichens that have become detached.

Dye method for fresh or dried lichen

For my own experiment I used a mix of shield-type lichens and what I thought was stag-horn lichen, but which may have been a form of reindeer lichen (aka reindeer moss). For this dye bath I used a one-gallon bag full of dried lichens.Lichen yarn in dye bath

Since lichens contain their own form of mordant, you don’t have to pre-mordant the fibers.

Step 1: Extract the dye and wet the yarn.

Place a large non-reactive pot on your heat source and simmer the lichen in warm water (180 – 190 F). Stir occasionally and cook for 45 minutes.

While the color is extracting, wet your yarn out in hot water in a covered container (like a bucket or extra pot with a lid) to retain the heat.

When the color of the dye is looking saturated you will be ready to dye. In this case I don’t strain the dye bath but leave the lichens in with the yarn so that the mordant compounds can continue working.

Step 2: Dye the fiber.

Gently lift your yarn or fiber out of the soaking container and place into the dye kettle. Give it a gentle stir and poke to submerge.

Simmer the yarn in the dye bath for at least an hour, giving it a gentle swish every once in a while (too much agitation can felt the wool, so stirring should be infrequent).

After an hour, turn off the heat and cover the pot. I like to leave my dye kettles overnight to cool slowly.

Step 3: Rinse and dry.Finished lichen-dyed yarn

Gently lift the fiber out of the dye kettle and allow the excess dye liquor to drain back into the pot. Then transfer to a bucket of clean water and let soak for a couple of minutes. My fiber rinsed clear on the first soak. If necessary, lift the fiber out of the rinse bucket and place into a third bucket or pot of clean water, to rinse a second time.


For more information, try one of these books on dyeing with lichens:

Lichen Dyes The New Source Book, by Karen Casselman, © 2011
This title is in print and readily available in paperback form for less than $10.

Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing, by Eileen M. Bolton, © 1972
While it is out of print, this title is available online from sellers of used books.

Published by Sarah Scully

Sarah is a librarian as well as an avid knitter and occasional knitwear designer. She also enjoys cooking, gardening, hiking, reading, painting, and writing with fountain pens.