natural dyeing

Natural Dyeing with Lichen – A Heritage Dye

Lichens are complex life forms which come in many different colours, shapes and sizes and are one of the oldest organisms…

close up of lichen

What are lichens?

Lichens are complex life forms that grow in many different colours, shapes and sizes & one of the oldest organisms known to man. While they appear plant-like, they are not plants, they are the product of a symbiotic relationship between a community of organisms, such as algae or cyanobacteria (usually blue or green algae that are rich in pigments), bacteria & fungi. Producing nutrients through photosynthesis, they are a a self-contained ecosystem. There are roughly 20,000 known species of lichen estimated to cover 6%+ of the earth’s surface.

natural dyeing with lichen, dried lichen in hand

What they look like & where to find them

Lichen comes in many different forms such as leafless branches, flat leaf-like growths, crusts or a powder-like appearance. While some lichens may look & grow alongside moss, they are nothing like moss in their composition. Found throughout the world in a variety of environments such as tree bark, exposed rock or soil crust, old stone walls, rocks, on damp wood & trees.

lichen on a rock

Natural dyeing with lichen

I had always stayed away from experimenting with these little organisms as they garnered my respect early on. As a dye source, lichen has a particularly rich history of use throughout many northern cultures especially Ireland, Scotland, Sweeden & Iceland. Although it was a brilliant source of dye, there was some snobbery around the use of certain dyes and their place in society, lichen included. Lichen was a common dye for peasant and thus known as a peasant dye.

natural dyeing with lichen

From my initial experiments of natural dyeing with lichen, I achieved some beautiful shades of yellow on silk and alpaca fibres. The more I learn about lichens, the more fascinated I become, I will be experimenting with other varieties of this incredible organism in the future. If you have ever naturally dyed with lichen, I’d love to hear about your experience, as I have heard mixed reports from fellow dyers. x Kathryn

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