Natural Dyeing with Lichen

Kathryn Davey

March 10, 2023

Dye sources
natural dyeing
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I’m a author, self-taught designer & natural dyer sharing the beauty of natural dyes and plant based colour with anyone that's interested :) 

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Hi, I'm kathryn

close up of lichen

For my January Colourway, I looked at extracting colour from this tiny organism & was fascinated by this incredible source of dye. Lichens are complex life forms which come in many different colours, shapes and sizes and are 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. They produce nutrients through photosynthesis and can be seen as 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

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. They can be found throughout the world in a variety of environments. They are commonly found on tree bark, exposed rock or soil crust & can often be seen on old stone walls & rocks, on damp wood & trees.

lichen on a rock

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 used by peasants and became known as a peasant dye.

I got some lovely yellow colours on from my initial experiments, as documented in detail in The Colourway The more I learn about lichens, the more fascinated I become, I will definitely be experimenting with other varieties of this incredible organism in the future. If you have ever dyed with lichen, I’d love to hear about your experience, as I have heard mixed reports from fellow natural dyers.

natural dyeing with lichen

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