Lichen dyes – Usnea inermis

A new interest has floated into my mind over the usual holiday down time: lichen dye for wool. I have noticed that a lot of lichen grows on old fence posts beside the road. That started me thinking about what it is good for (as it turns out, quite a lot). I was driving home from a doctor appointment yesterday and began to notice the large amount of furry fence posts beside the road (much to the unease of the cars behind me, who must have been worried about my erratic steering and low speed), so I eventually pulled over and went to take some photos and collect samples to play with. I collected a couple of handfuls of lichen from a dead tree and took it home to play with.

Usnea

After a fair amount of internet sleuthing, I found a likely candidate: Usnea. I also found some other lichens (that I left in place for now).

Some other lichens.

It seemed to be a natural progression to make this handful or two of squishy goodness into dye, so I found a YouTube video to show me how it is done and off I went…

I plonked the whole two handfuls in a pot with water and put it on to simmer for an hour or so. Some videos say it can be boiled, some say to not boil it, some say to boil it then cool and boil again, some say once is enough. I will just play it by ear and simmer until I get some colour, and if that doesn’t work, I will boil it.

Apparently this species of lichen is also really antibacterial and can be used to treat infections on the skin. I think I will also harvest some to dry and keep on hand in my herb collection.

Yes, I did get two different types of lichen in my harvest.

Now I wait.

After about two hours of gentle simmering, I decided to try boiling as there wasn’t a lot of colour showing in the water.

After two boiling sessions the pot is showing an uninspiring yellow/brown. I can see some orange tones in it, but I don’t think I have enough lichen for the pot to make orange. I will see what my wool does.

Some sources say that wool needs to be mordanted and some say that mordant can actually interfere with the process. I am going with the no mordant camp for my first skein (mostly because I’m impatient to see what I get from the lichen). Usually the wool is soaked in water before being plonked into the dye bath, but I just put the skein in dry (due, again, to impatience).

Strained dye bath, looking a lot like aged pee.
In it goes.
Now we wait, again.

I am heating up the dye bath again, to increase the dye uptake. I will leave the pot on the stove for an hour or so, then I will let it all cool down and see what we get.

The result?? Beige.

The resulting beige colour is not that inspiring, but I can still see dye in the pot. I am going to dig out my iron mordant pot and see if adding iron to the pot will improve the colour a bit.

Yes, I know it looks gross, but it is really useful in dye pots.

I have added 4 tablespoons full of the iron mordant. The colour has improved straight away. I will leave the yarn for another half hour then see what I get.

Much better.
The final result.

After rinsing the yarn and hanging it to dry, I have ended up with a really pretty orange/brown. I think that I will iron mordant a few more skeins and gather some more Usnea (a lot more). I can imagine a pair of socks knitted in this colour.

I learned today that Usnea species gives a brown/orange colour in dye, that iron mordant brings out the orange tones in this dye and that I have my father’s ability to drive while thinking about things (that is… no ability at all). I will continue to gather and experiment with lichens and fungus in the dye pot, but I had better spin some new yarn to play with before I get too carried away.

2 thoughts on “Lichen dyes – Usnea inermis

  1. Excellent post, and Happy New Year! We have a local dye and weaving company here on the island who use heathers, lichens and other plants and bark to dye their yarns. All are beautiful, natural colours. It’s called Shilisdair. Very inspirational. I’m sure it’s something that you could experiment almost endlessly with. Nature is wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

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