Lichen dyes – Usnea inermis (ammonia extraction)

On the way home from work I often notice trees that have lichens on them. Recently I stopped to see if there were any on the ground under one or two of them. There was a lot (we have had a few windy days) on some dead branches on the ground, so I came home with another large lump of Usnea to play with.

This time I wanted to try an ammonia extraction, which apparently gives a pink dye. Ammonia can be found in many places (supermarket shelves, rotted fruit and vegetables, and in urine) but I decided to go old school and use urine (since I am collecting it for wool scouring anyway).

I found a spare jar with a lid, and popped the lichen into it with enough urine to cover the Usnea. This concoction was left (in a dark, little used cupboard, away from visitors and pets) for about three months. I shook the jar daily (after making sure the lid was tight) and took the lid off to oxygenate it every few days and eventually got some colour from the mess.

After a week the mess began to show some colour.

After a two week soak, I decided to use my dye. I had to spin, ply and wash some wool to use my interesting (and very smelly) new dye on. I decided to set up a table outside so the smell has less chance of following me home.

I placed my newly washed yarn (home spun from our own sheep) into the dye bath and left the pot in the sun for two days. I didn’t want to take the pot into the house to heat it as the smell is horrific. When I eventually took the yarn out, it looked to be a brown colour rather than the pink I was expecting. I rinsed (and scoured, and rinsed, and rinsed) the yarn and it lost almost all of its colour.

After All that time I ended up with a beige. In order to salvage it a bit, I plonked one skein of the three into an iron after bath and got an interesting colour change.

As you can see, iron does indeed make colours darker and more intense. It also seemed to help get rid of the smell. All that washing has felted the skein a little though. I will try to salvage it with some hair conditioner.

Usnea seems to have an affinity with rough barked trees, Ironbark in particular.

My conclusion is that usnea is best used as a dye in a water bath and that I obviously did something wrong. I do love experimenting with new dyes, and I guess I have to get used to gaining insight into which plants give beige dye (maybe I could call this series ’50 shaded of beige’).

3 thoughts on “Lichen dyes – Usnea inermis (ammonia extraction)

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