Inspired by the environmental damages caused by the textile industry, especially caused by synthetic dyes, I wanted to research into alternative, natural solutions for dyeing. I decided to look beyond the 'usual' natural dye products that have been used by many crafters, such as fruits, vegetables, tea, indigo, cochineal, etc.
In my research I came across textile designers/dyers who have dyed with pigments extracted from algae, seaweed and mushrooms. Soon enough, I stumbled upon lichen dyes, and became fascinated by this half-fungus, half-algae organism that hides before us in our environment in plain sight.
Lichens survive by "extracting water and essential nutrients from the atmosphere around them." (Woodland Trust) Because of this, "they are useful indicators of air quality and pollution." (Woodland Trust) Each type of lichen is different, just just in their shape, texture, and colour, but in their sensitivities. For example, "sulphur dioxide from coal-burning stations can be harmful to some but other are tolerant." (Woodland Trust)
Can lichens be used as a natural dye for textiles?
In history, dyers discovered lichen to have the ability to produce brilliant permanent dyes. Lichens were famous for their brilliant purples, and unfortunately early recipes were often vague or guarded. What is incredible about lichens is the intensity of colours produced that rival both natural and synthetic dyes. These intense colours are not visible in fresh lichen, but through the extraction process colours such as "neon yellow, electric magenta, blue-violet and a pink that changes to blue in the presence of sunlight" are produced. (Allen, 2014) Yet colours aside, "lichen dyeing is a compelling and controversial research field, which may be why these dyes are so misunderstood." (Casselman, 2001) For Karen Diadick Casselman, an expert on lichen dyes: "Lichen dyes are an education in ecology and ethics. To use lichens is to explore the point where craft and material culture intersect science and natural history. No other dyes provide a better opportunity to learn how to protect the environment." (Casselman, 2001)
For this project, I only collected lichens that had become detached from its substrates. I was fortunate that a massive storm happened the day before I went out into the forest to collect lichens. It is important to note that lichens take a very long time to grow, so mindful collecting is key! Once lichens are collected, extracting colours from lichens can be done by three methods: BWM ("boil water method"), AM ("ammonia method") and POD ("photo oxidizing dyes"). I experimented with the AM, which involved creating fermentation vats for the different types of lichens I had collected. After 28 days, I was able to dye swatches and yarn.
Mindful Collection of Lichens
Ammonia Dye Method
Lichen Dye Results