Lichen and ammonia fermentation dyeing

This particular project is going to take quite a while, so I figured I’d better get it started, and writing about it, soonest.

I mentioned previously that my mother taught me about dyeing, and that when we were on vacation in Maine back in July, she had pointed out some nice lichen to me and said it would make a good purple dye on wool.  The lichen was on the rocks of an island in the lake we were staying at.

I paddled out in a kayak, with a plastic bag, and picked some of the lichen.  I was very careful to only take a little from each rock, and then move on to the next.  I took care not to crush the lichen on the way home again, as I didn’t know what I was going to do with it.

In mid August, I picked up some books in western Pennsylvania about dyeing.  I got two general purpose ones about things I might find in my yard or at the store, onion skin dyeing, and coffee and tea, and dandelions, and so on.  I also bought one book specifically because it talked about how to dye with lichens, and even the one that I had picked, Umbilicaria.  The book is Craft of the Dyer, by Karen Leigh Casselman.  Most of the sites and books I had researched talked about dyeing with Umbilicaria in vague terms: mix with ammonia and let sit for a while to ferment.  Well, that’s nice, but it doesn’t tell me how much or how long.  I do consider myself a crafter, and prone to strikes of inspiration, but I’m also a fairly logical person, and I like directions!  Craft of the Dyer had them.

I did consider using the most natural source of ammonia for this project.  It would be interesting to see the results, and Craft of the Dyer even has directions for it.  However, while Himself offered to provide me with as much natural ammonia as I needed, at least two of our housemates stated that they would be unwilling to continue living with me were I to take him up on his offer.  Since household ammonia at the store is very cheap, and I hate moving, I decided to maintain domestic harmony and use the commercial stuff.  Maybe some other time.

So after a glass of raspberry mead from one of my housemates (he’s not as crafty as I am, so it was commercial mead, but still interesting), I set up.

I didn’t follow the directions exactly, but then, when have I ever?  Note to self: since I want to learn how to do my own dyeing from things other than Koolaid, I need a mortar and pestle, and a small scale that measures ounces up to a few pounds.  The directions worked out to be about 2 to 2 to 1 proportions, lichen to water to ammonia.  I had only half as much lichen as needed to keep the proportions right and realized this only after I’d mixed things together, but that’s why it’s an experiment, after all.  I ground the lichen by hand — hence the need for the mortar and pestle, but it worked out pretty well.  There might be a few pine needles in there, but I think I got most of them out.

I poured the lichen into the glass jar, and added the water.  Clear fluid with little brown flecks in it, right?  Then I added the ammonia, also a clear fluid, and right away the liquid turned dark reddish-brown.  It was kind of stunning how fast it happened.  Aren’t chemical reactions fun?

The foam on the top was reddish in color, too, although it doesn’t show up much.

By the way, I owe the kitchen a new slotted wooden spoon.

I stirred it vigorously for several minutes, as per the instructions, and tried not to gag too much on the smell of the ammonia.  It’s VERY strong.  After I capped it, I realized that shaking the jar with the cap on is a quick way to aerate the mixture, which needs to be done twice a day at least.

Okay, so tomorrow morning, uncap the jar to let in new oxygen, close cap, and shake hard.  Perhaps repeat twice.  And again tomorrow night.  And again the morning after that.  And again . . . .  This is not a quick project.  After a week, the mixture is supposed to turn reddish in color, and three weeks after that I could get pink and rose dyebaths.  However, if I keep up with the fermentation for three months or so, I am supposed to be able to get really deep reds and purples, depending on how I mix the dyebaths.  Mordants beforehand to the fiber can change the color, and adding vinegar to the dyebath is also supposed to do things, although I’m not clear on what.  I think lots of little dyebaths are in order, no more than a yarn of yarn and a half cup of mixture, and experiment with this and that variation.

This is going to be fun!



Filed under dyeing

5 responses to “Lichen and ammonia fermentation dyeing

  1. antoniseb

    About twenty years ago, I tried doing some fabric dyeing using “Red Capped Soldier Lichen”, using ammonia to extract the dye stuff. At first it seemed to work brilliantly, turning the broth bright red in seconds, but it was fugitive, and wouldn’t much change the color of wool…

    The punch-line is this. I chose lichen for an obvious external color, and didn’t really follow the recipe. I hope your project is a huge success.

  2. Anonymous

    Your Daddy has a plaid wool shirt you should take a look at. I dyed it around the time you were born. Maybe I should send you a picture to attach to this blog-project?


    • Anonymous

      Also, I didn’t bother with the mashing. My dye-bath was good for a number of dunkings. I dyed yarn, greasy wool, clean wool, white and grey. The grease stayed in the dyebath and went really stinky. I would open the jar just for a moment, then slam it shut and open the windows. So this is my only real advice so far: no stray vegetable matter, no lanolin, only clean wool. And try out some cotton while you are at it. I don’t remember how long I left anything in … And I won a prize for my bunch of five skeins at Pennsic.


  3. Hi Roza!
    There is a woman in my Mushroom Club that uses them for dyeing. I’ll try to hook her up with your blog. I tried boiling some polypores in water and vinegar just out of curiosity but it made only a weak tea-colored stuff, so I threw it out. Too bad, I couldn’t even eat them either!

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