On Scottish Lichen Dyeing

I love dyeing with lichen because there’s plenty of the stuff available here in Scotland, you don’t need to mordant, you get colours other than lemony yellow, and it leaves a beautiful earthy smell on the dyed wool.

So far I have dabbled a bit with the ‘boiling water method’, getting lovely autumnal shades from a mix of species, mostly parmelia (which are most common near me, and known to Scots dyers as ‘crottle’) and evernia. Recently I have been separating the different species of lichen I find into different piles, firstly to see what difference in colours obtained there is for the different species, and secondly to try a more advanced method for the relevant types.

I mostly gather lichens from the ground that the wind has blown off the trees, or from fallen branches, because lichens take a long time to grow, and some are rare but difficult to identify correctly. If there is an abundance in a particular area then I will sometimes take a very little from several sites.

The weekend before last we went for a walk up Primrose Hill near Loch Katrine in the Trossachs (unfortunately I forgot my camera!) There was lots of lichen everywhere, the most striking (and in plentiful supply of windfall on the path) was ‘old man’s beard’, or usnea.


I gathered veritable fistfuls and used it to dye some Suffolk wool fibre, with the wool and the lichen in the pot together. At first I got a bright yellow, and despaired at the prospect of yet more yellow! So I removed one hank from the dyebath and left the rest overnight. The next day I reheated it and simmered for a couple of hours, plus a squirt of citric acid to encourage the acids in the lichen. From this I obtained a nice rusty orange.


I span up some of this fibre; the rest I’ve saved for felting.


The second kind of lichen I gathered on that walk was evernia, of which I already had quite a bit since there’s a lot of it near where I live.


I’ve recently learned that evernia can be used for both the boiling water method and the as-yet-untried-by-me ammonia method. Using boiling water I can expect rusts and yellows (more!) but the ammonia method may yield a brownish purple. So I have saved some to dye with boiling water soon, but most went into a glass jar with water and ammonia, in the hope that in several weeks of shaking several times a day, I will get purple dye.

The evernia-ammonia jar is kept company in the shed by two more experiments I have rather higher expectations of.


The first is xanthoria parietina, the pretty orange stuff common on railings and up high in tree branches – I got plenty of this after a recent very windy night here in Glasgow. Hopefully after several weeks of steeping in ammonia and shaking several times a day, this will give pink – which, if dried in bright sunlight, can also turn to a lavendery-blue. The success of this experiment will depend on the availability of bright sunlight in Glasgow, but I can leave it to steep while awaiting this miraculous weather event.

The third is the small jam jar of ochrolechia tartarea, which is much less common than the other types mentioned, but when I saw it on the trees near Loch Katrine I couldn’t resist scraping off a tiny amount from about ten different trees there. This is because I knew it was historically used in Scotland for purples and reds, and was really keen to try it, especially due to the romantic notion I had of Highlanders centuries ago gathering it from this same area, treating it with stale urine to get wonderful colours for handspun yarns for weaving into tweed.

Getting into the fascinating world of the ammonia method of dyeing with lichens, I decided to do some further research, and bought Karen Diadick Casselman’s short work Lichen Dyes: The New SourcebookRather than containing lots of how-tos and photographs, this book has comprehensive lists of lichen species that may be used for dyeing, the colours they have been recorded to yield, and a lot about the history of lichen dyeing. Including  ochrolechia tartarea, or cudbear, in Scotland.


I had thought, based on passing reference in other natural dyeing books, that ‘cudbear’ was a vernacular word (maybe an anglicisation of the Gaelic…) and that its use in dyeing was in ancient cottage industries. I was wrong: the name was in honour of the mother (maiden name Cuthbert) of the the Gordon brothers who patented the process in 1758, opening a factory in Leith and later in Glasgow. The industry depended on the labour of the crofters who had remained in the Highlands after the Clearances, working whole days collecting the huge quantities needed to make the dye on an industrial scale. It was not only the rural poor who were exploited: in the cities the slumdwellers collected their urine for their landlords to sell to the dyers, and they worked in the dangerous and foul-smelling factories. By the beginning of the 19th century, the ochrolechia species of lichen in Scotland was very nearly wiped out, and the cudbear industry declined (pp.9-10).

I felt ashamed at my romantic notions of dyeing with this lichen. I’d fallen under the spell of Loch Katrine, of the tourist industry in Scotland’s reliance on myths of its past (beginning with Walter Scott, whose poem Lady of the Lake is commemorated/ commercialised in the names of the ferryboats on the loch). Much as I try to resist these tendencies in terms of religion (e.g. invented ‘lost’ ancient traditions) and craft (spinning wool isn’t fairytale–it’s hard and dirty work!), or at least to remember to critically interrogate these yearnings I have for past traditions and connection with place, it is all too easy to fall back on it.

Casselman ends her book with a discussion of ‘false tradition’ and ‘fakelore’, arguing that ‘we need to support not artificial histories of traditional practice, but inquiry into this rich narrative that reflects aspects of gender, ethnicity, culture, and ecology’ (p.54). I make things as a way of connecting with places and the world around me, and that includes those ‘ancestors’ who have walked this path before me. The case of ochrolechia tartarea reminds me that the exploitation of the poor and of nature is so often entwined, and that our relation with history and the other-than-human world is always complicated; that ‘natural’ doesn’t mean uncontaminated or indeed ‘good’.

I have become more diligent about shaking my jars of lichen and ammonia, and if I should be lucky enough to get purple from the cudbear I’ll value the small amount of wool I can dye with it not only for its rarity and the commitment required by the process, but for what it represents about our complex relations to the past and to the natural world.



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