Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Lichen and Musings on Yarn Dyeing

Lichen on Apple Tree (Kent, UK)

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of spending an entire day in an apple orchard somewhere in West Kent. For all those not familiar with the county of Kent, West Kent is commonly associated with Royal Tunbridge Wells. It is, as it were, the posh half of Kent. It offers textbook Kentish countryside combined with easy access to London: hops, oast houses, apples and a so-called "high-speed" rail link to the capital. 

Laxton Superb

After closer inspection, I found that some of the trees in the orchard had undergone grafting and were sporting several different varieties of apples on the same tree. Despite an abundance of apple varieties, the orchard was in need of management and the vast majority of trees had seen better days. As a result, most were heavily covered in lichen and moss. Unlike parasites, lichen do not harm the tree. They are, however, an indication that the health of the affected tree is failing.

Worcester Apple

When I spotted them, I was instantly reminded of lichen being utilised in traditional yarn dyeing. There is a long tradition of using lichen to dye wool dating back to the Bronze Age. Traditional yarn dyeing methods are currently experiencing somewhat of a renaissance amongst independent and amateur yarn dyers. In the British Isles, dyeing with lichen has a particularly strong tradition and is most commonly associated with Scottish Tweed.

Lichen growth on apple tree, Kent (UK)

At this stage, I am not contemplating experimenting with dyeing myself. On the whole, dyeing yarn simply requires too much adherence to exact measurements and timings, patience on the part of the crafter and, above all, a generous, secluded workspace, which is not at risk of being infiltrated by curious fur creatures. I am unable to provide either of the above.

Lichen growth on apple tree, Kent (UK)

On the whole, the craft of yarn dyeing seems to attract the chemists and cooks within the community of fibre lovers. I am definitely not a chemist, neither would I rate my cooking skills. Dyeing yarn is a fascinating process nonetheless. I greatly enjoy admiring both the results as well as the intricacies and ancient techniques of traditional dyeing methods. Dyeing with lichen probably stands out the most amongst all of them, especially for its simplicity. 

Lichen growth on apple tree, Kent (UK)

The most straightforward way of dyeing with lichen is the BWM method (Boil Water Method). After a relatively small amount of the plant has been sustainably removed, it is boilt in water together with the yarn. The colours generated range from browns and yellows to oranges and rust. Things get more involved when one wishes to achieve other colours, such as purple, which some lichen can produce after a variety of additives have been introduced at differing stages of the process. 

Lichen growth on apple tree, Kent (UK)

Lichen growth on apple tree, Kent (UK)

Another reason why lichen are highly appealing has a lot to do with their pleasant aroma. Whilst boiling lichen, it is said to give off a distinctly foresty scent, which is soaked up by the fibres, retained in the finished garment and can be detected for years to come, even after several washes.

For all those interested in using lichen to dye yarn, I thoroughly recommend this highly informative tutorial by Rachel Kessler of 44 Clovers, which is available here.


  1. Lovely post & really enjoyable pictures. Thank you for referring back to me:)

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Rachel! Loving your blog. :-)


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