Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Trouble with Lichen

Scottish tweeds used to be dyed with lichen.  Think of all those heathery greens, gingery browns, yellows and threads of purple. Last autumn, I noticed that a group of ancient apple trees and acres of buckthorn were festooned with various lichens and thought maybe I too could get purple.  Not finding a modern recipe and unable to work out which kinds of lichen did what, I made a start following an old description of the process.  I steeped some local lichens for six months in stale urine.

No, there is nothing nasty about urine, it is less germy than tap water.  If you had to clean a contaminated wound out in the wild, you would be better off peeing on it than rinsing it in a stream.  I told this to the family and put a large pink potty in the bathroom with a note saying it would stay there until filled.  They obliged.  I had to admit, the jars of lichen and stale urine did stink after stirring.  They got put outdoors, snow fell and I forgot all about them.  This morning I rediscovered the jars, lurking in the garden.  Definitely had an ammoniac aroma, but no sign of purple.  

Since the rest of the family were out, I brought the jars in and got cooking.  The smell wasn't too bad til the pot boiled over, then it was Trouble with Lichen, reeking horror, really.  I had just time to get the pot outdoors, hose the place down and open all the doors and windows, before himself returned.  His nostrils flared like the villain in a Victorian melodrama  "What vileness have you perpetrated, in this, my feudal domain?"  I knew I wasn't going to get away with pretending I had burnt the toast.

Steve was soon distracted by the papers and picking a winner for the Grand National.  Once the pot had cooled, I put in some wool, though the dye bath looked pretty minging.  I sneaked it back onto the stove while he was walking the dog and had it safely outside again before the race.  Wouldn't it have been fab if Katie Walsh had won on SeaBass?  I had a fiver on the dream of her being the first woman jockey to win the Grand National. Fair play, Katie did bloody well, she finished, but out of the running. Watching the races on telly always reminds me of my Grandma, who kept an eye on the form and often had 10p each way on Lester Piggott. 
No fairy tale ending for the lichen either.  Looks like I have created beige.  I put some vinegar in and have left half the wool swirling in the fetid depths, just to see what acidifying does.  Tonight I shall pour the lot on the compost heap, rinse the wool and hang it in the garage.  Tomorrow I shall add a photo of the final result to this blog.  

John Wyndham's feminist biochemist didn't have trouble quite like this.  In the story, she extracted Antigerone from lichen, to give to women who deserved to be immortal.  I would definitely be giving some to Katie Walsh. Also Mary Beard and Siouxsie Sioux, Fred Vargas and even though he is a bloke, Iain M Banks.  Plus Sandi Toksvig and Joanna Lumley.  Actually, would I want to be immortal? Would they?  Just as well I only have some beige wool.


  1. That is just hilarious. I don't think I'll bother trying to dye with lichen though!

  2. Thanks. My daughter has just commented that I would be in the 'glitter and safety scissors' group for art.

  3. Are you sure it was yourself you were talking about, not me? Sounds exactly what I did recently and also ended up with the same colour! My only difference was I boiled it up in the Burco but when it boiled over mine was outside.

    1. So nice to know I am not beyond the pale. I shall tell the family I am not an isolated case. The ladies on Ravelry have done lichen dyes and got purple, but their thread mentions tests on the lichen beforehand and I looked at this too late. I'm hoping someone will post advice on how to identify the true, the blushful Hippocrene.

  4. YOur husband sounds like he comes from the same genus as mine - that's JUST the sort of thing DH would say. YOu had me rolling about the floor LMAO.
    More to the point: I had even less of a colour result than yours, i.e. a slightly darker colour than the original ecru. Hmm.