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News Article - Natural Dyeing with Lichens

Grants Pass Oregon' s Daily Courier Article:

"For natural dyes, they're likin' lichens"

By Edith Decker of the Daily Courier
(From 3/7/15 article, for same class Rachel has taught before.)
Before you could go the store and buy a package of dye to make that magenta bridesmaid dress navy blue
or some white wool yarn a specific shade of yellow to knit into a sweater, people used things they found in nature.
For greens, yellows, tans and browns, and even pinks and pale purples, they often used lichens, those half-algae, half-fungus fuzzy things that grow on old tree branches.
About 25 years ago, when small nursery owner and botanist Rachel Winters had her own sheep and spun her own wool for weaving, she decided to try to make dyes from the lichens on her Josephine County property.
After a workshop on the basics, she started experimenting. It worked, although it's not as quick as Rit.
"It's not an instant thing. Botany stuff is slow stuff," she says, smiling.
She occasionally still teaches other fiber artists how to make dyes from lichens, which thrive in Southern Oregon's fresh air and misty winters. About 10 varieties that grow here make wonderful dyes.
"This has about six different kinds of lichen, just on this stick that fell out of an oak tree in my yard," she says, picking through them, Latin spilling out as she identifies them.
Last weekend, she held a class with 11 students, in connection with the fiber arts show at the Unitarian Universalist Church. She's also taught it for the Siskiyou Field Institute in Selma. Many of the students were fiber artists — weavers, quilters and wool spinners, for instance.
One was Bertie Foltz, who hand-hooks rugs. "I dye the wool to get the colors I want and I had dabbled with dying wool with things like red cabbage and red maple leaves and other things that are organic, from a book, and I just thought since Rachel knew more about lichens than I could ever get from a book, that I'd take the class."
It started with a hike on public lands to find lichens, which are plump with winter moisture
right now.
Foltz and other students not only enjoyed the outing, but also learned to really find and identify the lichens that work best.
"We're so lucky to have so many kinds here," Winters says. "There are places in Europe where they don't have any."
She stresses "ethical collecting": "You do not have to get it off the tree. You can get it off the ground. And ethical collectors do.
She notes that lichens do not kill or harm trees as some people think. "They're just hanging on" and producing oxygen and, in some cases, fixing nitrogen.
Some lichens are tiny, just a spot of orange on a stick. Others grow like long beards or fingery fans.
"They're just another lifeform that is overlooked," Winters says.
Not all local lichens will produce a dye, which is typically made simply by boiling water and adding the lichens to steep. "You just heat them up and cook them."
Even the water you start with can change the colors of the dyes. Changing from her own iron-heavy well water to rainwater, changed one lichen dye Winters made from a reddish to a tan color, for instance. A few must be steeped in ammonia, but that may be for more advanced botanical dyers.
In the class, she identified the lichens by their scientific names and had each student create an index card with the name and a sample and an idea of the color the lichen would produce, for their own reference.
She also suggested several books on the subject and a botanical guide or two for finding which you're looking at.
Winters doesn't have a lichen dyes class scheduled again and won't be doing one soon, she guesses. But she suggests the following books for anyone interested in trying it.
"Lichen Dyes: The New Source Book" by Karen Casselman, which "has lots of recipes and stresses ethical collecting," Winters says.
"Mosses, Lichens and Ferns of Northwest North America," by Dale Vitt, et al, which has many photos and identification keys, as well as "Macrolichens of the Pacific Northwest" by Bruce McCune and Linda Geiser.
For a plant guide with a wider scope that also includes most common lichens, she suggests "Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast" by Pojar and Mackinnon.