The Lichen Dyes

Some of the most useful dyes and the least known are to be found among

the Lichens. They seem to have been used among peasant dyers from

remote ages, but apparently none of the great French dyers used them,

nor are they mentioned in any of the old books on dyeing. The only

Lichen dyes that are known generally among dyers are Orchil and

Cudbear, and these are preparations of lichens, not the lichens

themselves. They are
still used in some quantity and are prepared

rather elaborately. But a great many of the ordinary lichens yield

very good and permanent dyes. The Parmelia saxatilis and Parmelia

omphalodes, are largely used in the Highlands and West Ireland, for

dyeing brown of all shades. No mordant is needed, and the colours

produced are the fastest known. "Crottle" is the general name for

Lichens in Scotland. They are gathered off the rocks in July and

August, dried in the sun, and used to dye wool, without any

preparation. The crottle is put into the bath with a sufficient

quantity of water, boiled up, allowed to cool, then boiled up with the

wool until the shade required is got. This may take from one to three

or four hours, as the dye is not rapidly taken up by the wool. Other

dyers use it in the following way: A layer of crottle, a layer of

wool, and so on until the bath is full; fill with cold water and bring

to the boil, and boil till the colour is deep enough. The wool does

not seem to be affected by keeping it in the dye a long time. A small

quantity of acetic acid put with the Lichen is said to assist in

exhausting the colour.

The grey Lichen, Ramalina scopulorum dyes a fine shade of yellow

brown. It grows very plentifully on old stone walls, especially by the

sea, and in damp woods, on trees, and on old rotten wood. Boil the

Lichen up in sufficient water one day, and the next put in the wool,

and boil up again till the right colour is got. If the wool is left

in the dye for a day or more after boiling it absorbs more colour, and

it does not hurt the wool but leaves it soft and silky to the touch,

though apt to be uneven in colour. Some mordant the wool first with

alum, but it does not seem to need it.

The best known of the dye Lichens are Parmelia saxatilis and

Parmelia omphalodes which are still largely used in Scotland and

Ireland for dyeing wool for tweeds. The well-known Harris tweed smell

is partly due to the use of this dye.

Other Lichens also known for their dyeing properties are: Parmelia

caperata, or Stone Crottle, which contains a yellow dye, P.

ceratophylla, or Dark Crottle, and P. parietina, the common wall

Lichen, which gives a colour similar to that of the Lichen itself,

yellowish brown. A deep red colour can be got from the dull grey

friable Lichen, common on old stone walls. The bright yellow Lichen,

growing on rocks and walls, and old roofs, dyes a fine plum colour, if

the wool is mordanted first with Bichromate of Potash.

In Sweden, Scotland and other countries the peasantry use a Lichen,

called Lecanora tartarea to furnish a red or crimson dye. It is

found abundantly on almost all rocks, and also grows on dry moors. It

is collected in May and June, and steeped in stale urine for about

three weeks, being kept at a moderate heat all the time. The substance

having then a thick and strong texture, like bread, and being of a

blueish black colour, is taken out and made into small cakes of about

3/4 lb. in weight, which are wrapped in dock leaves and hung up to dry

in peat smoke. When dry it may be preserved fit for use for many

years; when wanted for dyeing it is partially dissolved in warm water;

5 lbs. of Korkalett is considered sufficient for about 4 Scotch ells

of cloth. The colour produced is a light red. It is used in the dyeing

of yarn as well as of cloth.

In Shetland, the Parmelia saxatilis (Scrottyie) is used to dye

brown. It is found in abundance on argillaceous rocks. It is

considered best if gathered late in the year, and is generally

collected in August.

Linnaeus mentions that a beautiful red colour may be prepared from the

Lichen Gyrophora pustulata. G. Cylindrica is used by Icelanders

for dyeing woollen stuffs a brownish green colour. In Sweden and

Norway, Evernia vulpina is used for dyeing woollen stuffs yellow.

Iceland Moss, Cetraria Islandica, is used in Iceland for dyeing

brown. Usnea barbata is collected from trees in Pennsylvania, and

used for an orange colour for yarn.

A general method for using lichens is suggested by Dr. Westring of

Sweden in his Experiments on Lichens for Dyeing Wools and Silks:

"The Lichens should be gathered after some days of rain,

they can then be more easily detached from the rocks. They

should be well washed, dried, and reduced to a fine powder:

25 parts of pure river water are added to 1 of powdered

lichen and 1 part of fresh quick lime to 10 parts powdered

lichen. To 10 lbs. lichen half a pound sal ammoniac is

sufficient when lime and sal ammoniac are used together. The

vessel containing them should be kept covered for the first

2 or 3 days. Sometimes the addition of a little common salt

or salt-petre will give greater lustre to the colours."

This method can be followed by anyone wishing to experiment with


Dr. Westring did not use a mordant as a rule. Where the same species

of Lichen grows on both rocks and trees, the specimens taken from

rocks give the better colours.

ORCHIL OR ARCHIL AND CUDBEAR are substantive or non mordants dyes,

obtained from Lichens of various species of Roccella growing on rocks

in the Canary Islands and other tropical and sub-tropical countries.

They used to be made in certain parts of Great Britain from various

lichens, but the manufacture of these has almost entirely disappeared.

They have been known from early times as dyes. They give beautiful

purples and reds, but the colour is not very fast. The dye is produced

by the action of ammonia and oxygen upon the crushed Lichens or weeds

as they are called. The early way of producing the colour was by

treating the Lichen with stale urine and slaked lime and this method

was followed in Scotland. Orchil is applied to wool by the simple

process of boiling it in a neutral or slightly acid solution of the

colouring matter. 3% Sulphuric acid is a useful combination. Sometimes

alum and tartar are used. It dyes slowly and evenly. It is used as a

bottom for Indigo on wool and also for compound shades on wool and

silk. For cotton and linen dyeing it is not used. It is rarely used by

itself as the colour is fugitive, but by using a mordant of tin, the

colour is made much more permanent.

Many of the British lichens produce colours by the same treatment as

is used for producing Orchil. Large quantities were manufactured in

Scotland from lichens gathered in the Shetlands and Western Highlands.

This was called Cudbear. The Species used by the Scottish Cudbear

makers were generally Lecanora tartarea and Urceolaria calcarea;

but the following lichens also give the purple colour on treatment

with ammonia:--Evernia prunastri, Lecanora pallescens,

Umbilicaria vellea, U. pustulata, Parmelia perlata. Several

others give colours of similar character, but of little commercial

value. The manufacture of Archil and Cudbear from the various lichens

is simple in principle. In all cases the plant is reduced to a pulp

with water and ammonia, and the mass kept at a moderate heat and

allowed to ferment, the process taking two or three weeks to complete.