A Tale of Lichen and Weird Winter Weather (Part Four)

Part Four: Dyeing with the Ancient Umbilicate Vat

Winding skeins, scouring, mordanting, tannin baths, etc. took a long time, so the dyeing didn’t actually happen until December. It was the first time I’d used lichens on cellulose fibers. According to Casselman, and others, lichens are substantive dyes, meaning they don’t require a mordant. But I’m inclined to agree with Joan Morris, who said in a workshop last summer, “With natural dyes, cellulose fibers need all the help they can get.” Cotton, linen, and other plant-derived fibers are not naturally inclined to slurp up color the way wool does, so you’ve got to give the fibers every opportunity to hold onto the dye molecules. I decided to mordant with alum acetate *and* treat the yarns with a tannin bath for good measure.

Here’s the vat liquor strained into a jar, undiluted, pH 12 or 13.

umbilicate lichen liquor in jar Here in the dyepot you can see the magenta color of the vat liquor.

umbilicate lichen liquor colorI diluted the vat liquor with water (6 cups vat liquor to 28 cups water) and the pH was 9. Into this stinky (rotten fishy) pot went my tannin and alum acetate-treated linen and cottolin skeins. Well, if you read my earlier post about weld and cellulose, you know that tannin can have a darkening and weirdening effect on color, even the gallotannin I’ve been using, which is very light. The darkening effect of iron is called “saddening,” so maybe I can call it saddening with tannin, too, but it’s not quite the same. Anyway, you can probably already picture the scene. Here it is:

umbilicate lichen with tannin on celluloseYes, I got a very interesting purplish brown. Basically brown. An unusual sort of brown. But brown. At first I was disappointed and felt very bad because, to me, dyeing with lichens is a weighty thing. I feel there is karma, or at least a moral burden, attached to it in a way I do not feel with goldenrod or Queen Anne’s Lace or other more happy-go-lucky sorts of plants. Venerable ancient organisms shouldn’t be wantonly ripped up and fermented for the making of browns.

Here though, I must digress. Later in December and January, I noticed this color regularly on my walks, especially in the woods when the sunlight was orange-pink early in the morning or just before sunset. Something about the light made the trunks of certain pines (red pine, I think) reflect exactly this purplish brown. I also saw it in tangles of old blackberry canes, and where red maple leaves had fallen and dried among oak leaves. When I noticed this, I felt grateful to the lichens for having opened my eyes to this color. It’s a real color in its own right, with a place in the world, not just an accident or a mistake. Now I love that color. OK, back to the story.

Back in December, still hoping for pink, I added a little soda ash to the exhaust bath to bump the pH up to 10, and used bleached cotton skeins mordanted only with alum acetate. I got a pale bluish pink, a very subtle color, and was happy.

umbilicate lichen no tannin on cotton