Mystery Cordage

Last week I was down in Maryland visiting my sisters and seeing lots of family at a wedding. One morning, my mom and I went to consult with one of my sisters about various plants that had been planted by the previous tenants outside her apartment. In one spot we found some very intriguing dead and naturally weather-retted bast fiber from the previous year’s growth. Unfortunately I did not bring my camera so I don’t have a photo of it in situ. We don’t know what the plant is, but my sister will keep an eye on it as it develops so we can identify it. Here are some photos of the fiber and cordage.

mystery bast fiber 1mystery bast fiber 2mystery cordagemystery fiber and cordage in processMy method was this: I twisted a bundle of fibers enough to get a kink at the center, then bent the bundle in half. I used my teeth to hold the middle, and twisted both sides at the same time, between my thumbs and index fingers, rolling to the left. (That is, I twisted the left strand with my left hand, and the right strand with my right). Then I wrapped the two strands around each other twisting to the right. To add a new piece, I repeated the starting procedure, but inserted the new bent middle section into the “v” where the two strands separate. I tried to keep the two sides slightly uneven so that the splices would be staggered. I think it has a very pretty silvery quality. I would be happy to use this plant again, once I find out what it is.

What’s a Lichen?

What is a lichen, anyway? A lichen is a symbiotic organism composed of a fungus and another organism that can photosynthesize. Fungi do not photosynthesize, that is, they do not make their own food from sunlight (and carbon dioxide and water) using chlorophyll. They are heterotrophic, meaning they get their nutrition from outside themselves. Fungi are different from plants and have their own taxonomic kingdom. The photosynthesizing organisms in lichens are different kinds of algae, cyanobacteria, or sometimes both. The photosynthesizing part of a lichen is called the “photobiont” (short for photosynthetic symbiont).

The photobiont makes sugars and other carbohydrates through photosynthesis, and allows some of these nutrients to be absorbed by the fungus. In return, the fungus provides structure and stability, some protection from sunlight, and as much consistent moisture as the habitat can provide, by conducting water through its cell walls. The fungus combined with its photobiont grows into a particular shape or structure. By itself, with identical genetic information, the fungus would not grow into this shape. The algae and cyanobacteria would not be able to colonize rocks or bark or other places that lichens grow without the fungi.

Lichens are amazingly complex, and scientists still don’t know all the details about exactly how they work. They come in a huge range of colors, textures, shapes, and sizes, and grow on lots of different surfaces (or substrates) in a very wide range of habitats. Some lichens are able to fix atmospheric nitrogen, and play a role in creating conditions to support plant life. Lichens readily accumulate minerals, including toxic compounds, are thus very susceptible to pollution. They grow very slowly. Foliose lichens (named for their leaf-like structure) like my Flavoparmelia caperata grow an average of .4-.5 mm a year. Umbilicates are also a type of foliose lichen with extra-big “leaves.” Umbilicate lichens form new cells at the center, which is why it doesn’t kill the lichen to tear off small pieces from the outside edge.

The acids and other compounds that make lichens useful for dyers serve a range of functions in the lichens themselves. Some are pigments that filter out certain wavelengths of light, some have antibiotic properties that inhibit other organisms that might compete with the slow-growing lichens, some make them taste bad so herbivores won’t eat them….

OK, I could go on and on, but if you’re interested you can read more on your own. Again, here are my two trusty references:

Lichen Dyes: The New Source Book by Karen Diadick Casselman. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001.

Lichens of North America by Irwin M. Brodo, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff, and Stephen Sharnoff. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. This is THE book. In addition to being an incredible and beautiful reference, its bulk makes it useful as a book-binding press, and occasionally to hold up the printer:

lichen book holding up printer

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

This part of the story actually happens before the lye testing in Part Five, but to me it is the climax of the whole story, so I saved it until the end.

As the ground stayed bare this winter, I continued to see lots more (probably) Flavoparmelia caperata lying on the ground, and other lichens. It made me wonder how much usually gets buried under the snow. Does it usually get crushed and decompose? If it had been a regular snowy winter, I’d never even know it was there. Which leads me to….

Part Six: Non-Snowy Woods on the First of February

The first of February was glorious and warm and sunny. To celebrate the day, I went for a longer walk than usual. A hike. There was not a patch of snow on the ground anywhere, only occasional ice. Just as I was thinking about how happy I was that this non-snowy winter enabled me to learn more about lichens, I noticed a lot of umbilicates growing on a rock face that I’d never really noticed before. I scrabbled over to check at the base of the rocks for any fallen pieces. There was an incredible, astonishing abundance! I felt like I was in a fairy tale; I’d been thinking about how awesome lichens are, and then ta-da there were tons of them. Magic. And not just any lichens, the awesomest ones.

I filled both my pockets with loose pieces from the ground, but there was way more than my pockets could hold. A blissful day and a blissful foraging treat.

Here are some photos. Some pieces were right on the ground, and some were hidden under the leaves. The underside of these umbilicates is velvety and black. The top is greenish, olive, or brownish. They are sometimes called “rock tripe,” hence the labels on the photos (if you hover over or click on an image it tells you the title of the photo).

fallen rock tripe black undersidedamp fallen rock tripefallen rock tripe underneathdry fallen rock tripeI went back to the same spot on February 6th (another glorious day) with a gallon sized zip lock bag, and filled that also.

The discovery of this abundance made me wonder whether this much falls off every winter, or whether more pieces than usual broke off this year because of the weird (comparatively warm and dry) weather. Would I find this much again another winter? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. I think this weird winter was special.

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

Part Five: Picking up Fallen Lichen in the Non-Snowy Woods

Right after the big storm in October, we had a spell of very warm weather and all the snow melted at the beginning of November. However, the broken trees and branches still lay everywhere. Lichen and salvage botany were very much still on my mind. Karen Diadick Casselman wrote in Lichen Dyes that in the woods behind her house, several species of lichen dropped daily to the ground, which provided an almost unlimited supply, should she choose to use them. (She went on to say that she focuses on studying lichens rather than on dyeing in volume.) I wondered how much lichen could be gathered if I picked up only what had fallen on the trail, road, or sidewalk as I went on my walks, and only what was most abundant. Well, in one week of walking almost every day, I had 4 cups of this lovely stuff (including quite a lot of bark, to which it was attached):

lichen on groundlichen on oak barkTo be honest, I’m not positive it was all the same species, but visually all the little pieces looked very similar. I could sure collect a lot of it, but what exactly was it, and was it useful for dyeing?

Positively identifying it has been an on-going process. Today I completed the most recent step, having acquired a container of lye from my mom, whom I visited yesterday. Thanks, Mummy!

Earlier in the winter, I had gone through the dichotomous key for “foliose lichens that are not umbilicate, jelly-like, or yellow” in Lichens of North America. With a pretty good degree of confidence I continued on to the Parmelia key. The most likely candidates were Flavoparmelia caperata (a.k.a. Pseudoparmelia caperata, the Common Greenshield lichen), Flavopunctelia soredica, or Flavopunctelia flaventior. The time had come for chemical testing.

I hoped that using just bleach for the C test (short for calcium hypochlorite), I could tell the difference between F. caperata and F. soredica or F. flaventior. Here’s why. Both of the latter are supposed to react C+ red when spot tested on the medulla. That means when you scrape off the top layer (cortex) and expose the white layer underneath (medulla), then apply a dab of bleach to the white area, it will turn red. It didn’t. Here’s a photo comparing the foliose lichen in question with an umbilicate lichen that definitely did react C+ red.

comparing the color of C+ and C- reactions on lichenThe umbilicate is in the lower part of the photo, and shows a very bright red-orange reaction. The foliose lichen above shows very little color change. Depending on how dramatic the reaction is supposed to be, you could call it yellow, or you could call it nothing. On the medulla of the foliose lichen, there was more of a reaction (the spot on the upper right which is a little bit darker yellow), but it’s definitely not red.

Having ruled out F. soredica or F. flaventior, I was pretty happy to say that my abundant foliose lichen was Flavoparmelia caperata. But I didn’t actually prove what is was, only what is wasn’t. Enter the lye, which lets you do the K and KC tests (K stands for the potassium in potassium hydroxide)

F. caperata is supposed to be K- on the cortex and medulla, KC + gold on the cortex, and KC+ pink on the medulla. Here’s what my results this morning looked like. The first photo shows a piece of the lichen with the medulla exposed (the white area):

foliose lichen with exposed medulla

K minus cortexThe photo above shows the K- reaction on the cortex, and the one below shows K- on both the medulla and cortex. It’s slightly brighter green where I dabbed on the lye solution because it’s wet.

K minus on the cortex and medullaThe photo below shows the KC+ reaction on both the cortex and medulla. (KC means you apply a dab of lye solution, then a dab of bleach on the same spot.) However, I would not call the color on the medulla “pink,” exactly. It’s redder than the gold on the cortex, but it’s more orange, I’d say.

KC plus on cortex and medullaOn the other hand, my “red” reaction on the umbilicate was sort of orange, too. So, there you have it. Probably my abundant foliose lichen is Flavoparmelia caperata. It does not appear to be an interesting source of dye, unfortunately. I may go ahead and try it anyway. I’ll let you know.

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

A Tale of Lichen and Weird Winter Weather (Parts One, Two and Three)

This is a long story. I will tell it in parts.

Part One: The Snow Storm

At the end of October, 2011, we had a big snowstorm. The snow was wet and heavy, and snapped and broke tons of trees and branches. There were sad broken trees all over the place, and it took a very long time for all the wood to get cut and stacked or moved away. In the woods, depending on how much people-traffic there is, a lot of trees and branches are resting where they fell to this day. And many of these trees and branches were, and are, covered in lichens. It was an unusually early storm with an unusually destructive impact–the first installment of the weird winter, weather-wise.

Part Two: Karen Diadick Casselman

Around this same time, I was planning a series of cellulose dye projects. One of the dyestuffs I wanted to use was an umbilicate lichen fermentation vat that had been sitting in the closet for an indeterminate length of time. Well, it was determinate. Since July 2006. I know, ridiculous. I blame my Master Weaver certificate. After so long, I figured it was time for a refresher on lichen dyeing, so I re-read Karen Diadick Casselman’s Lichen Dyes.

It is an inspiring book on several levels. I especially appreciate her guidelines on the ethics of gathering and using lichens, and her promotion of “salvage botany.” After rereading her book, I was embarrassed to realize how far I had fallen short of the Code of Ethics she outlines, and was motivated to try harder. She suggests learning to identify five species of lichen, including the Latin names, before you collect or use any. I haven’t done this.  I’m lucky to own an incredible resource, Lichens of North America by Brodo, Sharnoff and Sharnoff (a score at Raven Used Books in Northampton many years ago), so I don’t really have an excuse. Among her other recommendations, which I do follow:

“Focus your attention only on found (unattached) lichens.”

“Use for dyeing only those lichens that are conspicuously abundant.”

“Avoid using lichens to make unexceptional dye colors (e.g., beige).”

I take to heart, in particular, this admonition and astonishing, awe-inspiring fact:

“Learn to appreciate that large umbilicate lichens may be hundreds of years old. Respect these organisms as you would any other botanical specimen of mature years.”

Part Three: A Little Personal Lichen Back-story

My first lichen experiments were in 2004. I used two different types that had fallen from the trees onto a lawn on Cape Cod. With the boiling water method and no mordant on wool (Finn), one type produced a warm creamy yellow, and the other golden brown. I never did positively identify them. The one which made yellow was possibly some type of Usnea (my best guess was Usnea strigosa), the other possibly a Flavoparmelia (F. caperata?) or Rimelia (R. reticulata?).

Here are the same samples on two different color backgrounds. The sample in the center was first dyed in the yellow bath, then the golden brown one:

lichens yellow and goldlichens gold and yellowBoth lichens yielded colors that were much better than beige, but I felt like I could get these colors in other ways, so I didn’t try them again.

Some lichens make amazing colors in the magenta, red, and pink range, with an ammonia fermentation vat. It is very hard to get these colors with natural dyes, unless you use cochineal. Cochineal is not local to New England. Plus, it’s pregnant female bugs and that just makes me feel bad. So, using these special lichens seems worthwhile to me.

These awesome lichens are called umbilicates. An umbilicate lichen attaches to its substrate (what it grows on) by an umbilicus, which is like a little foot or holdfast, or an umbilical cord. I’m sorry to say that I am still not positive if I have been using Umbilicaria americana or U. mammulata, or perhaps both (apparently they often grow together).

These umbilicates are not too hard to find, if you do a lot of hiking around in the woods. They grow on steep rock faces, and where they are happy you can sometimes find tons covering the whole surface. It’s a simultaneously earthly and alien sight.

Here are some happy lichens growing on a small south-facing cliff yesterday (February 6th, 2011):

umbilicate lichen on rock

umbilicate lichen on cliffIf you tear around the edge and leave the umbilicus attached, the lichen can keep growing. My practice had been to gather infrequently and sparingly from several different spots. This was how I gathered the jar-full that had been sitting in the closet in an ammonia solution fermenting for oh so long. I have used them a few times very successfully on wool.

Here are the samples of my umbilicate dyebaths on wool, using the ammonia fermentation method that Casselman outlines in her book.

umbilicate lichen pale pink on wool

umbilicate lichen pinks on woolThe top pictures demonstrates that too much fiber will give pale colors, so don’t be greedy with umbilicate vats. This process requires a bit of discipline and restraint.  In the bottom picture, the difference in color between the samples on the right and the ones on the left is due to pH. The ones of the left were immersed in a high pH bath (not as high as the vat itself, but still very alkaline). For the ones on the right, I added vinegar as well as water to the vat solution, and got the pH down to 7. In general, higher pH (alkaline) will give more blue colors, and lower pH (acidic) will give more reds.

There’s more to come in the lichen saga, so stay tuned.



Black Walnut Dye Project

OK, I haven’t sewn a new book in a couple weeks because I have been taking advantage of the extended fall weather and have been dyeing (outdoors) with some particularly stinky and stainy dyes: weld, black walnut, and an ancient umbilicate lichen vat from 2006. Each one deserves a post of its own, so I’ll start with the black walnut.

The black walnut has been an unintended exhausting marathon. That’s a pun. “Exhausting” is what you call it when you re-use the same dyebath (or dye liquor, or ooze, depending who’s talking about it) multiple times until there is no color left. One of my on-going projects is to weave a series of rya rugs using a limited palette of yarns that I have dyed with a given quantity of plant material.

To dye the yarn for the first rug, earlier this summer I dug 5.5 lbs. of Lady’s Bedstraw roots. This quantity ended up dyeing 2lbs. 12 oz. of wool in various shades of pink, peach, apricot, salmon, and, yes, warm beige. Beige in any of its various shades is not my (or, I think, any dyer’s) favorite color. Certainly it comes in handy when you need some neutral to balance out a design. But considering all the work involved in dyeing with plants, especially when you start with the raw materials themselves, it’s not really worth it just to make beige, even warm beige. There are plenty of beige sheep. Creating beige does not inspire awe, or joy, in the dyer. It also does not impress non-dyers with the power and magic of natural dyes. Since part of my concept with this project is to demonstrate the incredible range of color that a single plant–even a single dyebath–can generate, too much beige defeats the purpose.

This year, as you may recall, was a bumper year for black walnuts around here.  I decided to commemorate the bumper black walnut year with a rya rug, even though I often joke that dyeing white wool brown is a questionable pursuit (there is probably a fairytale about the foolish girl who spent her time and energy on this…). There are plenty of brown sheep. Nevertheless, I really love noticing and celebrating the natural world around me, whether events are daily and mundane or unusual and remarkable. Being aware of and participating in the cycles of plants, especially, is one of my great joys in life, and one of the reasons I am passionate about natural dyeing. Plus, you can get an incredible range of colors from black walnut. Thus began the mega-black walnut project.

After the bedstraw experience, I decided I didn’t want as many beige skeins relative to the total quantity of yarn. So, I started with an admittedly huge amount of walnut hulls hoping for a lot of nice dark browns and not so many beiges.  OK, you can already tell at this point in the story that I was dreaming, but my vision was blocking my vision, so to speak, and I can only see that in hindsight. I started with nine and a half pounds of walnut hulls that had been soaking in buckets outside for several weeks. I usually think that boiling walnut hulls smell delicious, but these had an unpleasant “swamp” smell due to the fact that they had been decomposing in the relatively warm weather. So, this had to be an outdoors project, using the portable electric burner.

I don’t have large pots, so this whole operation is being run with small pots and small quantities. In fact, I’m thinking “Small Potatoes” may become the name of the series (assuming I ever actually weave these things). I divided the hulls between two potsblack walnut hulls and second dyebathblack walnut hulls and first dye bath and extracted the same hulls twice, creating 4 different dyebaths.




extracting black walnutwalnut hull in dyepot

When extracting the hulls you can let them boil and it won’t hurt the color, but it will make a huge mess if it boils over, so I kept a close watch. Above on the left, “a watched pot never boils.” On the right, a portion of a hull in the dyepot. Below on the left you can see the white skins being mordanted with aluminum sulfate, and on the right, the rich color of the dye bath once the hulls were strained out. black walnut dyebathmordanting yarn



Ah, turning white wool brown!

Those four original dyebaths have thus far dyed 4 pounds of wool, in successive batches of 4 ounces each, and I have yet to reach beige (I’ve gotten to tan). I have been mulling for many days now whether or not to continue. I already have plenty of wool for a rug, at least a rug of the size I initially envisioned. But I have not truly exhausted the baths. I think I could dye another pound of wool before I actually exhaust the color.

I took a hiatus from the walnut project when we had a cold snap, and my pots and buckets froze (too stinky to keep indoors). Here are hulls with frost on them (which I could even extract again, if I was crazy) and a frozen dyebath:black walnut hulls with frost

frozen black walnut dyebath




But I think I have to continue to the point of true exhaustion. A bumper walnut year calls for an epic quantity of brown yarn, and perhaps an astonishingly big rug.

Happy Fall Equinox!

Going Nuts…

This fall we are having a bumper crop of black walnuts here in Amherst. All summer I’ve been eyeing the big green spheres hanging high in the trees around town, anticipating the happy day when they would start to fall to the ground. The happy day has arrived. At the moment I have a 5 gallon bucket of hulls outside soaking, and three more full of nuts waiting to be processed.

bucket of black walnuts
Bucket of black walnuts still in the hull

Thanks to a former student of mine, I now have a quick and fun way to get the hulls off the nuts. I used to laboriously cut off the hulls with a knife. This is time consuming and a bit dangerous. The hulls are thick and tough. After once staining my hands a really ghastly shade of mottled zombie skin, I always wore thick gloves for this task. But wearing gloves makes my hands sort of clumsy, and the hulls are juicy, and the knife can get slippy…. Fortunately, about 4 years ago, one of my students invited me to collect black walnuts from his mom’s back yard. While I was there, he showed me his method for getting the hulls off: place the nuts on a cinder block and whack them with a piece of 2×4. The hulls pop right off! You can bash ’em with a brick, too.

removing black walnut hulls
Ready to bash a walnut with my 2×4. You can smash several at a time, of course.
black walnut in hull
There’s the walnut inside the hull.
black walnut separated from hull
Hull on the left, black walnut on the right.

After all this bashing, what color do you get from black walnut hulls? Various shades of brown from rich and reddish to silvery grey. I have sometimes wondered whether it is foolhardy to dye white wool brown, when there is plenty of brown wool to be had. But I find black walnuts hard to resist. They are fragrant and abundant. And forgiving; you can let them rot in a bucket for months with no harm done. I let them freeze outside over the winter, which has been bad for the buckets but no problem for the walnut hulls. Some people find them a nuisance when they’ve been littering the ground for a few days, and get all smooshed up and brown and squishy. So really, why not use them? Since I have become more interested in dyeing plant fibers over the past couple years, my new quest this fall is to get a good dark color on linen yarn. Here are some images of walnut dyed wool and linen from seasons past. I’ll keep you posted on my dark-brown-linen ambitions.

black walnut yarn drying
Brown skein on the right is black walnut on Corriedale mordanted with aluminum sulfate and cream of tartar
yarns and fleece dyed with black walnut and woad
Corriedale skein again, with black walnut exhaust on upper right (mixed breed fleece from Hampshire College Farm Center). Blues are from woad.
black walnut on wool, silk, and linen yarns
black walnut on wool and linen yarns and silk hankie

On Saturday, October 1st, I will be introducing others to the pleasures of black walnut hull-bashing, and the fragrant scent of simmering hulls, at Small Ones Farm in South Amherst. I’m hoping people get as much of a kick out of it as I do.