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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

A book review and Summary by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD
Lichen Dyes: The New Source Book
written by Karen Diadick Casselman

Lichen Dyes: The New Source Book
by Karen Diadick Casselman
New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, Copyright © 2001, Dover Pub., Mineola, NY

This is a revised 2nd edition of Karen’s book first published in 1996 (40% of the text has been revised) by StudioVista Publications, Nova Scotia, Canada. 82 pp. softcover, 
ISBN 0-486-41231-8

Researcher and dyer Karen Casselman is from Nova Scotia. She teaches ethical and ecological lichen dyeing internationally. She says, “To use lichens is to explore the point where craft and material culture intersect science and natural history.” 

Lichens are interesting plants composed of fungi and algae and can be mistaken for splotches of paint on rocks and branches. They have been used to dye brilliant colors for over 4,000 years. There are many types of lichen, of which there are many kinds geographically-related to their type. 

Casselman believes in finding lichens instead of harvesting them. They can be partially removed without killing and unbalancing the ecological system. Salvage botany is the term she uses to describe the use of found lichens that have become detached naturally, or those that are attached to roofs, cemetery stones, firewood and other places where human activity puts them at risk. When attached lichen are found, she recommends not detaching the whole thing, but 9/10s of it, so it can continue to grow. This is a primary purpose of her book.

This book used more than 300 references to gather information for beginning and experienced dyers, textile writers, historians and teachers. The author goes into detail on lichens growing indigenously in countries in northern Europe, the British Isles, Scandinavia, and the US primarily.

The first documented use of lichen dyes in colonial America was in PA, where the ammonia method of dying (with urine) was used to produce a red dye. Casselman states there is scant information on the practice of home dyeing in early America. Most professional dyers were trained in Europe until about 1850, but they used local lichens. Dyestuffs were an enormously profitable business for them to export from here. Botanists were sent to North America as “economic spies” to find and gather valuable dye plants to take back to Europe.

There are three ways to prepare lichens for dyeing, and the method determines the color produced. Casselman offers a detailed list of over 100 common species worldwide that give reliable dyes. Also, there are details on the pre- and post-preparations of the cloth and drying, which she says are also important in determining the color the dyer ends up with in the end. Even the metal of the utensils used for mixing and soaking add to the ultimate color. These she refers to as, “alternative mordants.” The three methods she considers safe to the ecology are:

1) Boiling Water Method (BWM) produces yellow, orange, ochre, russet, brown, copper, bronze olive and true green. In the BWM, the lichens are layered in an iron pan with wool and water to soak. They are alternately boiled for an hour and cooled until the desired color is achieved.

2) Ammonia Method (AM) uses household strength ammonia to produce mauve, violet, red, rose, magenta and purple. Window cleaner with ammonia is a good substitute strength. Ammonia replaced the use of urine in the dye process of old.

3) Photo-Oxidized Method (POD) produces blue (ammonia is used here too).

Lichens will dye natural fibers of all kinds, such as reeds and synthetic fibers, plastic buttons, and animal hides. They can be used to overdye commercially-produced fabrics.

Lichens gave us (Roman) murex, also called Tyrian purple or royal purple. Fluid from the hypobranchial sac of a mollusk was combined with water and salt and left standing a few days before using. The color coverage was inconsistent, as little fluid can be obtained in one mollusk gland. Therefore, it was a scarce and expensive dye. (Florentine) Orchil, another purple dye, may be used as an overdye to even out the color. (My teachings tell that the reason purple became the color for royalty to wear is precisely because of the scarcity of the color, via this method in ancient cities.)

The most interesting chapter to me is on “Eco Dyes and Alternative Mordants.” This author is concerned with maintaining the environmental balance. Eco dyes refers to her philosophy which prevents problems that must later be solved. For example, if the dyer doesn’t use the chemical mordants associated with natural dyes, there would be no disposal problems. Lichens contain acids that are dye precursors. Lichens are substantive dyes, therefore do not require a mordant. Salt, vinegar and ammonia increase dye uptake, vary the color, and improve fastness. She refers to these as alternative mordants. Solar dying is another alternative.

Other mordant properties can be obtained from using tin sheets (not can tins, as these are made from alloy), steel wool, scrap metal, and copper pipes. Casselman does not use chrome mordant due to its health risks.

Lichens of little or no color can be used as a mordant. These are the weedy or common species. In North America they are called Hypogymnia, Platismatia and Usnea Genera.

Lichens are used for other purposes today, too. For example, Lichens are used in shampoos, perfume, underarm deodorant and Henna; they add flavor and color and texture to bread; Saudi Arabia, Japan and India consider it a food condiment and use it as a dye for rice and grain dishes; and they are used in homeopathic products in the US. Casselman describes a wreath of lichens made by Martha Stewart.

Her last chapter is on ethics and lichen identification. She offers an extensive annotated bibliography and short glossary. There are very few pictures, but a list of published sources to view pictures of the various types is included. She tells us that there is no list of the etymology of vernacular names for lichen dyes, as each country will give the dye a name, so that there is no consistency from country to country. But she provides charts of each countries name and resulting color from each type of lichen.

Although I am not a person who dyes fabric, this book seems detailed and specific enough to use the fiber preparation and dye methods, 'after dye' techniques and alternative mordant suggestions that Casselman puts forth. She makes it sound easy and fun and shares tricks to improve the outcome. It is interesting to read about the history of dyeing with lichens in different countries, with very little centered on the US. It seems this book would be interesting to beginners and seasoned dyers.


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© 2001 - 2015 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted. Phone: 805-649-182

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