Anglo-Saxon dyes – lichen purple

Lichens of the species Ochrolechia and Umbilicaria give beautiful brilliant purple and red shades when treated in stale urine or a solution of water and ammonia and no mordant is required for these dyes. This purple colour seems to have been used relatively rarely by the Anglo-Saxons, probably because the lichens needed to produce it only occur in restricted regions of Britain, mainly in the North and West in hilly areas or rocky, coastal districts

Analysis of the dyes used in textiles from the early Anglo-Saxon period shows that purples from lichens were used in embroidery, narrow woven bands and accessories, such as bags and headdresses, rather than to dye larger fabrics. Bearing in mind the scarcity of purple-producing lichens in southern and eastern England, this is perhaps not surprising.



This photo gives some indication of the beautiful purples available from lichens but does not do justice to the brilliance of these colours, which sadly are not very lightfast.




I do not recommend using lichens for dyeing, except in very small test dyebaths, as lichens grow very slowly and may take a long time to regenerate. Lichens should never be harvested indiscriminately and some may be protected species and should never be gathered. It is very important to be sure you have correctly identified each lichen before even considering collecting any. However, even a small piece of lichen the size of a large coin can yield enough purple dye for most test purposes.

Purple-producing lichens are prepared by soaking them in stale urine or in a solution of 2 parts water to 1 part ammonia. Use a strong glass jar with a  well-fitting lid and shake or stir the solution every day. It can take several weeks for the purple colour to develop. When the solution is a rich purple in colour, strain off the liquid into a dye pot and add the fibres to be dyed, plus more water if necessary. If you have used ammonia, make sure not to inhale any of the rather unpleasant fumes. (Stale urine can be equally unpleasant, of course!) Then heat the solution gently to simmering point and simmer gently for about 30 minutes. Take great care when heating the solution, as ammonia can catch fire very easily. Then allow the fibres to steep in the solution overnight. Then remove the fibres, squeeze the excess liquid back into the pot and re-use the solution until it is exhausted.

If the dyed fibres are steeped in an acidic modifier (for example in a solution of clear vinegar and water) they will become redder in tone. Using an alkaline modifier, such as wood-ash-water, will make the fibres more purple in tone.

The 4th skein from the left in the photo below shows some of the variations from acid and alkaline modifiers.




7 replies
  1. Linda at Circular Needles
    Linda at Circular Needles says:

    Jenny, you are such a treasure trove of information!  I had no idea that lichens were so scarce in the UK.  In my little corner of the world, they seem to flourish everywhere.
    Recently, I viewed a news program about a lichen problem at Mount Rushmore.  It seems as though the lichens have taken over and are eroding the underlying granite.  The government is funding an ongoing cleaning effort to keep the lichens under control.  Perhaps I should make a trip to South Dakota to harvest a bit before they are all scrubbed away.
    Your colors are beautiful – as always!

  2. Linda at Circular Needles
    Linda at Circular Needles says:

    Sorry for the second post.  I forgot to ask this question in the last one.  Do you think that the scarcity of lichens gave rise to the association of the color purple with royalty?  If purple-colored yarns and threads were so rare, then perhaps only the wealthiest members of a society would be able to possess them?  Just curious.

    • says:

      I think the association of the colour purple with royalty arose from the use of Tyrian or Imperial purple, which came from shellfish, rather than from any connection with lichen purple. The purple dye from shellfish was used to dye the clothing of Roman emperors & this colour was reserved for such high-ranking individuals. I believe that lichen purple was sometimes used together with Tyrian purple, to eke out the precious shellfish dye.

  3. Chris
    Chris says:

    I did some experiments with orchil purple lo, these many years ago and wrote a paper that you or others might find of interest:

    I did a fair amount of background reading for this, and found that orchil purple was sometimes used as part of formulas either to imitate or to "stretch" supplies of Tyrian purple. Orchil does produce lovely shades — including a brilliant hot pink! — and it's too bad it's not more colorfast.

    • says:

      Thanks for this link, Chris. I have also read that lichen purple was sometimes used to “stretch” the precious Tyrian purple.

  4. Louisa
    Louisa says:

    I have a question – when you say "well-fitting lid" on your jar, do you mean sealed or allowing some small amount of air to get in? If you open the jar to stir it, obviously air can get in but not necessarily if you just shake it daily. I know it can make a huge difference!

    • says:

      The well-fitting lid keeps the odour enclosed & prevents fumes from escaping. But I do not completely seal the jar, which will probably contain some air – & therefore oxygen – anyway if it’s not filled right up to the top. Some dyers stir the mixture regularly but I have always just shaken it at regular intervals – every day or so – & found this method to work perfectly well. Other dyers may use different methods but I can only offer my own experiences. I have read that some dye chemists believe the mixture requires the regular introduction of oxygen by opening the jar & stirring but I have not personally found this to be the case. In earlier recipes, such as those recorded in Scotland in the 18th & 19th centuries, the mixture is kept “well stoppered from air”, so earlier dyers did not open the jar & stir to deliberately introduce oxygen. Su Grierson in her book “The Colour Cauldron” has excellent sections on dyeing with lichens & she comments that she has achieved similarly good results using either method. So the choice is up to each dyer.

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