Wolf Lichen, a traditional Sinixt dye.
In 2017 I received a grant from the Columbia Kootenay Cultural Alliance to research the traditional dye and textile plants used by the First Nations of the Columbia Basin area. Please see previous post Oregon Grape, a traditional Sinixt dye for more details on this project.
Wolf Lichen (Letharia Vulpina) is another source of incredibly bright dye in the traditional Sinixt color palette. Marilyn and Taress warned me to be careful with this dye material as it is quite poisonous if ingested. Having grown up in the mountains of Southern BC, I recognized this stunningly bright lichen that forms on trees in the area. I had always admired the almost neon quality of the color this lichen possesses, but had never considered it as a dye source.
Natural dyes are always best when harvested at their peak and by the time I had my interview with Marilyn and Taress it was already Fall. Due to the rapidly changing season, I was in a hurry to get harvesting. Despite my best efforts and several hikes later, winter was setting in and I still had not managed to find any wolf lichen for my dye pot.
Upon further research, I discovered that wolf lichen doesn’t die off in the winter months…it simply goes dormant until the weather warms up and then it resumes photosynthesis. Eager to experiment with this dye I resumed my forging and I finally found a few clumps of it on a stand of trees while cross-country skiing. I harvested a pocket full and hurried home to cook it into a dye bath.
Marilyn had cautioned me not to overcook it as the color would be compromised by too much heat, so I heated it very slowly with water on the stove (windows open in December due to fear of the poison warning!) The smell while cooking was absolutely lovely, sort of earthy and spicy.
The color began appearing in the water almost immediately…a pale and icy chartreuse that the camera couldn’t quite register. After a 30 minute heating the lichen had lost most of its chartreuse green color and looked more yellow, while the water had taken on the brilliant green hue. The dye bath was still quite pale so I decided to add my small fabric samples and leave it all in the pot to soak overnight. Next morning the dye bath was almost completely exhausted and the fabrics had absorbed the dye beautifully!
I would consider this to be a weak dye (though the colour is brilliant) as a pocket full of lichen only dyed a few small fabric samples. Since the lichen was harvested in winter there is the possibility that it wasn’t as strong as it usually would be if harvested in the Spring/Summer months.
I wanted to experiment further with this dye right away. I needed to get more lichen so I could test other textiles and yarns and see if different harvest elevations/times of year would affect the colour outcomes. My sweet husband offered to look out for some while working in the mountains. He found loads of it!!
Wolf Lichen harvesting in February @baldfacelodge, 6,750+ feet above sea level. I think that I wasn't quite hiking to a high enough elevation when foraging for it the previous fall- made note of that in my research journal so I can find more this spring to experiment with again!
Harvesting shenanigans! Photo: Will Forte
I cooked up a pot of dye with the new wolf lichen and was again pleased with the outcome. I tried various yarns and knit up a sample using wool from a local farm. The colour from this dye pot was more yellow and warm toned than the previous one. The yarn still holds that lovely earthy, spicy smell from the wolf lichen:)
I recently met again with Marilyn and Taress to show them the results of my experiments so far and ask a few more questions. They were impressed with the colours I had achieved and we discussed the Sinixt baskets that are on display at the Touchstones Museum in Nelson, BC. The bright colours in these baskets are from Lichen and Oregon Grape root dyes and are still very bright to this day some 200 years after they were made! I will be headed to the museum very soon to appreciate the colours in those baskets and admire the dye skills of the Sinixt women who made them.
Marilyn and Taress also told me about a new project they had been working on and were about to release. Not Extinct-Keeping The Sinixt Way is a beautiful book filled with Sinixt stories and accompanying artwork by local Indigenous and settler artists. Keeping true to the tradition of oral history to pass these stories from generation to generation, they have also released the audio recordings of these storytelling’s to go along with the book. At our interview, Marilyn had told me the story of Coyote and Buffalo when I asked about the hides and leathers that the Sinixt used…it was very entertaining and often had me laughing at the antics of the trickster Coyote. Please check out the following links for more on the book and podcasts/radio shows…
*Special thanks to storytellers and knowledge keepers Marilyn James and Taress Alexis for their generous sharing of traditional Sinixt knowledge.
*As always when wild harvesting dyes only take 10% of plants/berries/lichen/barks from one area. This allows what is left to multiply and generate more healthy plants for future collecting and continued biodiversity. It also leaves our woodland creatures adequate access to food and shelter sources.