Lichen, textiles & my goal – Part 1 Experimenting

Lichen, textiles & my goal – Part 1 Experimenting

I’m enchanted by lichen. Also, by moss, fungi and forest floor wonders, although to a slightly lesser degree. Sit quietly next to a tree, some old wood, weather-worn stone or metal and look….really look…… can easily be transported into a micro magical world of different shapes, texture and growth patterns, not to mention the incredible subtlety of colours.


Close up of moss & lichen on wooden garden bench
Close up of moss & lichen on wooden garden bench

Just as we have omnivores, vegetarians and vegans etc, curly hair, straight hair or….no hair 😉, in the lichen world there are 3 main types – foliose, fruticose and crustose. The last two are almost self-explanatory – fruticose, bearing fruiting bodies whilst crustose is….well, crusty! This is an extreme simplification….so any lichenologists reading this (yes, I learnt there are such specialists, along with funginerds or funginuts), please – don’t shout at your screen!  

Common orange lichen, Xanthoria parietina
Common orange lichen, Xanthoria parietina

Why do I love them?

Lichens are our pioneers. Generally, they are the first to settle anywhere, growing in so many different substrates and habitats including in some of our planet’s most extreme conditions (artic tundra, mountains, hot deserts, after fire destruction, even toxic environments) some even grow inside solid rock (!!!) and they cover about 7% of our planet’s surface.

Six lichen photos  by Richard Droker
Six lichen photos by Richard Droker

Lichens are symbiotic so if they live on a plant, they only use it as a base rather than stealing nutrients. They can be used for food, dyes, and medicine and, due to their long life-span and slow regular growth (the world’s oldest living organism, Rhizocarpon geographicum, ‘map lichen’ is thought to be 8,600 years old) some lichen species are used as a means of telling the age of rocks. The oldest lichen fossil dates from about 400 million years ago. Generally, growth is extremely slow, with most crustose lichen growing only 1-2mm in diameter per year! There are about 20,000 known species and can be regarded as self-contained miniature eco-systems that often thrive in communities.

Wow – as humans we should be learning so very much.

Colours, depending on special pigments, can vary from reds, oranges, yellows and browns or bright green to olive grey and black. Then there is another whole overlay of colour depending on whether the lichen is wet or dry.

Four Lichen photos by Richard Droker
Four Lichen photos by Richard Droker

I’ve been fascinated for years with the amazing beauty of lichens and thought I’d finally do something about it.

So, I’m currently working on a personal project – translating what I see, and perhaps feel, into mixed media/textile creations. There are so many extremely talented artists, worldwide, who are recreating realistic representations particularly in textiles (Amanda Cobett is one such artist), that I’d fail miserably if I went down that route.

Sketches of interesting patterns from lichen etc
My sketches of interesting patterns from lichen etc

My goal is to ‘see’ either from life or research online photos (Richard Droker, above, is just one of the many amazing photographers worldwide) and interpret my findings using what I have to hand around me. At this point I need to add, that I’m a firm believer in the Spirit of Mottainai – the idea of respecting resources and not wasting them.

View down one side only of a wool shop in Germany, with shelves stacked full of so many wonderful yarns
View down one side only of a wool shop in Germany, with shelves stacked full of so many wonderful yarns

Yes, I will buy new supplies (I’m always being seduced by luscious yarns – who isn’t! – as evidenced by a recent trip to Germany), but I also want to repurpose and re-use where possible. I simply couldn’t throw out an extremely, seriously (you get the message!), wear-challenged sofa cover….it offered far too much potential. We won’t talk about where it will be stored!!!

Worn, thready, fabric stiched onto a contrast fabric snippet
Worn, thready, fabric stiched onto a contrast fabric snippet

I want simply to evoke the magical landscapes I see. Mmmm….’evoking’,’ Mottainai’, ‘re-purposing’….I didn’t set out to write a mission statement….😜

My poor EPH (Ever patient husband) dare not throw anything out. I often see a clutter of spent, used items (garbage in other words), on the kitchen work surface….

’What the devil?’

’I didn’t know if you needed them?’

Guaranteed the one item he does throw away was the very item I particularly wanted! Oh yes, my hairdresser, shop keeper and even our car mechanic haven’t escaped unscathed!

Bags & bags of experiments, all stored in boxes.
Bags & bags of experiments, all stored in boxes.

My experiments involve sewing both by machine and hand, crocheting (I dislike knitting intensely), ironing, printing, playing with liquids for chromatography, burning (many methods & always next to the sink – I value my house too much!), bending metal, soldering….in other words – I’ve been wracking my brain for every technique I’ve ever used….over very many decades!

I’ve also, mischievously (there’s always one!), taken the opportunity during our local textile group’s workshops to further my exploits.

Some experiments fall in line with Thomas A Edison’s theory – “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.

Wool & carded wool tops needle felted together not a good result
Wool & carded wool tops needle felted together – not a good result

Having studied a great many lichens online, I tend to see something destined for the bin & then think ‘ah ha – that reminds me of….’

So herewith a few other experiments to date….

I also need to explain at this point that whilst I do have patience, I like the creation of individual elements to be the most effective and speediest….for me!!!! This involves challenging myself to find an easier method to achieve the same result – ie trying to create 3D mounds to represent moss, I tried several old techniques including velvet stitch and Victorian tufting, but my patience was not of the centennial variety. So, I thought long and hard and devised a method using the sewing machine and hand stitching. EPH reckons I only need a few more to make our new carpet!

The challenge also includes remembering to keep detailed notes 😉

Notes & samples of experiments
Notes & samples of experiments

All I need now is ‘time’ to put my experiments to good use….it is on my wish list!

I hope the next time you look at any lichen you will delve below the surface. Let us know of your findings.

39 thoughts on “Lichen, textiles & my goal – Part 1 Experimenting

  1. Wow, What a fascinating post, I, like you, have always loved lichen, fungus, barks, stones etc,etc, and have saved them mainly for reference when painting them or making things to look like them out of felt, wool ,silk, paper etc. I also have pieces of bark or sticks that have fascinating structures displayed around every nook and cranny, basically anywhere there is a free space to put them. Nature and all its structures are fascinating to my eye, and I find something nearly every day that brings inspiration in one form or another to be creative. I found your use of plastics inventive and although I’m a bit of a purist and wouldn’t use this material myself, you have done wonders in forming your shapes with it and I can see that it has a use as such in art forms .I have so enjoyed your post and hope you continue to create little masterpieces and add them on here. p.s. I also encourage moss to grow in pots in my garden as I like the feel of it almost fur-like to the touch. Veronica

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post Veronica. It sounds very much as though we have similar houses & no doubt similar storage problems, for all our amazingly wonderful finds!
      Sometimes photos are the only answer….I received some very strange looks yesterday – I was photographing the old stone paving outside of a Victorian warehouse – the patterns were just too good not to record!

      I can understand your sentiment of purity & for a long time wanted only the ‘natural’, but now, with my advancing years, I see Mottainai as ever more important.

  2. Gorgeous experiments, Antje. I jumped from photo to photo exclaiming “ooh, I like that one”, “ooh, those are fabulous” and so on at every new sample. You’ve got masses of wonderful techniques. It feels like you’re building towards a whole exhibition of pieces, which would be fantastic. If you get to that point then I will be climbing onto the first train to Yorkshire to see it. Looking forward to seeing what happens next.

    1. Oh, you are wonderful.

      I have soooo many experiments & samples & just last night created a whole new layer of samples from the above milk containers, that I could create a solo museum type room display no problem.

      I also have soooo many creative ideas, using the individual elements, leaping into my head….I just need….time! Oh, and space!!!

  3. Thank you Jane.
    Thus far I’ve explored, almost exhaustively, every technique I’ve ever used with various materials….then I suddenly get a ‘WI’ (what if) moment such as the milk bottle above.

    I’ve already created a couple of finished textile pieces (my next post) but will continue experimenting & hunting for interesting materials.

  4. Cor! That was fascinating Antji. I have loved lichens for years and can spend ages just looking. I haven’t been able to bring myself to use any in dyeing, although I’m fascinated by the colours that can be achieved. I just can’t bear the thought of killing something, especially that old, just for my own pleasure.
    I had to look up Chromatology and I’ve just climbed out of the rabbit hole with all sorts of ideas in my head for using that, especially as you can do it without special paper apparently – coffee filters, kitchen towels and Kemtex Reactive dyes. These dyes do anyway separate into component pigments on silk and wool (I think – it’s years since I’ve done any of this) and now I’m wondering – how about on felt and fabrics for Nuno?
    As if I need to add to my list of things to do. Thank you Antji!

  5. Wow Antje! Fabulous post! Annie and I are always fascinated by lichen – it’s a texture and colour thing.
    Loved your experiments and ‘what if’ is the only way to go! Looking forward to part 2.
    The wool shop looks like a place to stay the weekend 🙂

    1. Thank you.
      You would definitely both want to stay the weekend!

      Lichen, fungi, moss et al, I think intrigues so many of us in all formats of creative endeavours….some just take longer!

  6. thanks Ann.
    I’m not sure I should be pleased I’ve added to your to do list 🤪

    Chromatography is something so many of us have done over the years & due to an accident with some liquid I rediscovered it again with some very interesting results.

    I’m aware of being able to dye with lichen, although I’ve not yet tried it….a rabbit hole I’m avoiding. Any lichen I gather is always waste from the ground, so it is useful to know their preferred habitats.

    1. I’m definitely going to have a go with the Kemtex Reactive Dyes, now I’ve remembered that they work on cotton and silk, not wool – so plenty of scope for Nuno abstracts. I’ve already moved this to the top (nearly) of my to do list.

  7. Sorry folks….every time I try to send a reply to someone, another comment has come in, so my reply is then in the wrong slot.

  8. Absolutely lovely post – I, too, am a moss and lichen lover! Wish I had your freedom of time to experiment as well as you do!

    1. I’m glad my post has met with so many lichen & moss fans amongst us….maybe we should start a club!

      In my evening ‘zone-out’ time (usually in front of the TV) I sit on the sofa with a tray on my lap & ‘fiddle’, either cutting, wrapping or stitching etc. When I can at the end of a busy day or some task/chore (ie ironing) I snatch a few moments & allow myself to undertake the experimental aspect of my samples. Real time – like hours – doesn’t exist at the moment 😢, so I keep creating the elements I will eventually use.

      We should all strive for a better work-life balance Nancy 😇

  9. Fabulous post, Antje! I loved your experiments and each photograph made me want to see more. Thanks for all the detail.

    I noticed you never mentioned lichen as a dye. I went to my guild’s monthly meeting once, and the talk was about lichen – the lady was adamant we needed to stop picking up lichen, because it was now endangered, not being able to regenerate itself at the rate we were using it to dye fibres… I didn’t even know about lichen’s properties, but now I see them as very precious entities! Does this count as Spirit of Mottanai? (And thanks for teaching me about this expression, I love it!)

    Have you heard of the artist Vanessa Barragão? She makes these large wall hangings in wool and yarn which resemble forrest floors to me, a lot of it is very lichen-like 🙂

    Also: I’ll need to see your new carpet when it’s done 😀

    1. Mottainai is right up your street Leonor, along with Kintsugi I’m sure.

      These days, if I collect any lichen it is usually where it is likely to be trampled or otherwise destroyed, but I agree we all need to be careful collecting any of Mother Nature’s wonders.

      I am familiar with Vanessa’s work, it is incredible and she has gone from creating small domestic pieces to huge installations. I’ve already taken over too many rooms in our house just to produce my small works….I would definitely need to consider a warehouse for anything large….
      Including the carpet 🤪

      BTW – I’ve recently had a bee in my bonnet – to check out manually operated hand tufting machines!

  10. Wonderful post Antje! I loved seeing all your experiments and photos. Your exploration is extensive and I can see you’re having fun with it. I’m looking forward to part 2!

  11. Thank you Ruth.
    The photos above have barely tickled the surface of my explorations….but you know that yourself all too well with your work!

    The subject certainly seems to have some supporters….food for thought for a challenge!

  12. This post is just so inspiring, Antje! I truly loved it and your experiments. I would love to see them as installation per se, they would surely cover several walls in the most magnificent way. It is very interesting to see all the materials you are reusing and repurposing, and the great effects that you can get from them.

    1. Caterina thank you.
      As I’ve already mentioned, this post shows only a tiny fraction of my experimental hoard. I’m delighted that you & others have found the samples of interest.

  13. I absolutely loved this post Antje! The images you used are wonderful and being someone who could happily spend all day looking at lichen I think I may be teetering in being a fungi nerd too!
    Who knew you had created such a large collection of lichen samples? Those scrunched and filled plastic bag samples are very interesting, and I like your set of samples made by wrapping plastic donut shapes with yarn. They all look great and I can’t wait to see the pieces you’ve created for Part Two.

  14. Karen it takes one to know one….thank you for comments re the samples. We both know how long such pieces take to create.

    What I’ve found with my experimenting is that not all ‘similar’ materials behave alike….for example the best scrunched bags you like, were achieved with really cheap bags off a market vendor (all used & cleaned!) into which I added chopped left over threads etc. Annoyingly just when I think I’ve got something right the manufacturer changes the packaging ☹️😤

    With all the comments above I’d best get on with prepping for part 2.

  15. Wow, can really see your interest in lichen! Thanks for all the photos. So interesting to see your process as you explore the possibilities with different materials and how you manipulate them to achieve the look you are looking for. Enjoyed seeing s
    Photos next to your pieces. They are all wonderful and seem to capture the essence. Great notes as well and liked the Edison quote. I can see these assembled on their “host” (base) to finish them.

  16. Thank you Cindy.
    I’m glad you liked seeing my explorations & how each different lichen pushes me to experiment further. I don’t think I’ll match them all….there are over 20,000 different ones 🤪

  17. Great post. Your experiments are fascinating. Lichen are so cool. I lean towards mass my self. we get a lot of the olive drab lichen on old wood around here. It seems to be one of the faster growing kind. I do know lichen is endangered here as well. I think plastic is ok to use especially if it was just heading for the dump/tip. I am looking forward to part 2

  18. Mosses are cool too & like lichen they have different growth patterns/structures, that I’ve seen….but I don’t go out in all weathers looking for any of them, online is so much easier 🤪

    That said the ones that are around me, I do get up very close & personal with….just amazing. Maybe your drab lichen will surprise you too with its micro world.

    I’m glad you understand my use of plastic, at least I am trying in my own way to reduce items for landfill.

    1. I think the more plastic and other waste stuff we can make use of in artwork the better. Some people who object to the RE-use of plastic bags etc., just don’t use their heads. We have an annual sale of donated fabrics to raise funds for our local community/arts building and one of the attractions is “fill a bag for a £5”. We were given around a thousand + polythene carriers by our local Co-op before they were banned and are still working through them. Now people are objecting to us handing them out for this purpose. What do they want us to do – just send them straight to landfill now and buy some paper bags – how many trees are we to have cut down for this? Grrr!
      Rant over – Ann

  19. Thank you Anaya. I hope my experiments will inspire you for your own creations. Keep reading forth coming posts as they cover many topics and are all fascinating.

  20. I have endeavoured to post my response to your wonderful post twice on my phone Antje, and on both occasions the gremlins obviously did not like what I wrote and kicked me out halfway through! Only getting round to turning on my laptop now.

    What a awe-inspiring post. You have just taught me so much about the lovely lichen, dear teacher. My trip around the garden will never be the same again.

    There could be a publication in your experiments Antje.

    What ingenious use of recyclable materials (your hairdresser must love you dearly too). These results are very special and I suspect are sparking even more of those little grey cells with their boundless possibilities.

    I will be following with interest. But next time I will use my laptop and come back to you quicker my dear.
    Helene x

  21. Oh Helene….your persistence is exemplary…xxx

    You got it in one – my mind just keeps seeing possibilities & having started with the milk containers a few days before my post, I have since increased the array of what I can achieve out of the, otherwise to be thrown, plastic!

    The only downside to anything like this is the time each individual element takes….but then that is so true of any of our textile endeavours. An entirely different debate – why are skilful textile works not valued so much as painting etc?

    I’m sure folk look at me with sympathy….’oh, the poor dear!’ As I’m always stopping & studying & photographing in strange places. Two days ago I went into a neighbours garden & just had to turn away to photograph something in her tree….I was still listening to her, I promise. Or, seeing a lichen on a busy city footpath & trying to clear all the passing feet out of the way for me to snap it in it’s glory!!! Yep poor old dear!

    Sometimes you do need to get up close & personal to the lichen so forgive me in advance if you develop sore knees 🤪

    1. You have established yourself as one of the characters in your village Antje. Visitors are stopped in the street by other locals who say things like ‘see that beautiful looking lady, well she’s our resident artist’ followed by ‘don’t mind that, she’s in her creative mode’. heading out to check on me lichens now…. will have to get past the squirrel first. x

  22. I have come across this post after desperately trying to find ways of making lichen effects for my multimedia work. My husband is a wildlife photographer and his photos of birds this spring included masses of different types of lichen. The birds are easy to ‘paint’ with embroidery but the twigs and lichen are driving me nuts. Thank you for this. I’m following avidly 😁

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