Promoting Natural & Cultural History
The physician and naturalist Johan Peter Westring had an interest in natural dyeing. In a historical perspective, he foremost followed in the footsteps of his former teacher Carl Linnaeus and female dyers in farming communities in Sweden. Dyeing with lichens and mosses had lengthy traditions, which Westring aimed to promote further, even if his idea to replace expensive imports with native species to benefit the economy of his home country, in many ways was not realised. In his outstanding book however, 24 lichens are meticulously described, including a great number of recipes for each plant. The variations in colour could be considerable between the individual lichens, depending on the kind of material for which they were used; the choice of mordant; the time of the year when the lichen was picked and how it was treated. The book contains beautiful hand-coloured illustrations of the lichens and the colours they could yield, according to the writer, primarily in yellow-brown, yellow-green and reddish. A unique yarn sample collection by his hand has also survived, which gives additional insight to his work with natural dyes.
Whether dyeing with lichen increased in practice to any significant extent in the Swedish provinces after Westring’s publication in 1805 is doubtful though. According to his first essay on the subject in Kungliga Vetenskaps Akademiens Handlingar (the Acts of the Royal Academy of Sciences) in 1791, he wrote: ‘It is generally known that Lichen (Moss) can dye woollens. The country people in particular know 4 to 6 species for this use…’ (p. 115). A practice, which Carl Linnaeus among others also reflected over and exemplified during provincial tours in the 1740s. However, due to the complexity of Westring’s receipts, knowledge amassed in a book like his clearly also had limited chances to reach female dyers in farming communities as well as that rules and regulations for professional dyers restricted such innovations. Reasons, which together made it unlikely that his recommendations of that native lichens had the potential to be replacements for well established imported natural dyes. His thoughts in the same essay additionally point at a wishful thinking that dye lichens could give a substantial trading profit if exported, substituting the present import of costly plants. He noted: ’Orchil, Parelle d’Auvergne and Roccelle are prepared from lichen species, and the foreigner earn much from these dyestuffs’ (p. 114).
Overall in his study of dyeing in 1805, the physician Johan Peter Westring used 1/2 pound (ca 210 g) of dye-lichen in proportion to 1 mark (ca 420 g) woollen yarn. Westrings-laf (Westring’s lichen), for example. With that it was possible to yield a beautiful greenish colour (merde d’oie) on wool and silk. He noted:
In complete accordance with Linnaeus’ observations about 60 years earlier, the physician also regarded the dye-lichen (Plate 2. Färg-laf) as of extreme significance for dyeing red and also brown. Westring demonstrated it by trying out 30 different recipes on that particular lichen, with appropriate illustrations and colour samples. One form of lichen that he did not mention, however, was the Viking dye-moss (although not by that name) and which Linnaeus noted in his journal on his way to Öland on 27 May 1745. The Viking dye-moss was commonly known as byttelet; and from Småland we are told that it was bought from the people of Västergötland and ‘…looks like a dark clay with many red blotches interspersed…’ That statement was confirmed in his journal from the Västergötland Journey of 12 July 1746 in the meticulous description of the Viking dye-moss and Linnaeus’ particular surprise that it was unknown abroad:
Pehr Kalm’s (1716-1779) account from Bohuslän of 27 July 1742 is comprehensive on the subject too of what kind of white rock lichens which agrees well with byttelet. The Viking dye-moss and other lichens gave the poorer section of the population access to a reliable red dye. That assumption is further reinforced by the fact that urine was used as a mordant, which had the added advantage of being free of charge. It is noticeable that Kalm was one of Linnaeus’ earlier students, about 30 years prior to Westring’s study years.
To brown and yellow shades, there were many suggestions in Westring’s book; the Iceland moss (Islands-laf) for instance, could yield a ‘Light brown colour on wool and a beautiful sulphurous yellow…colour on silk. ‘When the lichen is put with 2 lod [ca 27g] quicklime, 1 1/2 lod [ca 20g] sugar of lead, and 8 lod [ca 108 g] sumach, to each mark [1 mark, ca 420 g] of lichen and goods, and kept in an even warm maceration for 2 or 3 days, thus those colours will be achieved.’
Using the combination of quicklime, sugar of lead and sumach was otherwise a typical method of Westring’s for producing nuances of brown, also when using other lichens. In the same way sour small beer, old urine, common salt and pure potash were often recommended as means of obtaining the best colours. Although doubts as to the fastness and nuance of the colours may occasionally arise when one reads the recipes, there is however no mistaking Westring’s deep commitment to the potential of dyeing with lichen. During the whole of the 1790s and until the publication of the book, Westring made his results known in Kungliga Vetenskaps Akademiens Handlingar (the Acts of the Royal Academy of Sciences) of which he was a member, in a painstakingly meticulous manner. Five of the hand-coloured plates, from the book are illustrated below – without analyse – as the beauty of the plates aims to be the focus. Simultaneously to emphasise the great effort, interest, cooperation with artists, attention to detail and the dedication as he put into this publication. With a substantial number of experiment for each description. It is noticeable too, that imported indigo was repeatedly included as one of the dyestuffs in combination with various lichen species, when he tried to achieve true blue colours. Local, national and global influences were intertwined, even if the main dyes, the lichen were native species in Sweden.
The general idea over the 18th century was also to the encourage the development potential for the country’s mercantile economy, which for instance included to make use of as many native species as possible for dyeing of yarn and cloth, which was regarded to improve conditions for the country as well as for its inhabitants. However, from the perspective of professional dyers at the time, the mercantile idea of self-sufficiency in dyes was partly contradictory, given their strict regulatory system. They preferred durable imported dyes like indigo, woad and madder to the obtain the desirable blue, green and red colours, but to some extent this obstructed the introduction of “new” native dye-plants, while at the same time that was the wish of the State. The textile manufacturer Jonas Alström’s (1685-1761) storehouses came to be particularly well documented by Carl Linnaeus during his provincial tour to in 1746. In his journal on 7 July, he noted a wide selection of imported dyes, such as:
The dependence of durable dyes via long-lasting trade routes and import were deeply rooted traditions, often stretching centuries back in time, and seen as necessary goods from the dye manufacturers’ angle. Among other reasons, they often had to obtain exact nuances after their customers’ wishes and preferably dye truly durable colours. Just as fashionable cosmopolitan influences overall were hard to restrict in Sweden despite all rules and complex regulations. When it concerned import of dyes from the mid-18th century and over the next one hundred years – cochineal red became the most popular, which gave “new” striking and fashionable shades of scarlet red, purple and pink.
A few concluding reflections of natural dyeing in Sweden.
Just as in the case of other literature on the subject, the readership was limited, although the people with a basic ability to read were relatively numerous in Sweden in the 18th- and early 19th century, yet most of the amateur dyers simply could not afford to buy books. Whilst, as late as the 1870s, many of the old methods still survived even at the dye-works, which Linnaeus and contemporary books on textile dyeing had advocated more than hundred years earlier, alongside the new synthetic aniline (from 1856), which was becoming more and more popular. Wool was still at that time regularly dyed with the aid of natural substances: red with cochineal and common madder; bottle green with yellow-wood and steeping in blue-dye-vats; blue with indigo, and coffee brown with yellow-wood, common madder and sandalwood.
Dyeing with native plants was not without its problems in Linnaeus’ and Westring’s days, which can be seen in many notes and comments on the subject. Trying to reconstruct plant dyeing today, according to the principles of that time can occasion its own different problems too. Sweden has a unique public right of access, so-called “allemansrätt", inscribed in the country’s constitution, which with some exceptions allows for the picking of herbs, leaves, lichen and bark. Importantly, the dyer must first of all make sure that plants are gathered with great care; plants which flourished in profusion in the period 1740s to 1840s may well be rare today and therefore protected. And it is not permitted to de-bark trees, other than if one has access to a forest or garden of one’s own. Environmental impact, however, is chiefly evident in the presence of lichens, which were much more abundant before the emergence of industrialisation.