top of page


Judy had worked with only a few plants and one lichen in Newfoundland before moving to Spence Bay. The words of a botanist, “You will never obtain dyes from this environment!”, as he departed on the plane she arrived on, left her feeling discouraged.  But hope springs eternal and when her children brought her beautiful purple saxifrage from a rocky ridge in the early summer, she tried it for dye and was stunned by the intensity of colour.  The snow eventually left the landscape even though it turned out to be the coldest summer in 50 years.  With the curiosity and assistance of local children, Judy found patches of different plants located around Spence Bay and tried them for dye.  Residents followed the progress with interest, noting the results of the plants that had been tried and then bringing her other kinds of plants not available close to Spence Bay – from their fishing camps and travels on the land.  The McGrath home became a lab and the family had to search for dinner among the dye pots and postpone baths due to skeins of yarn soaking in the bathtub.  When the first craft project started up in the fall of 1972, the dyed yarns from the summer were made available to the participants. Their unique, experimental adaptations in softly textured blanket weight wool duffle combined very well with the natural colours from the land.  Artist Eeteemunga ᐃᑎᒪᖕᓇᖅ began using them for her embroidered hangings and one day added a fuzzy marsh to a hanging.  She showed Judy how she had picked apart the yarn, reducing it to fleece, laid it on the duffle hanging and proceeded to anchor it with stitches of complementary yarn.  Judy had also dyed fleece along with yarn all summer but hadn’t seen an application for its use until she presented it to a delighted Eeteemunga.  Soon all of Eeteemunga’s hangings, toys, vests and life size caribou and seal were entirely covered with this beautiful blend of naturally dyed fleece and yarn, a style uniquely her own.






















With training funding in place for a summer of plant and lichen collecting and drying, and the winter for dyeing yarn, the 24/7 principle was once again applied so that the old and new ways could be more compatible. With uluit, scrapers and pocketknives in hand, aided by 24-hour daylight, participants could camp, fish and seal hunt while sharing their plant and lichen collecting and drying hours with other camp members if they wished.  From town, they could take their children along for the day to play endlessly on the tundra and help with collecting, providing also a means for the children to make some pocket money. The importance and independence of this to the children was recalled even 50 years later by several of the grown children who are now grandparents.  Nearby groups came together for tea breaks, enjoying the gatherings as much as in the days past. 











Fortunately, there is a unique aspect of Arctic plants that intensifies their colours, perhaps it is the 24-hour sunlight and short, intense growing season.  A small paper bag of Arctic poppy flowers dyed 19 ounces of yarn, the tiny Mountain Aven yielded intense colour at all stages of growth, and it actually tested positive for fluorescent.  Generally speaking, one in twenty-five lichens will produce purple, pink or red dye; however, in Spence Bay we found about one in six produced such colours, including an unprecedented blue.  As new plants or lichens were collected, they would be tested, and the colour discussed among the women to determine if more of it should be collected.  All of the quantity dyeing was done during the long, dark winter months, simmering on the stove, while participants worked on their crafts and cherished happy memories the plant and lichen aromas brought back to them. 


The natural dye work was featured in the 1973 publication NWT Annual Report: People and the Environment and highlighted through an exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre and a travelling exhibit to many Ontario libraries.

“I could pick flowers for dyes all summer.  Even if I didn’t like the colours, I would like to pick flowers and plants because it’s the most fun we’ve ever had here.  Even the kids are already asking when we are going out picking flowers because they like to play near the water and making fires for fixing tea.  It seems like everyone is looking forward each year now to going out and picking flowers.  The most fun to pick is ‘Popcorn’ lichen.  It isn’t easy to pick, and it is hard to find them but they’re the best to find.  It makes purple dye which is our favourite colour.  At first we couldn’t see the lichen at all because they seem hidden on the rocks but now we find them.  You have to go all over to get them.  We pick all different lichens and it’s as if we’ve never seen them before.  If the colour comes out nice, we go back and pick more.”

                                                                -Arnaoyok Alookee

Click on text to read Judy McGrath's guide to dyeing with plants and lichen.
bottom of page