Adventures With Sour Sobs & Lichen

I grew up in the 70’s with a slightly hippy and very crafty Mum who spun wool, knitted shawls, and made macramé owls. I have happy memories of a period of time when I became actively involved in Mum’s creativity. Driving in the car, one of us would call out ‘sour sobs!’ and Mum would quickly pull over to the side of the road. Out we would jump, Mum, my brother Paul and I, to pick these sweet yellow flowers that Mum explained to us were usually considered as weeds.

We knew a secret about these flowers. We knew that they had more going for them than the average garden escapee. Mum would boil them up her huge aluminium pot which seemed to take over the kitchen, and add her beautifully spun skeins of wool. I loved to see the colour of the wool change to a soft yellow as the natural dye slowly seeped in.

Sour sob is one of the common names for Oxalis pes-caprae. I also knew these flowers as ‘oxalis’, and remember holding them under our chins to see if we liked butter. If the yellow reflected onto your skin the answer was yes! I never really understood the meaning behind this, however a quick bit of research explains that we may have got an old myth about buttercups confused with our sour sobs!

We also collected calliopsis, another yellow flower, more golden and with larger petals. There was an empty block on the way to my best friend Anne’s house where I often stopped to pick big bunches of these happy flowers for Anne and her mum. Other calliopsis found on the roadside also went into the big pot where they bubbled away until the water turned to gold.

Most exciting were the times the three of us crawled along the edges of Lake Macquarie, near our holiday shack. When the tide was out, we would carefully climb over the rocks searching for the lichen that grew there and on the trees along the shore. Finding it was like finding treasure.

Mum never let us take too much as she knew that it was precious. The silvery green lichen seemed to shimmer as it clung to the rocks, and its unique colour was subtly transferred to the wool once it had been boiled and a mordant such as alum was added to set the dye. (I have to admit that while I remembered the words ‘mordant’ and ‘alum’ I had to check with Mum to find out exactly what they were!)

It was special to be a part of this process. To feel connected with my family via this creative and natural experience. To watch and learn that flowers and plants can create colour, to share the thrill of their discovery and to enjoy the end results of our work as we pulled on and snuggled in the warm, cosy (and very 1970’s style) jumpers that Mum and Oma knitted with our very own home spun and naturally dyed wool.

Vanna's mother Joan at a craft show with lampshades made from wool she had spun and dyed