Everyone knows that some mushrooms are edible, but did you know that certain species of fungi and lichen can create dye for yarn and other materials in every spectrum of the rainbow? When Bessette wrote her book “The Rainbow Beneath My Feet: A Mushroom Dyers Field Guide”, she was being quite literal! I had the unique opportunity to scout for local dyeing mushrooms as part of a workshop led by SE Alaska mycologist Karen Dillman. We used the newly acquired mushrooms to dye yarn and silks. There is no doubt that I look at the forest floor with a different level of detail now! I think I may be hooked on this unique form of creating color.
A Bit of History
Natural dyes extracted from plants, minerals, and even fungi and lichens have been used for more than 5,000 years. In Europe, Karen explained that classic tweed colors in Scotland were extracted from lichens (Parmelia saxatilis). In Southeast Alaska, the bright yellow colors for Tlingit Chilkat Robes were derived from a lichen now called wolf moss. Within the United States the formalization of the process of dyeing with mushrooms and the resulting mushroom dyeing renaissance occurred when Miriam C. Rice began experimenting with and documenting the colors that each species of fungi and lichen created. Her resulting publications have inspired countless research studies since then and a wave of newborn mushroom dyeing enthusiasts.
The Fungi and Lichens of Dyeing
Picking the right fungi or lichen for the right color is a crucial first step in producing your dyes. Fortunately the old growth forests in Southeast Alaska are ripe with many colorful species of fungi and lichens (a side fact – there are thousands of species of fungi and about 1000 documented lichen in Southeast Alaska). For each of the species of fungi that we dyed with during the workshop I have included the color they produce and the general region they may be found.
- Lobaria pulmanaria – browns (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called “lungwort”
- Lobaria oregana – browns (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called “lettuce lichen”
- Letharia vulpina – bright yellow and green (Idaho up through the Yukon)
- Parmelia saxatillis – apricot and rusty browns (Southeast Alaska)
- Orsalia (Umbillicaria genus) – purples (Nova Scotia), Rock Tripe (Umbellicaria) found in Southeast Alaska can produce purples as well.
- Hydenellum peckii – blue (Southeast Alaska)
- Hydnellum regium – black (Southeast Alaska)
- Phaeolus schwinitzii – golds and greens (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called the dyer’s polypore
- Dermocybes spp. – oranges and yellows (Southeast Alaska)
Fungi and Lichen are picky about the habitats they live in. Most species strongly associate with certain plant communities, individual species of plants, or types of food (wood, bone, sphagnum, and many other things). For each of the fungi and lichen above you can increase the efficiency of your search by understanding their ecology. Dermocybe species are found at the bases of old growth spruces and hemlocks and the Rock Tripe (Umbella caria) lichen is associated with rock faces, and often grow in the alpine. Of course, mushroom diversity differs by region, so as you are walking around take note of the locations you find your dye mushrooms and look for similar features elsewhere.
The Process of Dyeing With Fungi
Dyeing with mushrooms is actually quite easy – in many ways finding the mushrooms and getting them in enough quantity to dye with can be the difficult part! The most important thing is to add equal parts fiber (yarn, silks, grass, cedar bark) and mushrooms. The amount of water will not lighten the color of your dye because the dye is attracted to the mordanted yarn, so be sure to add enough water cover your fiber. Once the mushrooms are in the water, bring the water to a boil. As it heats you’ll immediately see the colors extruded from the mushrooms. You can boil the mushrooms for various amounts of time, and the longer you boil the more intense the colors will become. Straining the mushrooms from the dye is optional. Add the fiber to the dye and simmer the fiber for awhile – it will transform from white to bright!
When you first begin you may be uncertain of which color will come from each species of mushrooms. To save some time and precious mushrooms you can boil up a bit of water and pour it over a mushroom sample. After 10-15 minutes the color should be evident if the mushroom is useful for dyeing. To test lichens, try adding them to a bit of bleach (be sure it’s newish bleach, old will not work) to extrude the colors. If you like the colors produced by the test you can boil up the rest of your mushrooms right away or preserve them for later by drying or freezing.
In order to derive the most vibrant colors and best results, you will need a bit of luck, some patience and a small knowledge of chemistry. Several of the mushrooms and lichens that we dyed with could be modified by adding alum or iron to the water. These two minerals are preferred because they are non-toxic and can be dumped out safely after the dye is used up. Adding iron to yellow dyes will generally make them turn brown. By changing the pH with soda ash to basic water (pH 9 or 10) you can transform the colors from black to blue when dyeing with Hydnellum suaveolens. You can keep experimenting to find new chemistry that changes the color – just be sure to closely document what you did!
Most of the fiber materials are “raw” and need to be prepared to accept the dye. You can mordant wool yarn with iron or cream of tarter to achieve different colors. However, mordant is not necessary for lichen dyes, only mushrooms!
We used the dyes that we created to stain wool yarn and silk scarves. We also experimented with chiton shells from gumboots, and spruce roots. The results were incredible and stunning! Each skein of yarn extracted from the water baths was draped over the back of a chair to dry and added to the spectrum of color created by it is predecessors. We were pleased to see that some of the dyes were penetrating enough to color the bone-hard chiton shells and the tough, lignin of the spruce roots. I am a novice knitter, and the incredible vibrancy of the colors produced got me thinking about my next project – whatever that may be.
Thank you to Karen Dillman for introducing these techniques to us! Also thank you to Ron Hamill for his unwavering and undoutable knowledge of fungi. Karen attempted to pass on years of learning and experiments in a short day. To learn more about dyeing with fungi and lichen check out the resource books she recommended.This unique form of creating color is a learn-by-doing process. So, I hope you get out there and do it!