by Erin Raymond
Throughout written history, humans have documented the use of plants, insects and lichens in the coloring of natural fibers. For whatever reason fungal dyes seem to be missing from the records of mankind, possibly lost in the many voluminous accounts of bygone times, not garnering the attention of translators, or maybe, being the knowledge of peoples with no written language at all, lost in the ether. It seems inconceivable that somewhere throughout time these secrets were not known by someone, yet culture, geography and time have no doubt played a roll in concealing this knowledge from the modern practitioner.
It wasn’t until the 1960’s that books were published, at least in the english language where we can begin to learn the ways of fugal dyes. It was Miriam C. Rice who’s teaching was the driving force in the use of fungi for dyeing, Here is a link to a short History of Mushroom Dyeing.
This, and upcoming dye posts, are a general overview of the dye process. There are a number of excellent resources with more information that are listed at the end of this post.
Unless otherwise stated, these posts describe the process for wool yarn. Different types of animal fibers can also be used. I will go into these further in a later post.
Here is a list of basic supplies that you will need to get started. The entire process should be done outside and you should not use anything for dyeing that you would use for cooking. Goodwill and garage sales are great places to find large, cheap pots. I would also highly recommend storing your dye mushrooms separately from your edible mushrooms and labeling everything very well.
- Stove and fuel
- Large pots
- pH paper (optional)
- Measuring spoons
Mordants are water-soluble, metallic salts that aid in the dyeing process. They can affect the color and also aid the color in binding to the fiber, helping to achieve more consistent results.
Types of Mordants
- Alum and Iron are the most common.
- Copper is sometimes used.
- Chrome and Tin are mentioned in a number of books, but are no longer commonly used or recommended due to their toxicity.
- Cream of tartar and Glauber’s salt are also used to brighten, prevent streaking and ensure even distribution of color.
There are 2 main methods for mordanting your yarn: Pre-Mordanting and All-in-One. I prefer to pre-mordant my yarn in large batches.
- Pre-Mordanting – Dissolve mordant in near boiling water in a large pot. Reduce to a simmer. Add yarn that has been soaked in warm water and simmer for about an hour. Allow to cool and remove yarn, rinsing in warm water, being sure to squeeze water out gently. Continue to dry and store until use.
- All-in-One – Dissolve mordant in boiling water and add to the mushroom dye bath. Add pre-soaked yarn to dye bath (the next post will go into the dye process more).
Alum – Can be found in the spice section of most grocery stores or online. Produces brighter colors. 2-5 tsp per 40z (100 g) of fiber. 1-2 tsp cream of tartar.
- In addition to the 2 mordanting methods described above, there is also a 24 hour method that can be used for alum. Dissolve alum in boiling water and reduce to a simmer. Add pre-soaked yarn and remove from heat. Allow to sit for 12-24 hours. Squeeze excess water from yarn and allow to dry completely. Note: with this method, you do not add cream of tartar.
Copper – 1/2- 3 tsp per 4oz (100 g) of fiber.
Iron – When mordanting with iron, it is a good idea to have a separate pot used just for mordanting/dyeing with iron. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. I use one I got from Goodwill that is slightly cracked and rusty. Iron is used to improve color-fastness and makes colors darker and more somber. 1/2 -4 tsp per 4 oz (100 g) of fiber. 5-6 tsp Glauber’s salt.
For copper and iron, you can also make your own mordant liquid. This method does not allow you to be as precise with the amount of mordant used. Wild Color by Jenny Dean has good instructions if you are interested in this method. (See Resources section below.)
Drying mushrooms allows you to stock up until you have enough for dyeing if a particular mushroom is hard to find. Drying is important because you do not know the water content of fresh mushrooms and colors from fresh mushrooms can be particularly hard to reproduce. Color results can also vary depending on whether fresh or dried mushrooms are used. Books generally cite color results based on dried mushroom weight.
There are a few mushroom and lichen specific books. Fortunately, people are putting their own experiment results online. There is still not a ton of information out there, so you should experiment, even if you can’t find anything in books or online.
Most of these books are available for sale at the PSMS monthly membership meetings. Many of these can also be found online.