Welcome to the colorful world of Mycopigments. Mycopigments is a term I made up to describe the colorful dyes found within the flesh of certain fungi and lichens. It’s also what I call my business. I offer classes, lectures and interactive presentations on working with, and recognizing, the wild mushrooms and lichens that can be used for dyes – in any particular region of the world. I have been exploring mushroom dyes for over 15 years, and I love sharing my passion with everyone!
Some of the vivid colors we see in wild mushrooms are extractable in water and can be used to permanently dye protein
fibers like wool and silk. And some of these colors are visible just by looking at the mushroom, like the yellow in Gyms (Gymnopilus sp) and the red of the Blood-red Cort (Cortinarius neosanguineus).
Other dye pigments are not readily observed. For example, the little tan polypore Hapilopilus nidulans that secretly packs a powerful purple dye, and the myriad of fungi that dye blue-green. Unfortunately there are lots of colorful fungi whose pigments evade the dyers grasp entirely; remaining a vibrant cloak for the fungus alone.
Extraction Most mushroom dyes are easily extracted in simmering water, usually over the course of an hour. However, some require additional solvents such as ammonia, vinegar or alcohol to really pull the color out and make them accessible for dyes.
The Indian Paint Fungus Echinodontium tinctorium is one that requires solvents in addition to water for maximum color potential.
Solar Dyeing: In regions with lots of sun, fungal dyes can also be extracted using solar heat and fermentation. Solar extractions take time but can give incredible results. Mushroom dye maven, Dorothy Beebee often leaves wool to dye in the sun and as
you can see the yarn is rich with saturated color. These samples were left to ferment in jars while the sun-baked on them for several months. A bit odoriferous to rinse, but after a good wash and air dry, the smell was completely undetectable.
pH Modification: Some dyes require coaxing with a pH modifier to develop their maximum color potential, while others are at their best simply extracted in simmering water. Ammonia, washing soda (sodium carbonate), vinegar and citric acid can be used to bring about a pH change.
Mordants: By adding mineral salts called mordants, dyes extracted from a single fungal species can transform to many different colors. Pale yellow may turn deeply golden or olive-green, and rose may turn cherry red or violet. Choose safe mordants like alum (aluminum sulfate) and iron (ferrous sulfate).
Not all mushroom dyes are intensified by mordants; the beautiful dark purple from the Western Jack O’Lantern (Omphalotus olivascens) sometimes turns a dingy beige or gray with alum.
Experimentation: Learning about these effects takes a little
time, but if you start with the more abundant dye fungi, the process will be less painful if something doesn’t work the way you had hoped. Try to take notes if you can. Don’t be afraid to experiment in small batches, there will always be more fungi.
Dyer’s enthusiasm, a mushroom and lichen dye book and a good field guide will reduce a lot of the mystery surrounding mushroom dyes. Learning common local dye mushrooms and the families they belong to will help you target and create your desired palette. Each species has its quirks and nuances and learning to work with them is one of the many thrills of working with natural dyes.