What are Mycopigments?
Mycopigments is a term I use to describe the color molecules found within the flesh of certain fungi and lichens.
Some of the vivid colors we see in mushrooms are extractable in water and can be used to permanently dye protein fibers like wool and silk. They can also be applied to a surface as a paint.
Some mycopigments are visible just by looking at the mushroom, like the yellow in the Big Gym (Gymnopilus spectabilis group) and the red of the Red Gill (Cortinarius neosanguineus). Other mycopigments are not readily observed, for instance the little tan polypore Hapilopilus nidulans that packs a powerful purple dye or Hydnellum aurantiacum, the orange fleshed tooth fungus that dyes wool dark sea-foam green. And Unfortunately there are lots of colorful fungi whose pigments evade the dyers grasp and remain a vibrant cloak for the fungus alone; like the red in the Fly Agaric; Amanita muscaria, and the orange in Chicken of the Woods; Laetiporus spp.
Many mycopigments 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.
In regions with lots of sun, mycopigments 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 with 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.
Some mycopigment 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.
By adding mineral salts called mordants, mycopigments extracted from a single fungal species can transform to many different colors. Pale yellow may turn deep goldenrod or olive-green, and rose may turn cherry red or violet. Choose safe mordants like iron (ferrous sulfate) and alum (aluminum sulfate).
Not all mycopigments 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.
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.