Several months ago I received a really sweet letter from a woman I have never met named Amy. It was titled “indirect impacts, circling back to you”. Amy is a member of a weaving guild in Maine. At one of their monthly meetings, another member, who had recently taken my class, brought in her sample card to pass around. Amy wrote to me, that the purple dye had made a real impression with her, and she asked the guild member about its source. The person who took my class shared with her the story about its slow growth, how it should be harvested from the ground; beneath the rocks where it grows, and the lengthy process used to transform the dye to magenta.
A few months after her encounter with the dye samples, Amy said she took a favorite hike, up a hill that overlooks the river. She remembered that the granite rock faces are covered with the peeling lichen she had seen in the photo handout that the guild member had shared. So she took a look around at the base of the rocks, and to her surprise, found broken off pieces of the lichen everywhere! She first filled her hands, then her pockets, and then her hat!
Amy generously offered to send me what she had gathered, in exchange for nothing more than a fistfull of magenta, and today, I was finally able to honor her request. I am also sending her a few other extremely bright mushroom dyed samples and some soft Umbilicaria dyed alpaca yarn.
Her donation was ample, and will supply a year or more classes with the joyful magenta dye. As a teacher, there is nothing more rewarding seeing the the excitement that this color brings my students. Well, maybe one thing, and that is hearing that my stories bring others to experience nature’s bounty in a new way.
“We enjoyed our hike. We usually take it for the long view — it’s a rather high spot with great views up and down the river, and it eventually takes you to a tiny cemetery with gravestones from the 1700s. So, yesterday’s hike, in addition to the long view — also included the contrast of the up-close perusal of the leaf matter at the base of the granite outcroppings, and a new appreciation of this fungus. It added to the pleasure of the hike, to be shifting our focus back and forth from the view down the river, to a close examination of what lay at our feet.”
Thank you for this story Amy, and thank you for your donation!
After numerous occasions of accidental fiber felting, the idea of dyeing unspun wool has made me a little nervous. But over the course of the past year I have gained confidence in handling fiber, and finally decided to give it a go.
In preparation, I sewed up several little bags made of sheer curtain material that I purchased from a little senior center craft/thrift shop in Sebastopol, CA. The fabric is some sort of synthetic and does not absorb the dye but is porous enough to allow the color to easily transfer between fungus and wool while keeping the wool free from debris.
I used 7 quart jars in a double boiler so that I could work with just one burner. My wool samples were weighed at 10 grams, then scoured in hot tap water with a drop of Bio-clean laundry soap. They were rinsed twice before being submerged into the 180° dye bath for varying lengths of time. If required, wool samples were mordanted in the jar while being dyed using 20% alum or 10% iron.
I started with 2 grams of Hapilopilus nidulans that I had had mixed results with in the past. I added the alum and a few splashes of ammonia which changed the pale water to an opaque shade of purple best compared to Easter candy. Ammonia was added periodically to keep the pH at a happy 9. This was a ratio test and I was pretty happy with the results of 1:5, of course I am sure more is better, but this little fungus is not easy to find.
Omphalotus olivascens is a mystery to me. It is capable of giving the most beautiful purples but it seems to happen at the whim of the dye bath. The color of the bath is brown and one must look at the wool itself to see the purple. When the color looks just right, the wool is removed from the pot. More often than not the delicate color stays for the rinsing, but as oxidization occurs, the beautiful purples slip away leaving a dismal sordid grey.
For this particular test, I wanted to know if the old rotten stuff mixed in my collection was ok for dye. I selected the most blackened crusty bits from the bag and measured out a 2:1 ratio. The best results often happen with no mordant or pH modification, so this is the route I tried. It took about 30 minutes for the wool to begin to change from the color of a strong black tea to the anticipated smoky-lilac, at which point I turned the heat down and kept it in the pot for about 10 more minutes.
Once removed and rinsed, it was a very pretty color, but as it dried it became a dirty, dingy beige (with purple highlights). Disappointed but determined, I could see that there was still a lot of dye in the bath. Hopeful, I added more wool but after 20 min it was merely grey. In a salvaging act of I briefly removed the second batch of wool, added 10% iron p, bumped the pH up with ammonia and put the wool back in. After another 30 min the wool transformed to a lovely cigar brown. This mushroom has so much potential, there must be a formula, but alas it evades me.
One of the few mushrooms that gives its best dye without mordants is Boletopsis grisea. It is a strange white and dark grey fungus that has pores instead of gills. It has super dense white flesh that occasionally stains pinkish when cut. But what you’d never guess, is that hidden in its pale flesh is potent blue-green dye.
Despite a slight resemblance to boletes, this mushroom is actually related to other tooth fungi (in Thelephoaceae). So like I do with all the toothy dyes, I brought the pH up to 9 with a splash of ammonia. I used 20 grams of fungus and dyed over 30 grams of wool. This mushroom has won me over and resides in my favorite top 10.
Phaeolus schweinitzii gives the best olive greens with iron. I dye my hats, coats, gloves and sweaters this color. However, today I let its alum yellows shine.
Best collected in its prime, these specimens looked great when I picked them back in November. But after drying, the yellow margin of the fungus turned brown and I was starting to doubt their primeness. I used a 1:1 ratio, wanting a potent color and the yellow. There was enough dye left over for a second bath which I added a pinch of iron to for a lime green.
When dyeing with Hypomyces lactiflourum, I find that a slight elevation in pH using a splash of ammonia really helps this mushroom to release its dye. By the time the extraction is done (about an hour) the pH is back to 7 and the dye is simply a dark orange-red.
Ammonia being volatile, evaporates and off-gasses with heat; and with that the pH neutralizes fairly quickly. This can be advantageous it you want the solvent properties of ammonia, but don’t really care for major color changes. Hypomyces dye is particularly sensitive to pH; but in order to bring about lasting color change I use pH modifiers that do not neutralize as quickly. I dip the dyed goods into either a citric acid solution (pH4) or a washing soda bath (pH 9).
Pisolithustinctorius is a fungus that grows in dry places with oak, both of which Western Washington lacks. Although common in many parts of the US, Pisolithus is a dye source that is mysterious to me. I have never found it myself but have used it on occasion with mixed results. The first time I used it I got a dark cocoa brown, and since have only seen shades of pink and occasionally bright gold.
A little bit of this fungus will turn your dye bath a solid dark brown, so it looks like a strong dyer, even so I used 1:4 and all I got was a light pinkish beige. Not accepting defeat I started a second dye bath, this time using 4:1. The color was a rich, dark sienna. Mystery solved? Not sure.
My only major disappointment was withSarcodon fuscoindicus, a striking dark violet toothed mushroom that I had heard is a great dyer. I used a 2:1 ratio, kept the pH at 9, babied it and watched it to no avail. I just got pale beige. I will eventually try again, but would love to hear first hand reports for encouragement.
All in all, my experiments with ratios and batts were successful. There was minimal felting and the colors came out concentrated. Now I can ponder the design for my next felting project in color.
There are three mushroom dye reference books that I use on a regular basis. Mushrooms for Color, by Miriam C. Rice; Rainbow Beneath My Feet, by Arleen and Alan Bessette; and Mushrooms for Dyes, Paper, Pigments and Myco-Stix, also by Miriam C. Rice. I often check all three when looking into the dye potential of unfamiliar mushrooms, or to see how mordants generally affect the color of a specific mushroom dye. I usually refer to Miriam C. Rice’s books for a pre-mordant recipe.
These are all great books that cover a lot of topics but focus on the color range possibilities of mushrooms, however they do not contain recipes for ratios. This is understandable considering the scope of the books and the fact that amount of mushroom needed to make a good dye varies from species to species, and depends on the condition of the fungus; including its maturity, exposure to weather as well as region it which it was collected.
It would take multiple experiments to come up with a ball park range for each species. Collectively, I am sure plenty of research has been done, but it is extremely tedious to attempt to tease this kind of information out of the vaults of blogs and comment threads where I am sure it must be discussed. To save time and keep my sanity, I have resorted to first hand experimentation.
In the old days, I just dumped roughly the same volume of dried mushroom as wool – not paying attention to weights. I used fresh mushrooms or dry mushrooms indiscriminately, and gauged the dye just by eyeballing the mass and intuitively saying when it looked like enough. That method made for some beautiful but overly strong dyes, and if space or time to deal with the left-over dye-baths is a concern, that can mean a lot of waste.
Today I decided to see how far these dye fungi could go. I tried a series of equal weights of dried mushroom to dry wool and was surprised by the intensity of the dyes with such small amounts of fungi. For the known strong dyers, Phaeolus schweinitzii and Cortinarius semisanguineus, I pushed the limits to 1 part mushroom to five parts wool, just to see the reaches of their dye potential. Both produced great colors; the Cortinarius semisanguineus a cherry-red with alum and grapey-gray with iron, and the Phaeolus a golden-yellow with alum and rich golden-green with iron. Omphalotus olivascens at 1:1 gave a lovely blue-gray-violet with alum and dark forest green with iron with subsequent dye-baths yielding equally strong dye; indicating in this case 1:1 was perhaps more than enough.
Though not quite satisfied with the depth of a 1:1 dye, I increased the ratios, this time using two parts fungi per weight to one part wool. Not wanting to double all of the dyes I increased to 2:3 for Cortinarius semisanguineus, Letharia vulpina. The results were noticeable and definitely more impressive. However, there was a lot of dye left in the jars.
To maximize mushroom dyes it is best to make time for subsequent dye-baths. Often, the exhaustive dye-bath reveals the excess pigments that the first dye-bath failed to capture. These might be colors that you didn’t realize were there. In the case of Cortinarius semisanguineus, the reds binds to the alum mordanted wool first and second dye-baths do not give a paler version of the cherry-red, but instead give a peachy-orange. Phaeolus schweinitzii gives a bright yellow with alum mordant that just dulls to straw-beige in a second bath, but the iron mordanted greens seem to go on forever.
Ratios for dye species vary; however, there are a limited number of North American mushroom dyes that are tried, true and solid. I am working out ratio ranges for as many of these that I can access. Please let me know about your ratio experiments and if you have any rules of thumb. So far, I have not figured out a way to measure fresh mushrooms with any consistency and still rely on that intuitive voice that tells me when enough is enough. How do you work with fresh mushrooms?
Last spring the Pacific Northwest suffered some severe ice storms that brought down big trees and lots of branches. This caused problems for many people, but there was an upside for me. With the downed branches came menageries of dye lichens, some of which are not easy to come by – especially in such abundance.
When lichens that normally thrive in tree tops are relinquished to the forest floor they will lie there with the branches and be consumed by the natural forces of decay. I try to limit my lichen collecting to the wind-fallen or excessively abundant types.
Over the course of spring, every time I went out to harvest nettles or cottonwood buds, I would bring a little bag and fill it with Evernia prunastri, the Staghorn Lichen. Once home, I’d lay my collection out to air dry and store it for later. Evernia prunastri is sage colored lichen that if left to soak in a mixture of water and ammonia, will slowly develop into a beautiful electric lilac dye. Purple mushroom dyes are rare in the PNW, so this is a welcome addition to the dyers pallet. Technically lichens are weird fungi that require a dependent relationship with certain algae for survival; but that is another story entirely.
Late March of last year, while checking my Verpa bohemica patch, I found huge, old cottonwood trees crisscrossing this usually open creek side forest. Many of the fallen tree tops were decorated with the striking and elusive Xanthoria lichen. In the tree tops, this lichen grows pressed flat against the bark in 2-5inch circles of golden-chartreuse with tiny speckles of lime green discs that are the reproductive structures of the organism. It is often seen much smaller on tombstones and boulders in arid conditions; places where it is best left for the enhancement of the landscape. But here in the humidity of the little river valley it had grown large and abundantly, now littering the wetland where it would soon deteriorate to a patch of slime on the bark. The misty conditions that day made the lichen pliable and slightly less tedious to harvest, but even after a couple of hours I had only collected about a quarter cup.
Xanthoria also requires an extended soak in diluted ammonia to activate the color potential. So one day last April, I made up the lichen ammonia mixes. Though they immediately turned bright colors, I knew the colors I was after would take time to develop. The first few weeks I shook the jars daily, but after a while I neglected them. When I remembered, I checked in them again and after a couple of months the Xanthoria solution was a juicy red and the Evernia a deep burgundy. I had read that ammonia lichen dyes needed to be exposed to oxygen to develop their maximum purple potential, so I set it out over night with the lid removed, and in the morning put the lid back on and shook it some more. Within a few days it transformed to the color of purple kool-aid.
I was very excited to try it out, but I was moving – so into a box it went, and was carried by car all the way from Seattle to Massachusetts. Once unpacked, I’d shake it occasionally and open it for a few hours every once in a while; the colors deepened.
While in Massachusetts I was introduced to Umbilicaria, affectionately known as Rock Tripe – another ammonia activated dye lichen. I was given a couple of jars full, that I processed in the same way as the others. Essentially in the same pattern of attention and neglect. Almost a year later, and another cross-country trip, I decided to finally dye with the ammonia dyes. They looked to delightful in the jars; red juice, grape kool-aid and blackberry wine.
In a double boiler I heated up the ammonia lichen mixtures, adding water to allow for the wool to move freely in the half-gallon jars. I simmered the pot for an hour, until they were as bright as they were going to get. I let the wool sit in the dyes overnight and rinsed them in the morning.
Straight out of the jars, the dyes were spectacular. The Umbilicaria produced a blinding magenta wool and the Evernia was an amethyst violet. As for the Xanthoria, well that produced a special and strange dye. Once removed from the dye-pot, rinsed and set to dry in the sun, it immediately began to show a cyanotic bluing, as though the life was draining from its powder pink glow. The color first took on subtle lavender tones and eventually completely turned a pale slate blue; its lovely warm pink blush forever gone.
It is commonly taught that there are a finite number of pigment molecules in a dye bath, and adding water will not dilute them, because they will eventually bond to the fibers they come in contact with. Wanting to know first hand if this is true, I started the experiment.
I used a half ounce of Cortinarius semisanguineus (to one ounce of wool) which I extracted in 500ml of water. I contained the extraction in a half-gallon jar that was placed on a rack, submerged in a canning pot half filled with water. This double boiler method controls the heat and keeps the extraction process under 210° F.
After the mushrooms simmered at abot 195° F for about 45min I strained the mushrooms from the extract and divided it into 2 jars. The concentrated jar was diluted to 500ml to accomodate the wool, and the dilute jar was brought up to 1250ml using water that had been heated to the same temperature as the dye and wet wool. I added a half ounce skein of soaked and scoured wool to each jar and continued to simmer them for another 45 min.
Immediately the concentrated dye made its wool darker, it took 15 min for the dilute dye to look like it was going to fare well at all in this experiment, but I patiently waited. I was rooting for the dilute bath – as I have repeated this story as truth all these years. After 40 min, color change ceased, and at 45 min I removed them from the pot
Looking at the reddish skein on the left (in the middle below) and the rosy one on the right – there are definitely differences, but not sure if the dilution is to blame. Subtle temperature differences may have occurred because the concentrated dye bath was completely submerged in the double boiler water, while the water in the boiler only reached 800ml mark on the dilute jar. When tested both temperatures read about the same in the 190-195° F range.
Make your own conclusion and please share your comments or experiences below. I am definitely changing my lecture to say that dilution does matter, if for no other reason than temperature differences in the double boiler method.
Lesson of the day: Always question that which has not been proven.
Last summer I dedicated a lot of time to figuring out how to work with mushroom pigments for watercolor paints. I had painted with concentrated dyes in liquid form in the past, but wanted to make a solid watercolor pellet. The pellet works better for my somewhat nomadic lifestyle and fleeting inspirations to paint. I tried using different solvents like alcohol, ammonia, vinegar and of couse plain old water for extraction. It didn’t take long for me to realize that there was no recipe and that I was going to have to treat every species individually.
pigment extractions ready for evaporation next to lab notes