There are a large amount of mushrooms that produce dye and how you actually get them to produce the dye is different from mushroom to mushroom, even mushrooms that are in the same family often need to be treated differently. There is no set rule or recipe on how to extract dye from mushrooms. The magic is seeing what happens and having fun experimenting and trying out ideas on how best to extract and shift the color. Gomphus floccosus is a mushroom that will appear not to produce any dye, even after soaking the fiber with the mushrooms overnight! However, drop that same fiber into an iron afterbath and magically your fiber will turn a beautiful purple.
For the purposes of this article I have selected Phaeolus schweinitzii, commonly known as Dyer’s Polypore, which is an easy beginner dye mushroom. It is easy for beginners to identify and creates a beautiful range of color from yellow to green to orange to brown depending on its stage in life.
In order to get started using mushrooms as dyes for fibers there are a few basic supplies you need to procure. Once you use these items to make a mushroom dye bath you definitely don’t want to cook your food in them, always keep them separate from your home kitchen cooking tools. Be sure to cook up your mushroom dye baths in a well ventilated area, they can sometimes smell a little funky!
You need to procure some basic stainless steel pots, large enough for your fibers to move around freely in the pot. A thermometer is very important to make sure you do not over heat your mushrooms. You will also need a stir stick, rubber gloves, measuring cup, buckets or bowls, a scale, pH strips and a strainer or cheesecloth.
You can put skeins of yarn or fabric in the mushroom dye bath but mushrooms, like most other natural dyes, tend to create brighter, more saturated colors on protein/animal based fibers such as wool and silk. You can use cellulose/plant based fibers such as cotton, linen or hemp but the colors are often more muted and lighter. Selecting your type of fiber is very important and before you do anything you want to weigh your fiber and write down the weight for future reference. If you happen to be using fabric that was not prepared for dyeing (PFD) you will need to scour the fabric first to remove all the surfactants to ensure the mordant and dye can bind to the fibers. Put some mild soap (Ivory Flakes) or pH neutral detergent (Dawn) in a pot with water, drop in your fabric, bring to a low boil and simmer for an hour. Your water should appear dirty and brown ensuring you have properly cleaned your fibers. Rinse and dry the fiber.
Preparing Your Fiber
It is important that you mordant your fiber before dyeing; this will enable the color from the mushroom dye binds with the material. There are three standard mordants used in natural dyeing.
- Aluminum Potassium Sulfate: Use 8% of weight of fiber for protein/animal fibers. Add 2% cream of tartar if dyeing skeins to keep them softer.
- Aluminum Acetate: Use 10% of weight of fiber for cellulose/plant fibers.
- Iron: Use 2% of weight of fiber for protein/animal or cellulose/plant fibers.
- Copper: Use 2% of weight of fiber for protein/animal or cellulose/plant fibers.
Alum mordant will make for the brightest, clearest colors possible; this mordant doesn’t shift the color of your fiber. Iron will darken or sadden the colors and copper will push the colors to have more blue and green. Fill a pot with water, measure out the amount of mordant necessary given your weight of fiber, put it into warm water in a small bowl, stir until it is dissolved and then pour into the large pot. Put the pot on the stove and bring the temperature up to 140-160 degrees, stir your fibers occasionally and let simmer for 1 hour. An alternate option is a cold mordant, letting the fibers sit in the pot overnight for 24 hours. If you are using Iron or Copper you will see a visible change of color in the fiber and this can usually happen within 15 minutes (especially if it is heated) so pull out the fiber when you are happy with the color. Rinse and dry the fiber.
Preparing Your Mushrooms
You have to collect enough mushrooms so that your fiber can be dyed. If you have too few mushrooms your fiber won’t turn a color and if you have a lot of mushrooms you can dye a lot of fiber. The rule of thumb for the ratio is weight of dye goods 1 : weight of fiber 1, meaning if your fiber weighs 500 grams then you need to have 500 grams of mushrooms. With some mushroom varieties it is hard to find enough in one season so you are often storing them and continuing to add to your stash as you collect more. You can work with dried, frozen or fresh mushrooms. Mushrooms perform differently depending on how they have been stored so experiment to know how you want to store them.
Drying mushrooms tends to concentrate the pigment, freezing mushrooms can sometimes shift the color and sometimes the only way to get color from a mushroom is working with it fresh. In addition, it also depends on when you harvest the mushroom. You want to prepare your mushrooms by cutting, crushing, crunching or chopping into smaller pieces to get as much surface area gets exposed.
If using dried mushrooms soak them in a pot of water overnight to rehydrate them. If you are using frozen mushrooms let them thaw as necessary in a pot of water. Once your mushrooms are prepared you can begin cooking your mushrooms, consistently watching the temperature, keeping the dye bath between 140-160 degrees. It will take about an hour to extract all the color. Some people leave the mushrooms in the dye pot when they add their fiber and others strain them, it is up to you but it can be challenging cleaning mushroom chunks out of skeins!
While you are extracting the color from the mushrooms wet out your fibers in a pot of warm water. The fibers need to soak for a minimum of 20 minutes to establish the fiber is thoroughly wetted out and the dye will take evenly to the fibers. You never want to shock your fibers by wetting them out in cold water and dropping them into boiling hot water so make a like to like experience with your water temperatures for your fiber. Be sure to ring out the water before adding them to the dye pot.
Phaeolus schweinitzii: Break this mushroom into as small as possible chunks and if it is dried be sure to let them soak and don’t start heating them until they are rehydrated. You don’t need to adjust the pH of this dye vat and you will quickly see a change of color; this is a very powerful dye mushroom with strong color. If you are using a young Phaeolus schweinitzii and want to shift the yellow color to green or you are working with and older Phaeolus schweinitzii and want to shift your color to brown soak it in an iron after bath for 15 minutes or until you are happy with the color change.
Once your dye baths are simmering you will want to watch your temperature and keep them between 140-160 degrees. This is a critical component because you can easily zap your color or ‘brown out’ your dye bath if the temperature gets too hot! It usually takes about an hour to extract the color but sometimes it can take a lot longer so keep an eye on your dye bath, pull out the mushrooms and look at them, and look at the color of your dye bath in a glass cup. You will get a sense if the color is extracted or if there is more color left to extract.
When you get ready to add your fibers you have some choices. In fact some people add their fiber while they are extracting the color, others wait until the color is extracted and then add their fiber, and some strain the mushrooms out of the dye bath making it easier to clean and rinse the fibers.
Generally the longer you leave your fibers in the dye pot the more saturated the color. As a rule of thumb it is good to leave the fibers in the pot over heat for an hour but often people pull the pots off the stove and let the fibers sit overnight or even for a couple of days. Be sure to stir your fibers often and make sure there is enough water in the pot that the fibers are covered and freely flowing. One question people often is ask is how much water do I add to the pot? It doesn’t matter! Water will not dilute the dye bath because we are concerned about our ratio of dye goods to fiber (1:1 or 2:1) so add as much water as you feel is appropriate to cover the fibers.
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