Mushrooms For Color

Submitted by Jenny Heckeroth, Manager, Ford House Museum & Visitors Center

Local treasure Miriam Rice pioneered the art of using mushrooms to dye yarns for weaving over 30 years ago. The following is an excerpt from her now out of print book Mushrooms for Color (1980)which tells the story of  how she came to discover using mushrooms for  dying:

“Mycologists, naturalists, and friends of the wild edible mushroom have been lured back to the fire from the hunt in the field and woods by the promise of pots filled with delicious fruits of the days effort. Now the adventure is open to the weaver, the spinner, and the natural dyer as well. With so vast and varied a supply of fungi-estimated in the thousands of known species- it is indeed a wonder that their potential for dye has not been explored before!

It was through a young, though avid , interest in mushroom hunting, identification and lore (originally with a gastronomic end in view) that during the lush season of 1971-1972 a fantastic yield made its way into my workshop-kitchen-home. In keeping with my teaching of simple textile techniques, it was perhaps inevitable that I should plop a sample test of premordanted yarn into a pot of boiled mushrooms and simmer it some more, just to see!

The Hpholoma fasciculare (commonly known as the “Sulphur Tuft”) was the first mushroom I tested. Perhaps if my fledgling trial had not produced such spectacular yellows, greens and tans, I would not have continued the heated hunt. Later, from a handful of these same little yellow green mushrooms found in clusters on dead wood, a beautiful burnt orange was obtained when a tin premordanted wool was added to my sample  strands-what an unexpected delight!

Mushroom dyes are easy, and infinitely rewarding to extract. The wide range of colors reveals unsuspected visual delight and palette possibly unsurpassed by natural dyestuff. The color fastness has been established and appears to be better than can be expected from most natural sources.

Not only do the mushrooms themselves and the colors they produce please me visually, but the Latin names of the mushrooms charm me as they roll off the tongue. I look forward to the pleasures of the coming mushroom season and offer this book as a beginning of , and a basis for, future experimentation with mushrooms for color.”

Miriam did indeed continue to experiment with mushrooms for color. In 1976 the Mendocino County Museum, under the direction of Herb Pruett, created a traveling exhibit entitled “Mushrooms for Color.” This exhibit, on loan to the Ford House courtesy of the Mendocino County Museum, will be on display at the Ford House from  November through the month of January 2008. It is a time capsule from the rich period of Miriam’s discovery and experimentation. It includes artwork from her students of the time and a displays the wide range of colors possible with mushroom dyes.

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