Mushroom and Lichen Dyes

At the Radical Mycology Convergence, Richard Gaines facilitated a few amazing workshops about creating dyes from mushrooms and lichens. Personally, I had never heard of this before; it was just another reason to fall in love with mushroom even more. Before introducing natural dyes, I want to talk about why they are important. Here is a little history and information about synthetic dyes. I sourced the content from Cotton Green: 

Before 1856, all dyes were made from extracts from plants, minerals and animals. Dyeing was an secretive art form; the most beautiful and exotic pigments were reserved for those with high status.. Scientists discovered a way to make synthetic dyes that were cheaper, brighter and easy to use. Dyed fabric was soon available to the masses and natural dyes became nearly obsolete. The chemicals used to produce these colours are often toxic, carcinogenic or even explosive. Some chemicals used in the dying process include:

1)Anililine- a popular group of dyes called the Azo dyes(specifically group III A1 and A2) which are considered deadly poisons (giving off carcinogenic amines) and dangerous to work with, also being highly flammable

2)Dioxin- a carcinogen and possible hormone disrupter

3)Toxic heavy metals such as chrome, copper and zinc (known carcinogens)

4) Formaldehyde (a suspected carcinogen)

Conditions for the people who work in dye factories can often be fatal. Deaths amongst factory workers from several caners, cerebrovascular disease and lung disease are significantly higher (40 times higher for some diseases) than in the general population. Although the dye on a finished garment is supposed to be chemically stable, a CNN report revealed that prolonged contact between clothing ad a warm body results in chemical absorption into the skin. Each new synthetic dye developed is a brand new compound, and because it is new, no-one knows its risks to humans and the environment. Most people have developed some type of chemical sensitivity to and will notice symptoms in different ways. Some of the ways these symptoms appear are in the form of skin rashes, headaches, trouble concentrating, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, dizziness, difficulty breathing, irregular heart beat, and/or seizures.

Each new synthetic dye developed is a brand new compound, and because it is new, no-one knows its risks to humans and the environment. Dyes are complex chemicals, and as anyone who’s washed a red shirt with a white shirt knows, they don’t stay put forever.

Environmental Pollution from Dye Factories:

Almost every industrial dye process involves a solution of a dye in water, in which the fabrics are dipped or washed. After dying a batch of fabric, it’s cheaper to dump the used water – dye effluent – than to clean and re-use the water in the factory.  So dye factories across the world are dumping millions of tons of dye effluent into rivers.Most countries require factories to treat dye effluent before it is dumped. Separating the dye chemicals from the water results in a dye sludge, and cleaner water. The water, which still contains traces of dye, is dumped into the river, and leaves the problem of what to do with the sludge?

China does have water pollution laws stipulating how dye waste water must be treated before it is discharged into rivers, but when the river downstream from a factory producing dyed textiles for Gap, Target and Wal-Mart ran dark red, investigators discovered that untreated dye effluent was being dumped directly into the river, close to 22,000 tons worth. Villagers say that fish died, and the lifeless river turned to sludge. The factory, a major supplier to several US stores, was attempting to save money in the face of companies like Wal-Mart’s pressure for ever-lower prices.  For more on this story, see the Wall Street Journal.

In Mexico, fields and rivers near jeans factories are turning dark blue from untreated, unregulated dye effluent. Factories dying denims for Levi and Gap dump waste-water contaminated with synthetic indigo straight into the environment. Local residents and farmers report health problems and wonder if the food they are obliged to grow in nearby fields is safe to eat.

Now, onto the main event: Some basic instructions from Richard Gaines’ information sheet on how to turn some of our local natural resources into sustainable dyes.

Mushroom dyes:

Some fungi can be used to produce colours and shades that cannot be, or are difficult to obtain, using plant or lichen dyes. Reds, purples and greens are some of these colours. Nice yellows, oranges and browns can also be obtained. The Boiling Water Method (BWM) is the only method commonly used for mushroom and plant dyes. It is also one of two methods used with lichen. The BWM is the primary dye application outlines in this introduction.

Lichen Dyes:

Lichens are used to produce some exceptional and bright as well as subtle colours. Striking reds, purples and blues are among the strong colours that can be produced. Lichen can also be used as a mordant for setting and influencing other colours obtained with mushroom and plant dyes. Lichens are unique for their use both as dye and mordant. Lichen dyes require mordant (covered in the next section). In BWM extraction, lichens with strong yellows as well os orange, maroon, brown and other earth tones are obtained. Many produce subtle colour and shades. These are well suited to be used as mordants. Lichens contain acids that are functionally mordants. While it is often desirable to use mordant to get good results with plant and mushroom dyes, lichens need no added mordant to set well. The Ammonia Fermentation Method (AM) is exclusive to lichens. Strong and striking colours can be acheived this was that cannot be obtained through other natural dye methods. The process requires time (ranging from three weeks to three months) and sustained attention to obtain the desired dye result. Only some lichens produce the unique results possible with the AM method. The Ochralechia and Umbilicaria lichens are among the most reliable.

Preparing Lichen


These are usually acidic metal salts, but can also be other acids and bases that help dyes penetrate fibers and in some cases can influence colours. Some mushrooms and plants have strong colours that will set without a mordant but in general for assuring colour set and assuring colour fastness (resistance to leaching and fading) mordents are used. Alum is the most commonly used mordent because it tends to brighten colours. Mordents Richard likes to use and experiment with inlcude Alum, Iron, Copper, Urine, Tannin and Rhubard leaf. In most cases he does not use the more toxic mordents such as tin or chrome. Instead, he strives to use mordents he can forage or produce himself.

Using the Boiling Water Method:

Animal fibres (wools, felts, silk, etc.) are the easiest to dye and show the most favourable and lasting results. Vegetable fibres (cottons, linens, hemp, etc) do not dye easily and require special treatment to get dye colours to set well. With a strong dye material a favourable result is sometimes obtainable but it fades rapidly with consecutive washes. Properly preparing and dyeing vegetable fibers for lasting results is a three day process not explained here. To dye wool, one should use equal amounts of dye to wool to assure a good result (proportions based on weight). The BMW is as easy as making tea!

Step 1) Bring water with dye material to a boil and then simmer for a half hour.

Step 2) Add wool or other dye stuff and simmer (do not boil) for another half hour. The material is usually dyed dyed by this point and can be removed from the pot. If you wish to assure a stronger colour set, leave the material in the pot over night or longer.

Step 3) Rinse immediately in cold water or let material dry and then rinse. Some colour run off is to be expected. If you do not rinse your finished materials, the excess colour will bleed out in the laundry staining other items.

Note: To avoid shrinking the wool and to preserve its softness it is best not to boil or “temperature shock” it. When placing it on the dye bath it is best to cool the dye bath first or soak the wool in hot water before adding it to the dye pot. Also, it is most favourable to presoak your dye material for about an hour before adding it to the dye pot. 

Richard did not have enough space on his two page instruction sheet to include the complicated AM dye process. However, he did include a list of recommended books:

Lichen Dyes,” Karen D. Casselman

Mushrooms for Color,” Miriam Rice

A Rainbow Beneath my Feet,” Areen and Alan Bessette

Mushroom for Dyes, Paper, Pigments and Myco-Stix,” Miriam Rice

All the Rain Promises,” David Arora

There are endless dye combinations to try and results to discover! Don’t forget to get your lichen and mushroom identification guide suitable to the region where you live!

A special thanks to Richard Gaines! You can contact him at


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