Book Review

Mushrooms for Dyes, Paper, Pigments, & Myco-Stix™

By Miriam C. Rice, Illustrations by Dorothy M. Beebee
2007; Mushrooms for Color Press
ISBN 978-1-60461-802-0; $32.95

By far, the biggest reason North Americans are interested in mushrooms is that many of them are edible and considered good. Interest in non-edible species has been confined mostly to the small proportion of us who photograph or paint them, try to determine all of their names, and/or study their biology and ecology, perhaps eschewing them as foodstuffs in the process. In recent years, however, there has been a striking increase in the number of people using (mostly non-edible) mushrooms for arts and crafts. Although she probably wasn’t the first person to try using mushrooms for dyeing wool and other natural fibers, Miriam Rice certainly deserves the lioness’s share of the credit for exploring and popularizing this use, and now has extended the use of mushrooms beyond dyeing.

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Starting with an experiment on the dyeing potential of sulfur tufts (Hypholoma, or Naematoloma, fasciculare) in the late 1960’s, Rice immersed herself in the search for mushroom sources of color. In 1974, she summarized her initial findings in the locally published Let’s Try Mushrooms for Color. Around this time, she also began to share her experiences through workshops and exhibits. Through these activities, the practice of dyeing with mushrooms had matured sufficiently by 1980 that a new book, Mushrooms for Color, was published and the first international Fungi and Fibers Symposium was held in Mendocino, California, where Rice lives. The 1980 book has been popular ever since, giving many newcomers the information needed to get started with their own experiments and, in early 2008, the 13th Fungi and Fibers symposium returned to Mendocino in recognition of Rice’s 90th birthday.

The content and organization of Mushrooms for Dyes, Paper, Pigments, & Myco-Stix largely mirror its title. Part I provides historical background (by Dorothy Beebee), general introductory remarks, and an overview of mushroom identification (the latter contributed by Dr. Susan Libonati-Barnes). Part II addresses dyeing, including a summary of the colors attainable from particular mushrooms and the basics of how they are attained using wool and other fibers. An interesting change from past practice (as presented in the 1980 book) is the reduced use of mordants, metal salts that are added to the dye bath to fix the dye to the fibers and also to modify the color obtained. Because some of these metals can be personally and environmentally harmful, Rice is now discouraging the use of copper, chromium, and tin (while retaining iron and alum), and promoting greater use of pH (acidity) control instead. The final chapter in this part, written by Dr. Erik Sundström of Sweden, describes some of the chemistry that underlies the dyeing process.

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Part III covers papermaking, mostly with polypores, and Part IV deals with extraction of mushroom pigments for painting and incorporation into crayons, termed myco-stix, for drawing. Part V finishes with some of Rice’s thoughts on the future of using mushrooms for color and fiber, including the possibility of cultivating them for these uses.

The book is illustrated with a large assortment of line drawings and color photographs. The former, drawn by Dorothy Beebee, mostly are of mushrooms and they are excellent. The photographs, of mushrooms, processes, and a wide variety of wonderful art/craft pieces, were contributed by several people and are of varied, but mostly good, quality.

The how-to information that comprises the bulk of the book is authoritative. However, some of the background information is flawed. For instance, there are numerous references to cellulose in mushrooms, despite the fact that fungi contain little or no cellulose (their main structural cell-wall polymer is chitin, the same substance that puts the crunch in cockroaches). In the papermaking section, it is suggested that the reason that polypores are particularly useful for paper is that they (presumably as opposed to other mushrooms) contain chitin. No -- all of these dye and papermaking fungi contain abundant chitin in their hyphal walls. The feature of polypores that is important is that the fruit bodies are made up, in part, of thick-walled hyphae (highly branched binding hyphae and/or less-branched skeletal hyphae) that provide their characteristic toughness and rigidity. In fact, many characteristics of the paper obtainable from different fungi can largely be understood by considering the differences in the presence/absence and relative abundance of the different types of hyphae in the fruit bodies. Although such things don’t affect the practical value of the book, I feel they are important for those who want to understand why the dye and papermaking properties of the fungi are as they are.

I think devoting a chapter to the chemistry of dyeing was a good idea, but I didn’t feel it was effectively done. It has too much focus on chemistry facts and structures and too little clear explanation of just how this information relates to particular dye effects such as those produced by different mordants, pH’s, and types of fiber (although I admit that it is a challenge to convey such information to readers whose chemistry experience lies in the distant past or is non-existent). To see if I was being overly critical, I asked a half-dozen avid dyers whether they had gotten much out of the chapter. Their non-committal responses led me to believe they had either not read it or had given it only a cursory skimming. Again, knowledge of the underlying chemistry is not essential for doing dyeing (and some might even say it spoils the mystery) but it can help provide a fuller appreciation of the process for the subset of dyers who desire a deeper understanding.

Additionally, I would have liked to see more mention of the correlations between dye characteristics and mushroom taxonomy. For example, mushrooms in the genus Gomphus, despite their resemblance to chanterelles, yield colors like those of ramarias, not chanterelles, in line with current thought about natural relationships in these groups. Another interesting example comes from northern Europe, where dyers were obtaining different colors from different collections of Sarcodon imbricatus (a.k.a. Hydnum imbricatum). When examined closely, the dye-color differences proved to be related to collections from spruce versus pine forests and to correlate with differences in mushroom morphology. As it happened, there were two species being identified as one -- S. imbricatus from spruce forests and with very prominent cap scales and the rarely recognized S. squamosus from pine woods and with a much less scaly cap surface. Thus, there’s room for dyers to contribute valuable information to the mushroom taxonomists.

Ultimately, however, these comments are likely to be important to only a minority of potential buyers of the book, as the majority will be interested primarily in its usefulness in helping them get started or advance in using mushrooms for color or paper. For this target audience of mycological experimenters, artists, and crafters, it will be indispensable and serve as their bible just as Mushrooms for Color has for nearly three decades (but don’t toss your copies of the latter book; not everything in it is repeated in the new one). However, for those who are new to these pursuits, I must provide a warning. Although this book covers all the basics you need to know to get started, the art of mushroom dyeing is based to a large extent on experimentation. So attend workshops, if you can, and be prepared for trial and error, variable results (including no results), and a need for careful record-keeping if you want to get reasonably reproducible results eventually. Although this might frustrate those who like complete step-by-step recipes with highly predictable results, it’s an essential part of Miriam’s excellent dyeing adventure.

— Review by Steve Trudell
— Originally published in Fungi