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A World Through Hue

Dye strips with hands by Micah Fischer

The Mushroom Color Atlas ( is a unique – and still growing – online, educational experience, a window on a whole world of colour, one many people are unaware exists. When people think of natural dyes and pigments, they tend to think of things like ochres, or the scaly insect kermes. Even if they’re more familiar with natural dying, their mind probably goes to avocado stones and onion skins rather than to fungi.

When they do encounter it, the range of colour really shocks people. Even for people who are experts in fungi in other ways the reaction is often just sheer incredulity.

That was some of the motivation for creating this resource and reference, as an educational portal into mycology – so many people are curious and interested in mycology or they come from an artistic/design/creative tradition, and don’t know that mushrooms have this huge array of pigments and colours.

Broken down by dozens of variables and indexed by species, the Atlas features extensive notes on foraging, processing, fibres, laking pigment, creating paint and more. It is meant to grow and evolve like the natural world itself. I started it in March of 2021 and launched it in October, and I still have hundreds more colours to add and a dozen other mushrooms.

A majority of them are local at the moment but my goal is to be able to go to other parts of the world and collaborate with other people to get some unique mushrooms from other areas. It will be wonderful when it can be a full ‘atlas’ of the world by colour – a really fascinating way to see geography, species distribution and ecology. I’ve got all the data and information, it’s just a matter of compiling it.

Mulling by Meeree Ryalls

When making the Mushroom Color Atlas I decided to be more exacting with my experimentation, like a scientist in a lab, following the same processes each time in order to create a baseline for mushroom colour. I wanted to have the rigour and the documentation because natural dyeing is a science and an art and it can be like baking – everything needs to be just perfect – or it can be like cooking – ad hoc ‘throw this in here’ ‘add more butter’. I love both aspects of it but for the Atlas I wanted to have very set parameters and processes. So if you found a patch of mushrooms parasitised by Hypomyces lactifluorum you could decide based on the colour ranges in the Atlas – do you want to work with it now, fresh, or do you want to dry it? Or will you shift the ph vs leave it neutral? It’s designed to help people start to hone in on the colour that they’re interested in, and facilitate their experimentation, as well as expand their knowledge. You can often see the really remarkably different results, and that’s the sort of thing that is interesting to people bringing this into their creative work.

The trick is to balance having information available for those individuals, but keeping it really top level to reel in a more generalist just by piquing their curiosity or imagination. Because it’s process based and because it’s a great illustration of the variability of natural dyeing and all of the different fabrics, the goal is for it to be an accessible tool even for people teaching textile studies at quite elementary level to children.

Fungi dyes are also a great introduction to re-thinking our relationship to our environment and what we’re consuming and why and how much. Dyeing is now relegated to ‘craft’, but historically it’s art, or more than art; it became part of what you created and made and how you lived. And that distinction is something that people are going to be – perhaps already are – rethinking. Engaging with natural, limited, seasonal, labour intensive, slow, unpredictable sources of colour reshapes people’s relationship with the way they see the world; how they process the stimulation colour provides; and their values.

Natural dye is of course closely related to the whole slow fashion movement – getting people to stop and think about mass consumption, especially in the world of colour and design and fashion. Not only are the industrial processes and the pollution from those industries horrific for the climate and our health, they’re also very wasteful. Developing an appreciation for natural colour means coming to terms with your relationship with the goods you consume.

Cortinarius neosanguines pigment by Julie Beeler

As a project it has also opened endless interesting questions and avenues for inquiry. For instance, people think about soil pigments coming from minerals quite easily but since fungi have such a profound impact on soil ecology, and the types of minerals that are retained in soil, and the plants that are able to grow there, it would be really interesting to know how they impact the colours we are able to get out of the world from other sources. Arlene Bisetti’s book ‘The Rainbow Beneath our Feet’ raises goosebumps any time I’m walking on soil – no matter where – in an urban setting, in a forest, in a yard. You just think about that rainbow there in the soil waiting to be unlocked and revealed. It would be eye-opening and exciting to work with a soil expert, a chemist, and a mycologist on that, because there’s so many interesting minerals that the fungi are filtering and transforming.

Indeed, some of the historical use of fungi for dyeing came about because they’re natural accumulators of minerals we use for mordants, which allow the colour to bind to the fibre. For instance, very early on people found that agarikon – Laricifomes officinalis – would help them get really bright reds from the kermes insect. But they weren’t using the mushroom itself for the colour – instead mushrooms were being traded for their mineralisation and mordanting capacity, around Italy, and France, and Poland. There’s also evidence for mordant making mushrooms (as well as dye mushrooms) being traded throughout Asia, on the route of the Silk Road all the way into the Taklamakan desert.

Discovering something new or unknown is always exciting and in figuring out the dye behaviour of different mushrooms you’re also figuring out quite a bit about their biology and biochemistry. There’s a mushroom in the Hydnellum family, Hydnellum fuscoindicum. Its name sake, indigo, is a well known dye plant that produces a rich, unique blue. When I first started working with this mushroom I would get some nice blues working with it at first but then I let it ferment in an anaerobic environment for three months, opened it up and created a high alkaline environment, which is what you do with indigo. The colours I was pulling out on cellulose fibre were exactly the blues that you get from indigo. I sent this to a friend who’s an indigo expert, and said ‘look at this! What is going on?’

We eventually determined that they are sharing the same chemical compounds and the same enzymes. But what we were finding was that if we oxygenated the mushroom dye vat by stirring it up it would produce blue dye, whereas in an indigo vat if you introduce oxygen you will stir the vat and it will produce green dye. They’re sharing these things and yet behaving differently. It was just fascinating. I looked back trying to figure out who identified it as ‘fuscoindicum’ – how did it get its name? Is it because of the blackish blue fruiting body? Or is there more? I don’t have an answer yet.

Dye strips by Micah Fischer

It’s exciting to put those connections together and realise the similarities between the fungal and the plant kingdoms. Through colour you realise that they are sharing a lot of things that must have crossed over millennia ago. There’s so many ways to branch off with questions from that, and all sorts of things to get evolutionary biologists excited. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg. I sometimes wish I had been a chemist or a mycologist rather than an artist and a designer but at the end of the day it doesn’t have to be one or the other – there are so many cases where artists have pushed science to ask a question, or scientists have asked a question that artists could say ‘oh we can imagine the answer’!

Dye swatches with mushrooms by Meeree Ryalls
Phaeolus schweinitzii dye swatches by Meeree Ryalls

Another mushroom I love is in the Ramarias – the coral mushrooms – I always do these when I’m teaching young kids. I’ll put some fabric in the vat and it doesn’t look like it’s coloured at all, and there’s a moment of ‘oh that didn’t work’. But the minute you drop it in some water with a little bit of iron, it turns purple. It’s a really fun surprise to see the variations of colour that you can get.

The pigments are also really fascinating. Some of the mushrooms I work with, for example, in the puffball family, do not lake; you cannot form them into a pigment because of the nature of the spores. But they create incredible inks. When you think about taking that water soluble ink and mixing it with a non-soluble pigment then you could get some really interesting results. You could also take different substrates – papers and woods – and in essence ‘dye’ those with pigments and inks. The world’s our oyster – we just need more time!

It would be incredible if we could start to grow these mushrooms to produce colour at scale. There’s a lot of incentive, and that science is moving incredibly quickly. There are some edible mushrooms that do produce dye that people already cultivate in their homes. They’re scaling up indigo and some of these other natural dye processes specifically to transform the fashion industry so it would be a dream if we could start to grow dyers the way we do edibles and medicinals.

Until we can grow dye mushrooms at scale though, we need to be smart and ethical about how we forage. We need to make sure that we’re not foraging for anything that’s endangered or on the red species list, and that we’re only taking the little bit that we need – you don’t need a ton of mushrooms to get colour so you don’t need to hoard it all. A lot of people feel you can treat a mushroom like fruit – you can pick every apple and be fine because you haven’t chopped down the tree, but I feel that if you can leave mushrooms behind to go through the spore dispersal process then the natural cycle is better sustained.

Mushroom Color Atlas colour swatches
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Issue 04