Volume 14 Issue 1 A Journal Dedicated to Natural Dyes Fall 2008

Miriam C. Rice and Mushrooms for Color
by Dorothy M. Beebee

We had just finished the publication of Warping All by Yourself, by Cay Garrett (Thresh Publications, 1974), when the publishers, Christine and Robert Thresh, called me in one day to share the most amazing little manuscript they had received describing "mushroom dyes." I was quite intrigued when they drove me up to Mendocino to meet with this mushroom magician, Miriam C. Rice. Having dyed wool using natural dyes for many years, I was absolutely stunned by the range of rich, beautiful earth colors Miriam was extracting from the "ugly" old fungi that she called Pisolithus tinctorius and Phaeolus schweinitzii. So, hoping to combine the best of both possible worlds, I agreed to draw "a few mushrooms" for Miriam's little book. But I had to follow her rule to learn and use only the Latin names of whatever mushrooms I illustrated. Miriam had no use for "common" names—too variable and confusing, she said. Ironically, her own work has inspired the use of NEW "common names" that are used currently in the mycological literature! Pisolithus tinctorius is now known as "Dyer's puffball" and Phaeolus schweinitzii is called "Dyer's Polypore," all thanks to Miriam!

Miriam Rice in her studio
Miriam Rice

In her youth, Miriam had received several fellowships to study sculpture and art at Yaddo, in Sarasota Springs, NY, and later completed her formal art education at the Art Students League in New York City. Soon, she herself was teaching sculpture at the University of Rochester. Eventually, Miriam and her husband, painter Ray Rice, made their way to the West Coast and to Mendocino County, CA. Along with the Mendocino Art Center founders, Bill and Jennie Zacha, the Rices were instrumental as teachers in developing and guiding the excellent art program for which the Center is so well-known. Miriam created the bronze portrait sculpture of Bill Zacha that stands today in the courtyard of the Art Center.

It was there, at the Mendocino Art Center, as an innovative art teacher, that Miriam conceived the idea of developing printing inks from natural sources for her own batik and block printing. Her work with the children's program had included experimentation with "natural dyes," and one day, on a lark, she threw some fresh bright yellow little mushrooms (Hypholoma fasciculare) into a dye pot containing wool yarn. When this produced a lovely bright yellow dye, "mushroom dyeing" was born!

Inspired by the potential of this new and unexpected source of brilliant dye color, Miriam experimented with every mushroom she found, keeping detailed notes, and sharing her irresistible enthusiasm for these new dyes with fiber artists throughout the Mendocino area. In response to this new source of exquisite color, tapestries, sweaters, and other mushroom-dyed textile arts soon emerged from the local studios of like-minded, intrigued artisans. Nowhere in the literature on dyeing up to this point was there mention of using fungi for natural dyes. This finding encouraged Miriam's friends to urge her to write Let's Try Mushrooms for Color, the small book that changed and enriched the next 35 years of our lives!

The mushroom dye process is basically the same as for all natural dyes. The fresh or dried fungi are chopped or mashed, added to water and simmered in a non-reactive pot, such as enamel or stainless steel. Usually, a 1:1 ratio of mushroom to fiber is added to the dye pot and gently simmered for a specified length of time— to 1 hour—or until a desired depth of color is achieved in the fibers. Protein fibers, such as wool, silk, mohair, angora, etc, accept the dyes most readily, although cotton, linen, hemp, soy-silk, bamboo and some synthetic fibers can be successfully dyed with fungi. Fresh fungi often produce the most vivid dye color, but there are those mushrooms whose maturity (almost to the point of being rotten) influences and enhances richness of the dye hue. And of course the changing of pH of a dye bath increases the range of color possibilities.

In order for a mushroom to produce a dye, it must contain a water soluble pigment that resists fading by sun and washing. Many mushrooms do contain pigments which make a good lightfast and colorfast dye without the use of a mordant. These "substantive dyes," are improved, however, by pre-treating the fiber with a mordant, or metallic salt. Mordants are simmered with the fiber in a hot water bath to enable molecular bonding, and then, in a subsequent dye bath, the molecules of the mushroom pigment bond with the mordant on the fiber, enabling them to make a stronger bond, and therefore increasing the potential for light- and color-fastness. Additionally, a mordant has the potential to change the original dye color. Miriam Rice originally used 5 different mordants in her mushroom dye experiments, developing a knotting system for differentiating the various mordanted yarns in the dye bath. This system is now in use among many natural dyers, enabling them to easily keep track of which mordanted yarns produce which colors:

     No knot = no mordant
     2 knots = Potassium dichromate
     3 knots = Stannous chloride
     4 knots = Copper sulfate
     5 knots = Iron sulfate

After many years of research, however, Miriam has concluded that alum and iron are the only two "safe" mordants. She still retains the same knotting system, with 1 knot for alum mordant and 5 knots for iron mordant, reminding dyers that the missing knots are for those mordants that she considers unsafe to use.

Photos of some of the earliest dyed fiber arts were included in Miriam C. Rice's invitational little book Let's Try Mushrooms for Color, which was finally published by Thresh Publications in December of 1974. These early examples have rich earth tones of golden yellow, orange, russet, burnt sienna, ochre or deep simmering chocolate brown. Just as Miriam's book was going to press, there was an important discovery that would change the future for mushroom dyes. A little brown mushroom was found to produce a deep rose dye on wool yarn. Once it was identified as belonging to the Cortinarius family, the hunt for red mushroom dyes inspired dyers on both sides of the Atlantic. This, in turn, initiated the quest for a good, lightfast violet as well as for the ever elusive blue hues. Subsequently, the dye palette expanded from earth tones to include red, violet, and blue dyes from fungi in the USA, Scandinavia and the British Isles. Another book followed in 1980: the iconic Mushrooms for Color published by Mad River Press, Eureka, CA. This volume included a complete color wheel of mushroom dyes.

Fiber artists tend to be a gregarious group who often share their work and ideas with others. As Let's Try Mushrooms for Color began to sell worldwide, interest grew in the international fiber arts community. In 1980, an "International Fungi & Fiber Exhibit" (there was one piece entered from Canada!) was mounted at the nearby Willits County Museum to celebrate Miriam's book and to expand the mushroom dye community. Fiber artists adopted the new colors and produced exquisite pieces which they showed and shared. In the following years, fiber artists organized international mushroom dye symposia in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Scotland and by 2003, in Western Australia.

Early in the 1980's, Miriam Rice's passion for recycling focused on the idea of reusing left-over mushroom dye detritus to make paper. This development satisfied and expanded her recycling urge beyond all expectations! After many tests and trials, she discovered that the best paper was produced from fungi growing on trees. This was due particularly to their high cellulose and chitin content: nothing needed to be added to form colorful, natural papers, some with such smooth textures they could be used in laser printers. The development of mushroom paper led to the creation of mushroom pigments for painting, drawing, and printing and, over next few years, the expansion of her mushroom dye process to a technique for making watercolors. Finally in recent years, Miriam produced her pièce de resistance: "MYCO-STIX™," crayons, pastels or watercolor sticks using fungi pigments combined with a variety of binders. She had come full circle in her quest for natural pigments for her batik and printing needs!

A detailed history and compendium of these processes has just been expanded into a third book by Miriam C. Rice: Mushrooms for Dyes, Paper, Pigments, and Myco-Stix™", published by Mushrooms for Color Press (December 2007). The 13th International Fungi & Fibre Symposium was held in Mendocino, CA, in January 2008 celebrating Miriam's 90th birthday and reuniting mushroom fiber artists from all over the world. A detailed history of mushroom dyes and a summary of the Symposium, its workshops, activities, and an international fiber art exhibit may be viewed online at http://www.mushroomsforcolor.com. Congratulations and kudos, Miriam!