Cornell University

Dyeing with Lichens & Mushrooms

Did you know that fungi can be used to make dyes? Perhaps that lovely carpet your grandmother had in her living room was dyed with lichens early in the 20th century? That’s right! Fungi, particularly lichens, have a long history as fabric dyes. That’s pretty neat, right? Well, we thought so too, and decided to try it out for ourselves in our Fungi lab. But before I tell you all about our lichen and mushroom (we used one mushroom too just for kicks) dyeing experience, I thought I’d share a brief history of dyeing with lichens for it is something different.

Wool dyed with synthetic orchilLichen dyeing has a long history, and by long I mean it was first mentioned in the Bible (Ezekiel 27:7). It was apparently first used for red and purple dyes by the people of Tyre thousands of years ago. The desired orchil purple colors were derived from Roccella tinctoria, and other rock lichens of the same genus. Purple denoted and conferred regality and power in Roman times, and was very expensive. Red and purple together were a symbol of life. Tyrian purple, the desired color, was originally extracted from a marine mollusk, and initially, lichen dyes were used only as underdyes. However, as the mollusk population was depleted, lichens became the primary source of the valuable purples, for they also were found to have a natural affinity to woolen and silk textiles. Colors based on a lichen ground are called conchoid purples (Kok, 1966).

The techniques and knowledge for making orchil lichen dyes were great secrets in early times. The earliest known description of the preparation of orchil was given by Roseto in 1540. The process generally consisted of obtaining the desired lichen, adding it to stale urine and slaked lime, and waiting (Perkins, 1986) If the fermentation process occurred for too long, the color would spoil. Some of the dyes even produced a characteristic smell of violets that was typical of orchil. It was also discovered that by adjusting the alkalinity, different shades of color could be produced (Kok, 1966).

Once the dye was ready for use, the rest of the process was quite simple. Water was heated slowly and the dye was added once the water was lukewarm, and together, were brought to a boil. The yarn or cloth was submerged in the bath and slowly reheated to just below boiling, where the brightest colors were obtained. Usually the yarn or cloth was dyed several times to deepen the color. This was the typical method for dyeing wool, and the method for dyeing silk was a variation of this method. Lichen dyes were unique in that they did not require any mordant or intermediary agent to be taken up by the fibers. The use of mordanting substances, acids or alkalies, were sometimes used to vary the color in orchil dyeing (Kok, 1966).

Dyeing with Pycnoporus cinnabarinusOrchil lichen dyeing disappeared during the 3rd and 4th centuries. It gained popularity again during the 1300s in Europe. Boom and bust years over the next centuries were caused by depletion and regeneration of the lichens. Lichen dyeing was popular until the early 19th century, when it was replaced by chemical colors (Perkins, 1986). It was still used in the carpet industry as a dyeing agent of carpet yarn early in the 20th century, but has now been replaced entirely by synthetic dyes (Kok, 1966). Now there is little use of lichens in dying, which is probably a good thing for lichens since they grow radially at an average of only 0.4–0.5 mm per year (Perkins, 1986 ).

Now I would like to share my personal experience in dying with fungi. As mentioned, our class extracted (and we’re still extracting) dyes from fungi. Books by Casselman (2001), Bolton (1991), and the Bessettes (2001) were valuable guides. We used two different lichens: Parmelia sulcata, which was found abundantly on local black willows; and Evernia prunastri, which was given to us and is found in mountainous areas growing on conifers. I collected the mushrooms we used from Cornell’s Arnot Forest–they are actually polypores, or bracket fungi–Pycnoporus cinnabarinus. And I can assure you we did not devastate the lichen/mushroom populations at all!

The lichen Evernia prunastri contains orchil precursors. For it, we made a slurry of chopped and ground lichen and household ammonia (we opted not to use urine…). This dye is still in the soaking/agitating stage and will, unfortunately, not be ready for about 16 weeks, after which we are hoping for a purple color to appear.

Like most lichens, Parmelia sulcata does not contain orchil precursors, but this species is said to yield a clear yellow dye. It was carefully removed from the bark, then cut and ground into tiny pieces. The mushrooms were simply cut with scissors into tiny pieces. Next, baths were set up: Parmelia sulcata and Pycnoporus cinnabarinus were placed in glass containers, and water was added to make a slurry. Both were heated to just below boiling, simmered for an hour, then cooled overnight. After we strained the cooled liquid, we added washed wool and simmered it for an hour. That was it–no mordant was needed. We now have lichen and mushroom dyed wool!

Pycnoporus produced a golden-brown color (above, right)–we dyed a second batch in the depleted dye liquor, resulting in a lighter color. Parmelia sulcata gave a dull manila-yellow color (below)–not too exciting to look at, but hey, we now have locally produced wool that was dyed using fungi and that is pretty cool if you ask me! We are anxiously awaiting the maturation of the Evernia dye and hope that we will be successful in obtaining our lichen purple. The next step will be to figure out what to make with our fungus-dyed wool! Check out our pictures of the dyeing process!

Lichen dyeing with Parmelia sulcata

  1. Bessette, A. R., and A. E. Bessette. 2001. The Rainbow Beneath My Feet: A Mushroom Dyer’s Field Guide. Syracuse, NY, Syracuse University Press. [An excellent combination of a book: mushroom identification and mushroom dyeing!]
  2. Bolton, E. M. 1991. Lichens for vegetable dyeing. McMinnville, Oregon, Robin & Russ Handweavers.
  3. Brodo, I. M., S. D. Sharnoff, and S. Sharnoff. 2001. Lichens of North America. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press. [Awesome book for lichen identification]
  4. Casselman, K. D. 2001. Lichen dyes: The new source book. Mineola, New York, Dover.
  5. Kok, Annette. 1966. A Short History of the Orchil Dyes. The Lichenologist. 3: 248-272.
  6. Perkins, P. 1986. Ecology, beauty, profits: Trade in lichen-based dyestuffs through Western history. Journal of the Society of Dyers and Colourists 102:221-227.

Dear DIYers: please note that mushrooms can be harvested more sustainably than lichens, since mushrooms are just the fruits of larger organisms. In contrast, the harvesting of lichens removes whole individuals from their ecosystem. The lichen-dyeing industry of old caused long cycles of near extirpation and decades-long regeneration in lichen populations. Today, many lichens are threatened by human activities and pollution, so we can’t recommend dyeing with them except experimentally, as we did. Our lichens were gathered from a locally abundant tree-inhabiting species, and partly from the doomed lichens on windfallen branches.

We are grateful to Kathy Halton for visiting to talk to our class about natural dyeing, to Susanne Lipari for cooking the dyes, and to Bob Dirig for first getting us excited about lichens, then helping us find the Parmelia and donating the Evernia sample.



3 Responses to “ Dyeing with Lichens & Mushrooms ”


Most people don't pay much attention to fungi, which include things like mushrooms, molds, yeasts, and mildews. Here at Cornell we think they're pretty fascinating. In fact, even the most disgusting foot diseases and moldy strawberries are dear to our hearts. We'd like to talk to you about fungi, so that like us, you too can tell gross stories at the dinner table. Afterwards, maybe you'll notice some things you would have overlooked before, and we think this could be good for the planet.

Kathie T. Hodge, Editor

Beneath Notice, our book of borescopic mycology.


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