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Friday, August 21, 2009

Natural Dyeing? Not for me.

I received the book The Rainbow Beneath My Feet last week. I live where there are a lot of mushrooms in the summer and fall, and I love to collect them. I also love to dye wool so I thought it would be a natural marriage of interests.

Wrong. Here's why.

Dyeing wool with mushrooms requires a step called mordanting. During this process the wool is conditioned (simmered for an hour) in a chemical bath that does two things. First, it makes the wool ready to permnently bond with the dye molecules. Second, it creates the conditions that will cause a certain color to come out. After the mordant, the wool still has to be dyed. So, natural dyeing adds another cooking step. That takes water, chemicals, and heat energy. Natural dyeing COSTS MORE.

It was very interesting to find out that one kind of mushroom might give five different colors, depending on the mordant used. Who wouldn't want purple, green, or blue wool? I love colors! And the samples in the book were mouth-watering. But, of the five mordants listed for each mushroom (five colors or shades of colors) THREE OF THEM ARE HIGHLY TOXIC! Natural dyeing, with certain chemicals, is BAD for the environment.

In fact, the book said to do the cooking outside if possible, and NOT to dispose of the mordant chemicals down the drain or in the yard - they have to be disposed of at a toxic waste collection center! These three include tin salts, chrome salts, and copper salts. And of course, the BEST colors come from those three evil chemicals. Oh yeah, I'm supposed to wear a MASK while I work! Natural dyeing can be UNSAFE for humans!

It gets better. After the toxic mordant step, I then have to make the dyebath. This might include other smelly stuff, like cups of ammonia. Oh yeah, and BEFORE I get to this step, I have to get the mushrooms ready with yet another boiling and simmering step. And I need (according to the book) the same weight of dried mushrooms as wool.

You read right. One pound of wool? One pound of dried mushrooms. Since three ounces of dried mushrooms is equal to a whole pound of fresh mushrooms, we are talking about over five pounds of fresh mushrooms per pound of wool! Talk about raping the environment! The woods need mushrooms too.

Give me non-toxic, quality-controlled, dependable, safe, color-fast acid (vinegar) dye. I will continue to collect a few, edible mushrooms for my own enjoyment, but I will leave the natural 'shroom dyeing to hippies with gas masks.


  1. Wow, I've surprisingly never read this side of the argument before. Thanks!

  2. I barely know what to do with the clean, safe, regulated and (almost) ready to use dyes. Mushroom dyeing wouldn't be for me either!

  3. Natural dyeing DOESN'T COST MORE. You can do cold mordanting and cold dyeing, using just solar energy to warm the dyepot. You don't have to pay for the plants and there are several (incl. mushrooms) that don't need a mordant at all. And acid dyes are quite expensive.

    Most natural dyers DON'T USE TOXIC MORDANTS, just alum and cream of tartar – which are nontoxic and can be disposed down the drain. The best colours don't come from the toxic mordants – you can get all the colours by using just alum and CoT.

    And you should wear a dust mask while working with acid dyes. The greatest risk of disease or injury due to dyes is by ingestion or exposure to dye dust. Whereby the dye itself is normally non toxic, the molecules are metabolised (usually in the liver) where they may be broken back down to the original intermediates used in manufacture – which can be toxic.

    I really like your blog, but you should do a little more research when writing about something new and unfamiliar to you – like natural dyeing.

  4. Thanks for your comments. My "research" came from the natural dyeing book itself. I did mention that not all mordant chemicals are toxic. I have to take issue with you on one point. Acid dyes are incredibly INexpensive! I can dye two pounds of wool any color for less than five dollars, in less than one hour. I don't have to drive anywhere, and I don't have to spend time collecting plants or bugs to use for my dyepot. I would need to collect one pound of fresh mushrooms to dye four ounces of fiber. In time alone, that is nowhere near "free!" I am sure natural dyeing is a great hobby for some, but not for me.

  5. Several people in my guild dye naturally, but mostly with things like walnuts, poke berries, dandelions, not mushrooms. I haven't done the research but I can tell you that in my yard I have to have enough walnuts to dye several pounds of wool a year. Maybe I'll look into it.


  6. Walnut shells sounds great! I would love to hear how it turns out!

  7. Heh. "Talk about raping the environment!" Hilarious.

    Yeah, watch out. Does the eco-terrorist group E.L.F. know about you stealing mushrooms?

  8. The manufacturing of acid reactive synthetic dyes causes major pollution around the world. Your post is simply not accurate. Heavy metals are not necessary for a full range of colors. Many of the ancient dyes were so very important through out history. Madder is what made the red coats red. I think the loss of this knowledge to quick and easy is sad.