Sunday 5 October 2008

Dyeing with mushrooms and plants

Every Thursday for many years now I have been taking some time of my own and gone to a sewing group at the local school. In this group we have a teacher and 5 to 8 members only. We can sew our own projects, and the teacher gives individual help whenever there is a tricky problem. One of the faithful members of the group is Hanna. I knew her also through the school of our children, her two daughters were classmates of my elder son and my daughter Kaija. Hanna told us in the group that she had experimented with dyeing, and I asked for an interview so she could share her knowledge with my readers. This is my first ever interview, so I kept it really simple. Here it goes:

Q: Tell us something about you and your crafty hobbies.

A: I'm a middle-aged kindergarten teacher and I have done handicrafts and all kinds of art and creative work with my hands more or less all my life. I have tried aquarelle painting, painting silk, painting china, worked with twigs and brushwood, woven baskets with willow, tried metal wire works and small decorations of plywood, to mention some. I'm a keen knitter and I like crocheting. I also sew patchwork quilts, clothes and small fabric animals and dolls. I learned to crochet from my paternal grandmother when I was five years old; and after that I have always had some handicraft projects going. At the moment I have several unfinished projects going on. Sometimes I feel that my work is a hindrance to my hobbies. ;)

This is a photo I took last spring at the exhibition of the sewing group. The green and yellow baby quilt is made by Hanna.

She also attended another group and made these three sweet softie mice.

Q: You told me that you have dyed yarn with mushrooms. Where did you get that idea?

A: I had read in crafty blogs that you can get beautiful shades of colour to yarns with plants. My sister, who is an artist and art teacher, wanted to try dyeing paper with plants, and I became inspired to try myself. We have already agreed on a new dyeing bee for next summer at our cottage.
Q: Did you find instructions on the internet or in a book, or have you taken a course for dyeing?
A: I borrowed a couple of books from the library and searched in the nature for dyeing plants and mushrooms mentioned in them. I have not taken a dyeing course but e.g. the Dyer's Guild (Värjärikilta) in Finland organizes courses during summer time.
Q: How did you choose and find your dyestuff? Did you use a special yarn?
A: I wanted to try the plants and mushrooms which are rich in colour. It was easy to find dyeing mushrooms in autumn. I tried all kinds of suitabe dyestuff I could find. The corky fungus growths and mosses will have to wait until next year. I used the machine washable 7 veljestä yarn by Novita (75% wool, 25% polyamide). It withstands (according to other dyers) felting better than 100 % wool yarns, as the temperature reaches 80 to even 90 degrees C during the process. I used white, natural white and grey yarns.
Q: Can you mention some examples of the mushrooms and plants you used?
A: I used veriseitikki (cortinarius/dermocybe sanguinea) and verihelttaseitikki (cortinarius/dermocybe semisanguinea), which both give red tones; and nummitatti (suillus bovinus) which gives a bright yellow colour. I also used spruce cones to get a brown colour. Then I cooked my aalmost withered tagetes from the garden into a dyeing broth. They gave a really strong green and the broth smelled like berry juice. The dyeing is best done outdoors, as some of the dyestuffs are poisonous and the whole process is also very messy.

These green and yellow yarns are dyed with suillus bovinus mushsrooms, and tagetes. Photo by Hanna.

Q: Will you tell us how it all happens?
A: First I cooked the mushrooms or plants in water. Then I let it cool down. I first dipped the yarn in hand warm water and laid it then in the dye with the same temperature. Next I heated it slowly up to 60 degrees C, picked the yarn from the pot for a moment and added alum as a mordant. Then I heated the dye with the yarn up to 80 to 90 degrees C, and kept it at that temperature for about an hour. I let the dye pot with the yarn cool down to hand temperature again, and took the yarn to be washed in handwarm water. I added some vinegar in the first water, and rinsed the yarn until the water remained clear. Finally I admired the beautiful colours and waited impatiently for the yarn to dry.
The red and brownish colours are from cortinarius mushrooms and from spruce cones. Photo by Hanna.

Q: Will the colours fade in the sun or when washed?
A: I don't think the colours are as fast as in the industrially dyed yarns, but they are good enough for me. All the yarns I could use mordant for are colourfast. I also tried dyeing without mordant (as I run out of alum!), and even those yarns kept the colour when washed. However, I recommend the use of some mordant.
Q: Is it possible to dye other natural fibres, like cotton or silk fabric or paper?
A: I have only experimented with wool. I hear cotton requires more dyestuff, and I don't know about silk. My sister dip-dyed some papers, but the colour was paler than in the yarns. I don't know how permanent the colour would be.
Q: Can you give any hints for those who got inspired to try?
A: Mushrooms give the most dyestuff easily. I'm a beginner myself, so I recommend trying all kinds of material available from the nature. You must naturally not use any endangered or rare plants. Many weeds from the garden can well be used and of course the summer plants of your own garden when their season is over, like I did with the tagetes. You just need a big old pot. I bought mine at the flea market.

Thank you Hanna for sharing this with us!


  1. The colours of the yarn are so soft and they realy "fits" each other just fine..

  2. thanks for such an interesting interview, the colours are glorious.

  3. Ooo I do like her! It sounds like she has a finger in most pies- a real Renaissance Woman. How fascinating. I love the colours she has produced- so vibrant yet natural and far less harmful to the environment than a lot of the dyes currently used.

    I know it's possible to do embroidery silks in real silk from vegetable dye as I have 3 very treasured ones waiting for the right project. They were made according to C5th methods.

  4. How very interesting your classes must be. I enjoyed your interview so much, I love yarn and thosse colors are really beautiful. thanks for the nice comment on my blog. blessings and hugs, Marie

  5. This was a wonderful interview Ulla. I loved hearing all about this dyeing process.. so interesting. And the colors are truly beautiful. I can just imagine nice warm sweaters knitted with those wools. :-)
    And her mice couple is adorable.

  6. thanks for the link to this Ulla, it is all very interesting. k.


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