Usually, when people imagine uses for mushrooms, they put them on pizza or take them before writing an experimental album. But a creative use for mushrooms has allowed an art form to bloom, using mushrooms as dyes.
Metchosin resident Wendy Mitchell is one of a number of local craftspeople experimenting with mushrooms, and producing beautiful results. Mitchell usually works with wool, weaving and knitting fabrics and often uses natural dyes from plants she’s scavenged from along the side of the road, using everything from lichen to onion skins.
“I mean, dying is chemical but it’s also magic – completely magic.”
Mitchell’s interest in mushrooms emerged similarly to how mushrooms spread, with spores of information coming from other locals interested in the field. One was Andy MacKinnon, formerly a District of Metchosin councillor and lifelong fungus fanatic who literally wrote the book on mushrooms. Mushrooms of British Columbia, by MacKinnon and Kem Luther, recounts some of the history of craft and the techniques of not just dyeing but cooking and medicinal uses. MacKinnon said Metchosin’s mycological community is vibrant and is producing interesting work.
In her workshop, Mitchell has made mushroom dyes, ink and paper – all of it categorized, labelled and organized. Her meticulousness is the thing that has impressed her husband, Wes Johnson, the most – himself a former chemist (although unhelpfully, his focus was inorganic chemistry, Mitchell joked).
She’s also experimented with the fluorescent properties of fungi, making woollen fabric that lights up in the dark under a black light, or ink that appears invisible until a black light is shone over it.
Mitchell doesn’t have to search for the fungi herself – the large fungus foraging community on Vancouver Island has proved to be willing donors for her dyes, with Mitchell often able to return to them an item of clothing in turn.
“It’s much harder to get intense dies with mushrooms. But one of the things when you use natural dyes, everything goes together … that goes with that weird greeny yellow with that new browny whatever. You can put all of that together and nothing is going to clash. It’s all going to look nice and good.”
Mitchell said research and interest in mushrooms have started to spread, meaning a lot is changing. Learning the Latin species names of mushrooms is important to keep track of changes, she said, with many species having different colloquial names depending on where people are from.
“Whenever I pick something up … I work away and I try out it, and then I think ‘maybe I should go to a textbook and stop trying to reinvent the wheel.’ But it’s good because then you have a feel for it.”