Dyeing from the Daughter’s Perspective

Mushroom dyed yarn

The Sonoma County Mycological Association (SOMA) hosts SOMA Camp, a yearly gathering in Northern California for wild mushroom enthusiasts. It’s a weekend in January to celebrate and learn about wild mushrooms for eating, or for using in fiber arts, such as creating natural dyes from mushrooms.

My Mom, Dorothy Beebee, has been teaching dye workshops at SOMA Camp for the last 10+ years. And honestly, after many years of preparing and teaching several workshops in one weekend – she’s tired. She decided that this would be the last year. I was pleased when she asked me to assist her in the very last workshop; in her words, this was my last chance to see“organized chaos in action.”

I’ve been around mushroom dyes, workshops, fungi fairs, for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I loathed the smell of mushrooms simmering in a dye pot. Funny how a person’s perspective changes as they get older; when I walked into her classroom last week, that same smell flooded me with wonderful childhood memories. Most distinctly, of spending the weekend at the Fungus Fair in Santa Cruz, and at Miriam Rice’s dye studio in Mendocino.  In many ways walking into that classroom felt like coming home.

Dorothy Beebee's notes, dye samples, and books she's illustrated on display
Dorothy Beebee’s notes, dye samples, and books she’s illustrated on display

I was immediately put to work filling buckets of water, putting scissors and pens on each table– any task my Mom could think of. While I scurried around trying my best to be helpful, she introduced me to her many friends and students whom I’ve only known by name.  It was a jovial start to an invigorating and exhausting day.

She began the class with a quick review of the dyes they made in the intermediate dye class the day before, which included: Phaeolus schweinitzii (amber yellow), Pisolithus (tinctorius) arises (brown), Dermocybe (pink/apricot), Gymnopilus spectabilis (butter yellow), Omphalotus olivascens (purple or green), and Hydnellum peckii (blue-green). I was not only surprised by how many dyes they managed in one day (organized chaos is right!), but how much of her lecture I understood. Apparently, between our gossiping and giggling over the dye pots at her house, I was actually learning something.

Gymnopilus spectabilis dye
Gymnopilus spectabilis dye

This class was a “free-for-all:” each person brought their own fiber samples, and chose which dye pots to add them into. The choices were limited to three mushroom dyes (brown, yellow, pink), plus lavender and chartreuse from the leftover Lichen Dye class). This meant many skeins per pot, and not a lot of room around each pot for each person to manage their own skein. But for the most part, the women didn’t let their intoxication of brilliant color overtake their sense of civility, and despite a few minor issues, chaos didn’t prevail. After an hour, the results of the dyes hung out to dry while we all replenished our energy with lunch.

The results from the day's experiments
The results from the day’s experiments

Back at the classroom, she led us in another lesson about each of the mushrooms the class worked with using fresh examples that she had just snagged (it helps to know people!) from SOMA’s display table. The class ended by splitting up the now cooled leftover dyes into containers that my Mom brought, in hope that everyone would continue their experiments at home.

Most of the class stayed behind to help in the massive cleanup, which included washing all the dye pots, buckets, lids, strainers, spoons; I talked her into keeping one leftover dye of Gymnopilus, and carefully set it on the floor of her car, promising that I’d put my feet on the lid if she promised to take the corners slowly (we made it home without a drop spilled!)

We finished packing her car to the brim, cleared the classroom tables, wiped the whiteboard clean of her notes, and swept dirt and mushroom debris from the floor.  I was exhausted. My feet were tired, my thighs ached from carrying buckets of water uphill, and my head was full of the day’s delightful conversation with interesting adults (a treat, since I spend most of my time refereeing skirmishes between my three kids). I looked at her and said: Mom, you wore me out after just one class – how in the world do you do this all weekend?

I’ve watched her spend weeks gathering supplies before Camp, creating yarn and silk samples for each student, and collecting mushrooms from considerate friends. Or after Camp, I can’t count the times I’ve hear her lament: “It’ll take me a week to unpack my car!” But now that I’ve experienced just one day of it, I understand why next year she’s skipping Camp, and going to Hawaii.

A few days later, as we were once again tearing up mushrooms for another dye  and discussing the dye class, I mentioned that I can’t imagine she’d be done with it. Despite all the work, she simply enjoys it too much to completely let it go. She agreed. Perhaps she just needs a sabbatical in the tropical sun in 2014, and will be eager to enjoy SOMA Camp the following year. If so, I hope to assist her again.


  1. I love your mother. SHe is so dear and appreciate the time I had with her in Alaska. I recently bought a scarf and hat from her at the festival in Santa Cruz ESPECIALLY because you had made them. I love seeing what you are doing and how you are documenting it on line. Mushroom dyeing and sharing mushroom dyeing has a joy of its own. Good for you to share that together.
    Kind regards,

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