LearnAlong—Dyeing with Lobster Mushrooms

A lazy late summer morning outside the Sechelt Arts Council. Tables, chairs, a stack of colourful books with Magic in the Dyepot emblazoned on the covers, brown paper shopping bags filled with fibre. Busy Fibreshed members (keeping a COVID-safe social distance, of course). A friendly dog adding to the atmosphere. A vat of deeply-stained liquid simmering on the portable stove at the central table, filling the summer air with the scent of dark Portobello mushrooms . . . tinged with a tantalizingly note of shellfish just slightly past its prime. It was September’s LearnAlong with Magic in the Dyepot’s author Ann Harmer, and lobster mushrooms, aka Hypomyces lactifluorum, were on the (non-edible) menu. 

Armed with toothbrushes and paring knives, we had set to work earlier in the lesson cleaning the rich red-orange mushrooms (the colour, Ann told us, coming from a parasitic fungus clinging to the surface of the host mushroom in a paper-thin layer to the pale “meat” of the mushroom). Then it was into the leg of a cut-off pair of pantyhose (remember those?) with the mildly fragrant pieces, the nylon opening closed and the lumpy, sausage-like contraption plunged into a stockpot with just the right amount of water and simmered carefully. As we waited for the pieces to yield their characteristic colour, Ann shared her mushroom-y wisdom and answered our questions with the patience of a true professional.

Once the brew was ready, it was time for the pantyhose sausage to be removed and the mordanted wool added. Time, a bit of Suffolk-picking for the ambitious, and a quick-thinking switch in the portable stovetop department followed (or perhaps it was earlier, when the pantyhose leg was being simmered; time flies when you’re having this much fun); we’d all smelled the acrid hint of burning electrical wire, traced to a faulty connection between power cord and extension cord. Again the true professional, Ann kept her cool and the stockpot was soon simmering again.

Soon, the fibre was lifted out of the pot in all its delicate apricot glory. Into a large clear jar of water dosed with a bit of vinegar went a third of the fibre, quickly and subtly shifting—thanks to the action of the acid—to a slightly more yellow-golden tone that was equally attractive. The last third went into an alkaline solution and transformed almost instantly into a light, tender rose-coral: more baby shrimp in colour than aggressive lobster-red, thankfully, and equally delicious.

It was a wrap. Our wet take-home samples of each of the three tints, carefully preserved in plastic ziplocks, are now being almost as patient as our Learn Along instructor while their colours set, waiting to be dried – and further admired. Thank you, Ann.

by Robin Razzell
Images by Lynda Daniels