Yet another Aaaargh! moment

Lobster samples
Lobster samples

This has been a week of surprises from the dyepots, and surprises are good, right? They keep us on our toes, right? It’s just that, well, why did the surprise have to occur with my lobster mushrooms?

The last two years were not conducive to lobsters (Hypomyces lactifluorum), with prolonged dry spells and later than usual autumn rains. Added to that, three of my prime lobster patches—three!—were smack in the middle of the logging road when part of our backyard forest was clearcut three years ago.

I use just the outer orange parings of these mushrooms for dyeing, as the inner flesh is white and will simply absorb the pigment (plus, it’s good to eat if you know which mushroom has played host to the parasitical Hypomyces). So I saved up the parings from the three or four stunted specimens I found in the fall, then was overjoyed to find a paper bag of more parings that I’d evidently tucked away a few years ago. This was going to be one very special dyepot!

Indeed, the dyebath turned a beautiful orange-red within minutes of starting to simmer, and my sample yarns turned just the colour I wanted. I planned to dye a silk scarf that had taken me hours to stitch a complicated shibori design into, but I hadn’t yet mordanted many of my silks . . . never mind, thought I, I’ll just add some alum to the dyepot.

Note to self: take the time to pre-mordant, even if you don’t think you have the time for it.

I measured out a couple of spoonsful of alum, dissolved it in boiling water, then added it to the dyebath. And then . . . another moment of helpless, hyperventilating horror as I watched the red disappear before my very eyes! Thankfully I’d already removed the first sample strands (so at least I know what I missed out on) and hadn’t added the shibori scarf; a second set of samples turned out to be a lovely peach, with little distinguishable difference from one mordant to the next. (My samples are: no mordant, alum, iron, and copper.)

So now I have two silk scrunchies in a lovely peach (after which the dyepot was exhausted) and a hard-earned lesson to apply to this year’s certain (I remain optimistic) bumper harvest of lobsters.

In the meantime, I’m still looking for any chemists out there who can tell me what happened!

10 thoughts on “Yet another Aaaargh! moment”

  1. Hello Anne!
    Nice to follow your mushroom dyeing on yor blogg!
    The problem with the lobster mushroom might come from the alum addded to the bath? Alum will lower pH as alum is an acidic compound. Your tap-water is weakly basic (on the high side of neutral pH). High pH will give more red with lobster mushroom. An acidic bath will give more orange-brown.
    Reference: “Färgsvampar och svampfärger” by Lundmar / Marklund. Do you have that book?
    Birgitta and Sven

    1. Thanks so much for your comments — now I hope for a good lobster season this year so I can do some more experimenting. No, I don’t have the book you mentioned, but I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  2. Alum is strongly acid when dissolved in water, pH 3.3 for the aluminum sulfate type, 3.6 for the potassium aluminum type. So, you’ve seen here a marked pH color change. You might want to dip some strands of your yellowed material in an alkali – ammonia solution or washing soda diluted. It may reverse back to your desired color. Dick Huset

    1. Thanks, Dick, for the comment. Once I get the proper buffering solution for my new digital pH meter, I’ll make it a habit to check the pH of every dyepot. I’ve decided it’s time to move beyond simple trial and error and take a slightly more scientific approach to what’s going on!

  3. Been there, done that, and while teaching a large group of people. Many of the mushroom dyes dye only once and exhaust and from that great red you showed, that is pretty much what happened there. A
    As for putting alum in the dyebath…….don’t do that with fungi dyes. They just don’t like it. Premordant……… a whole day of it so you are ready when you want to dye. I am not a scientist, just someone whose favorite natural dyes happen to be mushrooms, so I can’t tell you the chemical change that happens when the alum hits the pot, only know that the color goes………disappointing at best, and no way to bring it back.
    I love to dye samples, but you need to weigh the sample, and weigh the fungi to find out what ratio of fiber to fungi you have to use to come up with that color. It will always be way more than you are expecting, and have on hand. Just cover the fungi with water. Miriam Rice told me over and over that I was using too much water, just cover them, no more. I leave the fungi in the pot, and add the yarns….fungi shakes out well. Heat and simmer for an hour or so, and turn the pot off………sometimes I leave the fiber in the pot for a couple of days………not long enough for mold to appear and it is another fungi, and will change the color, most often browning the color of your dye and fiber.

    1. Thanks, Carol, for the tip about using just a little water. I’ll definitely give that a try with my next dyepot. I’m going to stick with my fine lingerie bag for holding the fibre, though, particularly with Phaeolus — it doesn’t absorb any pigment, and after I’ve broken the fungus into little pieces, there are too many little bits floating around that I’d rather not have to deal with when I’m spinning.

  4. So after reading all this, my question is…do you pre-mordant with alum. Then do the lobster bath? I just stumbled upon a huge patch at my sister’s and am excited to dye some lobsters. How long do you simmer the mushrooms for before adding the fibre? Do you let it sit overnight after simmering? thanks so much for all the info…I googled a dyebath recipe and this is what I found ~ very comprehensive. Thank you.
    xo Jules

    1. Yes, I premordant the fibre for all my dyepots except the Dyer’s Polypore (Phaeolus schweinitzii), which already has tannins in it. How lucky you are to have found a patch of lobsters! You’ll want to pare the orange “skin” and just use that, as the white interior flesh will absorb the pigment. I usually put the parings in a piece of old pantyhose, which makes it much easier to get them out later. With lobsters, you’ll see the colour within ten minutes of simmering, but I usually let it go for about an hour, and it doesn’t do any harm to let it cool overnight. And after the fibre has simmered for about an hour, you can turn off the heat but let the fibre stay in the dyebath to cool overnight. Good luck!

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