Home PageDyeingNatural Dyes: Cochineal Red

Jun 11

Natural Dyes: Cochineal Red

What do we see when we look in our red natural dye pots? Passion, fire, fertility, blood, desire? Each caldron of color is infused with history, tradition, and cultural meaning—all swirling with stories. The red dyes have invoked strong feelings and cloaked royalty since ancient times and this summer we will explore three red dyes: American cochineals, lac and madder. Our cochineal investigation focuses on Peru, a country that now produces the largest amount of red cochineal dye in the world.

Science in the Dyepot
Tiny cochineal insects produce a stunning red that has been valued since ancient times. These cactus-eating scale insects grow on prickly pear cactus right in our neighborhoods, but are cultivated in Peru, which produces higher amounts of color. The coccid family includes American cochineal, Polish and Armenian cochineal, lac, and kermes – all bursting with carminic acid.

Explore History
Once the Spanish saw cochineal in the Aztec plazas, they cornered the market and funded their empire on the backs of tiny scale insects. Cochineal red spread from the Americas to Europe then to the Middle East and textiles colored with this valuable dye can be found in collections all over the world. Red was the color at the top of the heap, highly prized and its secrets protected. An in-depth history of this amazing dye can be discovered in Amy Butler Greenfield’s wonderful book, A Perfect Red.

Cultural Meaning
The social meaning of textiles cannot be underestimated. All are created within a particular cultural context and reflect ways of thinking and acting on the materials available in that culture. In Peru, the making of textiles extends into the deep past and cochineal (cochinilla) has been used in that cloth production since the Nasca culture (AD 1-700), long before the Inca created their brilliant red clothing. The Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco is one Peruvian weaving community still producing fine heritage textiles using local cochineal, many of which are available here. When we create color in our contemporary dyepots, we are adding to, extending and changing the meaning carried on the threads of material culture.

Dye Technique
Various techniques work for the dyeing of materials using cochineal. My favorite method is to grind the dried bugs in a small coffee grinder dedicated to dye materials. Weigh the required amount to get the desired shade. Boil the ground dye matter for 15 minutes and add a pinch of cream of tartar. Strain the liquid into a dyepot. Repeat two more times without the cream of tartar, adding water as needed and pouring dye liquid from each boil into the dyepot. This may seem like a lot of work, but will extract the most dye from your precious stash of bugs. Add fibers to the dyepot and simmer for at least 30 minutes. Leave in the dye bath to cool. This bath can be used repeatedly until the water is clear. Water is key in this process. Cochineal is extremely sensitive to chemicals in the water. Try one bath with your tap water to see the results. Clear reds can usually be obtained by using distilled water, including rinsing in distilled water. As with all natural dyeing, experimentation will be your guide.

Fun Facts –Bugs in Our Food
It’s true that many foods and cosmetics are colored with Red Dye E120. Perhaps you don’t want to eat bugs, but this red dye is safe for consumption.

Until next month – Get your dye on and share this on by clicking icon below.

Please welcome our new monthly guest blogger, Judy Newland of clothconspiracy.com. Culture and the environment are the two main topics she addresses in her textile art. She’s been working in textiles for more than thirty years as a maker and later as a textile historian. With a background in textile history and museum anthropology, she brings a deep cultural engagement to everything she produces. She doesn’t just dye fabric in a dyepot, she looks in the dyepot and sees world history, science, fashion, medicine, and ritual! It’s an entire world to explore and share and we’re pleased she’s sharing it with us on the cloth road. 

Exhibition, The Red That Colored The World, now open at MOIFA in Santa Fe. Catalogue available.

For the serious dyer, Dominique Cardon’s Natural Dyes is a must read.
A classic study is Fred Gerber’s 1978 book, Cochineal and the Insect Dyes.
For a fascinating history of cochineal, read Amy Butler Greenfield’s, A Perfect Red.
For a beautiful look at objects in museum collections, check out Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color by Elena Phipps

Full citations for books:
Greenfield, Amy Butler, 2005, A Perfect Red, Harper Perennial, New York.
Cardon, Dominique, 2007, Natural Dyes, Archetype Publications, London.
Gerber, Frederick, 1978, Cochineal and The Insect Dyes, Ormond Beach, FL.
Phipps, Elena, 2010, Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

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