Cochineal – an interesting source of red

My current reading books about cochineal

What is Cochineal?

Cochineal is a fascinating natural dye stuff. It is believed to have been discovered for world wide use by Conquistador Hernan Cortes on his exploration of southern America in the early 1500s when claiming Mexico for the Spanish. This tinyscale beetle gives brilliant reds, pinks and magenta on natural fibres like wool and silk. It is thought to have been used by the civilisations of central and southern America since the second century BC. Through early history it became a central part of Aztec and Inca cultures.

Cochineal is actually a tiny insect, Dactylopius coccus from the Latin coccinus meaning scarlet coloured. It lives on prickly pear cactus and feeds on the moisture and nutrients within the fleshy pads. The bugs are harvested by gently brushing the cactus pads. The bugs are then dried to less than 30% of their body weight and stored for use. It looks like tiny grey, silver beads and for years, until the advent of microscopes, its nature as an insect was unknown.

Tiny cochineal bugs

Cochineal in History

Cochineal was a valuable trade commodity from the 1500s after its discovery and highly prized for its rich red dyes. Europeans considered red to be one of the most luxurious of colours for textiles. In France in the 1700s dye importers were under considerable strain to keep up with demand and costs. The government waived import duties and allocated a set import allowance for the cloth dyers of the Languedoc region. By the 18th century, cochineal had almost completely replaced European Kermes (another insect dye) as the main source of scarlet colour for dyers around the world. It’s colour yield can be 10 times that of Kermes, and although it is a very expensive dye stuff it has excellent colour potential and exhausts very well over subsequent dye baths.

Cochineal today

Cochineal has been widely used in the food and cosmetics industry for years, and is known as E 120 colorant. However, since 2012 its use has been waning following an outcry from Muslims, Jews and vegetarians who rightly objected to “animal” products being hidden under an innocuous number label in their food. It is still used as a stain in laboratory tests and microscope slides.

As a dye

Cochineal gives an instant colour when crushed and put into hot water. The colour literally floods out. This colour can then be used as a dye bath with mordanted fibre. In the past the mordants would be metals like tin, or tin pots used. Nowadays alum is a safe and easily available mordant and it helps the colour bind to the fibre. After the initial colour from the crushed bugs, the process can be repeated for more colour which will be slightly paler. (Exhaust dyeing) The initial dye bath can also be reused for paler colours. I have found that 10g cochineal/100g fibre gives a very dark, crimson red. I have reused the dye bath and the crushed bugs to get a series of reds and pinks and dyed 1kg of yarn from 10g of cochineal.

Cochineal Pink
Cochineal Pink

If you are interested in trying it as a dye stuff in a dye bath or solar dye have a look here:

Cochineal is available from Gorgeous Yarns too. Why not give this lovely red dye a go?

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