It’s All About Red!

Cochineal Extract and bugs
Cochineal
Cochineal Dye
Cochineal Dye

It’s All About Red!

I am often asked “what is your favorite natural dye?” – besides indigo. That is hard to answer – I love them all.

One of my favorites though is Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), a scale insect that produces Carminic Acid, known as Natural Red 4, or Carmine, it is used to color textiles, foods and cosmetics. It is my understanding that the insect ingests the juices of the Nopal cactus (its host) these ingested juices then mix with the insect’s stomach acid to produce carminic acid.

While living on the Nopal cactus the insect produces a white fluffy covering to protect it from predators, some people mistakenly think this is a fungus growing on the cactus. Found in Mexico, Peru, Chile and the Canary Islands, today most Cochineal is raised on farms rather than gathered in the wild.

Cochineal has been used as a dye for hundreds of years (since the Mesoamericans discovered it) and remains popular today – it is wash-fast and light-fast. There are beautiful Aztec textile fragments showing Cochineal preserved in Museums.

The female is carefully collected from the Nopal cactus. The collected insects are then spread out and dried in the sun. Collecting the insects is very labor intensive – really an art – done with much patience and care. To use, the dried bugs are ground into a fine powder. Did you know that it takes approximately 150,000 bugs to make up a kilo? That is how tiny they are!

An alum mordant will give you a bluish red – add an acid, say lemon juice, and you will get scarlet. The dye bath can be used several times, giving lighter and lighter results, ending with a soft pink.

The Yarn Tree carries Cochineal Extract, as well as Cochineal Bugs Whole and Ground. Click here to learn more – Natural Dyes – Plant Materials, Bugs and Extracts