Cochineal Insect Dyeing

Cochineal wax secretions on cactus host

Cochineal wax secretions on cactus host

For those of you, like me, unfamiliar with cochineal insects, here is the scoop. Cochineal are scale insects that invade the prickly pear cactus. They secrete the fluffy white wax seen in the photo. One cactus at best can produce 20 lbs. of scale insects. When ground-up, they produce a deep maroon, highly prized natural dye that was used and revered by the Aztec Indians before the Spanish Conquest. The Spanish introduced the Cochineal bug with its host to the Canary Islands where a dye industry flourished until the advent of synthetic dyes in the late nineteenth century that saw the downfall of commercial natural dye production. Other than the prized color, cochineal dye is one of the few water-soluble dyes that does not fade. Cochineal bugs produce the only natural red color approved by the FDA for FOOD AND COSMETIC USE. The FDA does require labeling with cochineal as some individuals are allergic to them.

Today, the insects are shipped dried and need extraction with cream of tartar. The darkest color in my MCN Crescendo mini set took four extractions of ground bugs boiled in water with cream of tartar then strained. Unlike professional acid dyes used with citric acid, the dye bath does not exhaust well. To quote my fellow hand dying friend Linda, who has dyed with cochineal insects: “I wear out sooner than a cochineal dye bath!” I agree with her that cochineal dyeing is a small batch operation!

I recently had a dye studio demonstration for my local friends and I discussed that I was going to try dying with cochineal insects. One of the friends asked what I would be using for a mordant. A mordant is a substance that prepares the fiber to accept dye. Most commonly with protein-based fibers, aluminum sulfate is used. I did not use alum in dying my mini skeins, just cream of tartar. This likely resulted in a more purplish color scheme as pointed out by friend Julie. Perhaps next year I will repeat the February cochineal project and use alum to see the variation in color! 

Happy Knitting!  Bonnie