Sunday, July 24, 2016

Living to Dye -- Part 2 The Wonders of Cochineal

In June, Palmetto Fiber Arts Guild continued our exploration of natural dye possibilities when Michaela McIntosh shared the history and properties of cochineal -- which typically produces a range of vibrant red - rusty orange/reds- brownish reds.

She brought along a mixed-up dye pot and we got to see the results of dipping different fibers in cochineal. While indigo comes from a plant that can be, and is, grown locally, cochineal comes from the dried bodies of insects (ee-ewe) native to South America. Today, Peru is the main source.

Here is how the dye is sold -- you can order it from Amazon!
A mesh bag of these pellets of the dried insect bodies are placed in hot water to make the dye bath.
There is a "recipe" for the amount of dye in an amount of water, and it was found that adding lime peel helped the dye take-up into the fiber. 
The story of cochineal's history is a page-turner that is hard to put down. It involves conquistadors,  money, power, subterfuge, international espionage, brutal murder, piracy, and controversy among the food safety people. Read on for the quick version:

Far back into history, Europe had access to a red fabric dye. But when Cortes invaded Mexico in the early 1500s his army found red fabric and paints far more vibrant and vivid than any they had seen before. They also discovered the source of that color -- the dried bodies of the cochineal -- an insect that lived on and was harvested from the pads of prickly pear cactus. Cortes took this wondrous stuff back to Spain and by 1600, cochineal was the country's 2nd most valuable import from Mexico. Only silver was more valuable.

Following the laws of scarcity, fabric dyed using cochineal was expensive; affordable only to the elite. Hence, red garments  - or even garments trimmed in red, were a sign of wealth and status. Think robes of Cardinals in the Catholic church, think flags, think garments for Kings and Queens. . .

Most Europeans thought the red dye came from a plant and because it was so valuable, Spain made sure the true source of the red dye was kept a secret -- to the point that many Mexicans who worked in the cochineal fields and knew how to produce the dye were murdered to prevent the secret from getting around. Other countries either had to buy cochineal from Spain, or steal it (this is where the pirates come in). Cochineal was a very profitable for Spain.

For years, other countries invested great effort to find out how to get their own cochineal, but these efforts were thwarted because they thought they were looking for a plant. After 300 year, in the early 1800s, French and Dutch adventurers figured things out and were successful in smuggling live cactus pads covered with insects out of Mexico.

So then cochineal production went international with cochineal ranches being established in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. Conditions proved to be ideal in the Canary Islands and in 1868, the Canaries exported 6 million pounds of cochineal.

In the late 1800s, just as things were booming, synthetic dyes became available and as a result, world-wide cochineal production plummeted. This created a major finalcial crisis in Spain as a huge, 250 year-old industry faded to almost nil within the span of a couple of decades.

Today, cochineal is produced primarily in Peru (where the Mexicans got it to begin with) and is used in medical tracers, artists' paints and microscopy stains. It is the only natural red food coloring approved by the FDA. Indeed, as food producers continue to switch back to natural colorings, more and more of what we eat and drink will probably be dyed with dead bugs. There are some people who are squeamish about that.

Fun Fact for travelers:  Cochineal can be found in side canyons of the Colorado River, appearing on prickly pear cactus heads inside match head size white fuzzballs. If you see this, mash one of those fuzzballs between your fingers -- a bright red ooze? Yep, that's cochineal.

If this quick romp through history has piqued your interest, find more at these two websites that elaborate on the details on the story:  The Bug That Changed History and Putting the Red in Redcoats

Back to current times and PFAG's experience with cochineal. Here is some 100% silk dyed with cochineal at Michaela's right after she brought this topic to our June meeting.

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