Dye Information – Cochineal Dyes
I love it when I get a nice fleece, especially when one of the local Tennessee sheep growers brings some by. Just last week I was teaching some classes on natural dyes and got three beautiful border leicester fleeces, the most in the grease that I have ever seen! The fleeces weighed a ton. I saved the lanolin for soap making. I like to wash and then dye while the wool is still wet; less stressful on your fibers. I sell Jacquard dye and love it. The Jacquard dyeing process is a piece of cake. This day we were using natural dyes, I gather as many of these locally as I can. I searched the net for some affordale Cochineal bugs for this class. All of the wool is now dyed in fabulous shades of reds, lavendars, and purples. I Have been haveing the pleasure of blending fibers on my mad batt’r drum carder. This Strauch motorized machine saves me so much time that it has changed my life; I now have more time so spin. I enjoy the Aura spinning wheel from Majacraft. It is so easy to use, has a huge bobbin, I can just sit and spin the great big hugest mad batts on the hughest bobbin and watch it all turn into beautiful yarn.
Here are a few bits of info that I learned on the net. The Cochineal insect is a small parasitic sap-loving insect that feeds primarily upon the sap of certain cacti. These insects are sessile which means they are unable to move about. They live as a bump or pearl upon the plant (also called a scale.)
These insects and their related cousins live in different location around the globe, from South America and Mexico to Eurasia. A type of Cochineal insect can be found in Poland and was the source of the coveted crimson red fabric dye, but the introduction of Mexican cochineal in the 16th century made harvesting the local variety not as lucrative due to the labor intensive harvesting required. A great many insects must be processed to produce any useful amount of the highly prized red dye extract. It requires about 70,000 or more dried cochineal insects to produce just one pound of dye.
Mexico was the major producer of this dye by the labor of the Oaxaca natives and this became the second most valuable Mexican export after silver.
Demand for this product increased and it was after the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Spain that the product was traded openly as a commodity. It became so valuable and highly sought that the dye was even listed on both the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchange based upon demand and supply.
Although these sessile insects look like little pearly-white dots attached to the cactus pad, the insects themselves are of a dark purple color. The nymphs exude a white waxy substance (scale) which acts as a protection from the hot sunlight as well and perhaps mainly to prevent water-loss, and it affixes them to the cactus pad itself except where their pincher-like mouths bite into and drink the juices of the host cactus. The hatched nymphs feed upon the sap and juices of the cactus until maturity, and the males upon maturity lose the ability to feed and they die short after mating. Typically, only the females are ever seen due to this and probably other factors that favor the female which greatly outnumber the male. The females don’t even have wings. Only the males have wings, and are much smaller than the female.
Attempts in the late 1700s to farm the Cochineal insects in Australia failed, but the cactus that was also imported as their host flourished and eventually overran parts of eastern Australia. In turn, these invasive floras were brought under control by the introduction of yet another non-native species, the South American Moth Cactoblastis cactorum. As you might guess from the suggestive Latin nomenclature, they (the larvae) eat cactus. The color of the British Red Coats was from the cochineal insect dye.