A long, mostly boring, very pointless, story about dyeing with cochineal

Lots and lots of cactus bugs.
Lots and lots of cactus bugs.

Last fall, almost exactly one year ago, I took an introductory class in natural dyeing.

It was a little disorganized, but I enjoyed it overall. We dyed linen, cotton, a cotton-hemp blend, and wool, using onion skins, cochineal, logwood and black walnuts.

Black walnuts made for some very pretty browns. Logwood (seriously just wood chips from the logwood tree) made brilliant indigos and purples. Onion skins made this amazing marigold yellow. And cochineal made fuchsias and pinks.

Cochineal, if you’re wondering, is the female of a beetle species that lives on the prickly pear cactus. Not to be overly specific, eh? Do you wonder how exactly this dye was discovered? I do. “Say, Bo: what happens if we dry out these bugs, grind them up into a fine powder, and disolve them in boiling water? Do you suppose they might dye our fabrics red?” “They might, Sep. But just to be sure we know what we’re doing, let’s separate out the male from female bugs.”

I mean, how would they even know which were the males vs. females?*

And they say that our ancestors weren’t scientific. What is this, I ask you, but science and experimentation?

Anyway, cochineal was the world’s foremost source of bright red dye prior to chemical dyestuffs. It still is used very commonly as a food colouring and as a dye for cosmetics. This apparently has caused big problems for some cafes and restaurants, because vegan customers would order bright red foods or beverages, apparently under the misconception that bright red=artificial. But no. Bright red=beetles. And actually all that bright red food your child is eating that you think is making them hyper? Probably bugs, not Mystery Chemical #9 or whatever.

Because cochineal is made out of ground-up lady beetles on one particular cactus species from one particular corner of the world, it was very rare and very expensive, and it still is.

Last year for Christmas, Santa** ordered me my very own jar of lady beetles.

Then I needed to set up my dyeing studio. I needed a burner for the basement, to boil the dyestuffs well away from my food. I needed cheap large pots to boil and soak things in.

I needed washing soda, to scour the fabric. Mordanting chemicals, to allow the dyes to bond with the textiles. Chalk (!!!) to bond the mordanting chemicals to the fabrics. Textiles to dye. Sieves and strainers, to drain things. Rubber gloves, to handle dyes and dyed fabrics and mordanting things without hurting myself or turning my hands pink.

All of these things I slowly collected over a few months, as the budget allowed. Washing soda I found most easily procured at the local health and organic food store. Mordanting chemicals I purchased through the internet (potassium sulfate and aluminum sulfate). Chalk is … well, chalk. You know where to get chalk. Textiles dye better when they aren’t already bleached or dyed, so I bought a few metres each of undyed linen and cotton off of Maiwa.

And then, bit by bit, I plugged away at each step of the dyeing process in the free time not already dedicated to sewing.

Scouring. No retouching on the photo--all that brown gunk came out of my nice clean textiles.
Scouring. No retouching on the photo–all that brown gunk came out of my nice clean textiles.

First, scouring: boiling your fabrics in large pots with dish soap and washing soda, and being pleasantly disgusted at all of the dark brown gunk you’ve dislodged from your pristine and never-used fabrics. Yuck.

Scouring them another time or two to make sure that no more dark brown gunk is hiding in them.

Mordanting: boiling them again, if you’re using potassium sulfate, in a large pot for an extended period of time, and hanging them up to dry. Or soaking them in a not-boiling pot with aluminum sulfate, if you’d rather, allowing them to dry and then soaking them again in chalky water to get the aluminum sulfate to stick.

(Fans of the BBC’s Victorian Christmas shows will be relieved to know that stale urine is no longer a part of the natural dye-er’s process. Instead, we have these lovely sulfates.)

And then you have fabrics you can actually dye.

Ground-up lady beetles, with my fancy-pants mortar and pestle (aka old teaspoon and small bowl)
Ground-up lady beetles, with my fancy-pants mortar and pestle (aka old teaspoon and small bowl)

Choosing the first dye to experiment with was not easy. They’re all so much fun, yet so time-consuming. Sigh. I decided to start with the pink-reds of cochineal, and set to grinding myself some lady beetles. (The amount of lady beetles to grind to powder is determined by the weight of the fibres you plan to dye, or WOF. You want about 3-8% of WOF in ground-up lady beetles.) Then dissolved them in boiling water, added the dissolved lady beetles (absolutely a brilliant red at this point) to a big pot full of water, set it to simmer, and added some fabric swatches and a few of my great aunt Annette’s doilies.

bug juice
bug juice
The original linen on the left, the dyed linen on the right. Subtle but you can see it.
The original linen on the left, the dyed linen on the right. Subtle but you can see it.

And they turned pink! But not pink enough, so I tried it again with a higher concentration of ground-up lady beetles. The shade of pink was better, but not as good as I would have liked. I think this is because both the doilies and some of the swatches were previously bleached (cotton and linen, respectively). The undyed linen swatches turned out a darker pink the second time.

I’m also wondering if the mordanting didn’t take the way it should.

This first time, I used potassium sulfate, which doesn’t bond with plant fibres as well as it does with animal fibres. To address this, you’re supposed to use tannin before the sulfate; but I didn’t, because I didn’t remember doing that at the class I took and that turned out pretty well so I thought maybe I could skip it. Then the dyed products were weaker than I expected, so … maybe that was it?

So I mordanted another set of fabric with aluminum sulfate, not supposed to need pre-tannining. But you do need to after-bond it with chalk. My goodness. How people used to do this in the days before chemistry degrees is beyond me.

I mean, who was the first person to think, “Say. You know what I should do, if I want these ground-up beetles (or chunks of wood, or dried skins of onions, or fermented woad leaves) to make my leathers and textiles a brighter colour? I should store my pee for long enough that it goes stale and stinks to high heaven. Then I should soak the textiles in that. THEN I should dye them. That’ll work!”

Anyway. The dyed bleached linen was for a particular project, so I’m not going to re-do that; but I am looking forward to some dyeing experiments with unbleached and properly mordanted fibres to see how punchy the colours can get. Stay tuned!


*Now having looked at the Wikipedia article, the differences between the males and females are rather striking.

**One of the most interesting parts of single motherhood, is that you have to be your own Santa. So in this case Santa=me. At least he always gets me exactly what I want, even if I do have to pay for it.

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