Of all the materials in my kit I was most looking forward to dyeing with Cochineal.
Cochineal is a scale insect that is cultivated on prickly pear cacti. It was being used by the Aztecs when the Spanish arrived in Central and South America in the early 1500s.Interesting to note that it was cochineal dye that was used to make the "Red Coats" coats red.The dye fell out of wide spread use as synthetic dyes became readily available in the late 1800s, but there is a renewed interest in it's use today.
Jose Antonio Alzatey Ramirez, 1777- collecting cochineal with a dear tail.Public domain image from Wikipedia
Today it is used widely in the food and cosmetic industries as a non toxic coloring agent, and cultivation has seen a resurgence especially in Peru. It is still a rather pricey material. My 2 ounce bag was $16.20 five years ago- today it would cost $32.00.The price reflects the fact it has to be hand harvested and it takes 70,000 insects to make a pound.
Thankfully a little goes a long way.
My kit came with 2 ounces of Cochineal which according to the instructions could dye ½ pound bright red. I was excited to read that the wool wouldn’t require a mordant bath- a little time saver. Cochineal has the reputation of being very stable and fast-in the sense it the color doesn't degrade readily.
I followed Van Stralen’s directions to yield an orangey red. I used an old coffee grinder I’ve been saving just for this purpose- and ground the bugs in small batches. This was easier than I thought it would be and it didn’t take long to get a fine powder.The bugs look like little chips of micah, once ground the powder looks like paprika.
I put the bugs in a jar with 1 ounce cream of tartar and water to cover and let it sit overnight.I debated about putting the powder in a muslin bag for dyeing, but Van Stralen’s instruction are just to add it to the dye pot and latter to sweep the dye pot clean of any bug debris with some “waste wool”. The powder appeared very fine so I figured it would just dissolve. Well no it didn’t-and even after sweeping the pot with waste wool it was evident the bath would need careful straining to remove the bug bits. So any time saved by not needing a mordant was lost with this tedious procedure. I pressed on knowing it was going to be worth it.
And you know I really do think it is worth it. The color is very rich and even my exhaust bath yielded a rich hue. I even added some of the Wensleydale from the Brazilwood exhaust- remember it was a rusty brown color- it ended up being my favorite- brightening considerably.
I have about a gallon of the dyebath saved in a jug. I know I’ll make use of it. Now I can see how you could really get carried away with experimenting.
Left-Shetland from first bath,Middle-Wensleydale from 2nd bath,Right- Wensleydale from 2nd bath after ammonia dip.
As an added bonus a simple dip of the hot dyed wool into a bucket of hot water with ¼ cup of ammonia shifted the wool to a pleasing shade of purple.
Cochineal has so much going for it – it’s fast- it’s non-toxic- the colors are vibrant- many shades are possible- it’s a little expensive – but I think well worth it.