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Dyeing with Cochineal
Crushed female cochineal insects produce a deep crimson natural dye that can be used to produce a range of scarlet, red, pink and orange hues.
Cochineal is one of the most important traditional natural dyes in central and south America for dyeing textiles and produces intense colours with wool fibres but it has also been used on cotton, agave and other fibres. In Mexico it still used to dye traditional woollen and cotton textiles.
Cochineal dye is a traditional natural dye for colouring textiles in Central and South America and has been used for beautiful, lightfast and permanent scarlets, pinks and reds for centuries. Cochineal was so important in 15th century Mexico that Moctezuma levied an annual tribute of cochineal dye and cochineal was Mexico’s second most valuable export after silver.
Cochineal was introduced into Europe by the Spanish in the 1500s and very rapidly became the dye of choice for expensive but desirable scarlet and red clothes for kings and nobles, supplanting the European dye products then in use. Cochineal was replaced by synthetic dyes during the 1800s but is now seeing a pronounced resurgence of interest, with an increased use of non-synthetic, natural dyes. More on cochineal history here…
When cochineal dye was introduced into Europe, scientists argued for many years as to whether cochineal was a plant, an animal or a mineral. We now know that cochineal is a female scale insect that lives on prickly pear cactus plants. Cochineal production is highly labour intensive and involves hand collection from the cactus leaves and careful management to reduce natural enemies that reduce scale insect populations and cochineal yields.