Cochineal Red: Elusive and Powerful!

Cochineal Red: Elusive and Powerful!
01/28/2017 Rachel
Cranberry Fields by Cindy Grisdela Art Quilts

Featured in cover:  Cranberry Fields by Cindy Grisdela Art Quilts


I’ve been messing around with colors ever since I was a kid: crayons, tie-dyeing, colored pencils, oil paints, food dyes, and later, pigments for staining clay and so many more of the offerings we find in any art supply store. My parents were really good about taking us to museums and galleries when we were on trips and we saw the old paintings made by the masters, the stained glass in old churches, illuminated manuscripts, the peeling paints of old santos, tapestries, costumes, and art from ages past. Color has always been the language of artists! But, I never gave much thought to where it came from… Even as I got older and learned about natural dyes, I just assumed that each region of the world had natural resources that would give artists the colors they used and that have survived the passage of time, the ones we see archived behind glass or in books.

color-by-victoria-finlayThe other site that I run, TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List, has a significant number of people working with dyes, both commercial and natural. They dye yarn, embroidery threads, silk worms and fabric and may teach workshops on dye techniques or perhaps they are salvaging and preserving vintage textiles that show interesting techniques. TAFA Dye and Paint Search Results In a group discussion, Mary Hertert recommended the book “Color” by Victoria Finlay. I got it on Amazon for a few bucks and then it just sat on my desk for over a year as I rarely have time to read anymore. I finally started and then couldn’t stop. Finlay travels around the world to investigate the source of various colors that have had historical impact on art: lapis lazuli in Afghanistan, ochre in Australia, cochineal in Mexico, among others… That’s when I learned about how the color red had so much importance in world history, especially in the colonization of Central America and in the enrichment of European kingdoms.

Cochineal is a bug that thrives on a cactus plant native to Mexico. When you squeeze the bug, a red dye oozes out. You can get the specs on Wikipedia. The Incas also treasured cochineal. Finlay talks about how the Incas used it:

“Women used cochineal as a blusher, potters used it as decoration, home decorators used it on walls, and artists used it their frescos. But most of all it was found in textiles, most of which have now been destroyed by time and sunlight.

The beetle blood alone would not pass any color fastness tests –  without any additives the quipus and the clothes would have faded with the first wash. To make the color fix, the ancient Meso-Americans used to mix it either with tin or with alum.”  (p. 143, 144)

Indian Collecting Cochineal - Wikipedia

Indian Collecting Cochineal – Wikipedia

Finlay goes on to talk about other reds and gives an overview of how they impacted European art and life. The whole book jumps around with interesting narratives and parallels of how various colors were used in history and whether they still survive today. Some were extremely poisonous and led to insanity and death.

Millions of cochineal insects were needed to feed the European lust for red. Ships traveled back and forth from Europe, loaded with the bugs. That story is told in more detail by Amy Butler Greenfield in her book, “The Perfect Red“. When the Conquistadors arrived in the Americas, cochineal was already in use by natives in Mexico and Peru. It took quite a while for the value of these insects to sink into these treasure seeking Spaniards as they were more interested in gold and silver. When the waves of merchants began making their way to the “New World”, the economic potential of cochineal manifested itself and they made it their business to harvest, transport and sell cochineal red to the dyers back home.

A bit from the book:

“After harvesting, the insects were spread onto mats and dried in the sun for four or five days. To hurry the process along, farmers could place the insects in ovens or heat them in steam baths called temazcalli. In each case, the cochineal shriveled up and died, losing a third of its weight in the process. It took as many as 70,000 dried insects – and sometimes more – to make one pound of dye.

Raising cochineal was hard work, but the ancient Mexicans considered it well worth the effort. Long before the Conquest, farmers were able to sell their cochineal in many marketplaces, exchanging it for fish, maize, chile peppers, and salt. As commerce developed, certain merchants from the southern highlands became specialists in the rare dyestuff.  … Complex and sophisticated, these ancient trade networks flourished for centuries, reaching what may have been a high point under the rule of the Aztecs, a warrior society that controlled much of ancient Mexico in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

… Gifted poets and musicians, the Aztecs were also master craftsmen, especially when it came to textiles and dyes. Most remarkable was their skill in dyeing feathers, which they used in the thousands to create elaborate cloaks, shields, and headdresses….  Red was the color of the sun, and they further identified the color with rituals of blood, death and sacrifice.”  (p. 40, 41)



Cochineal harvesting - Oaxaca Cultural Navigator

Cochineal harvesting – Oaxaca Cultural Navigator

The book goes on for another 250 pages about the rise and fall of cochineal and other natural dyes like madder. Fascinating stories! Cochineal production almost died out until a resurgence within the textile community in the 1970’s raised awareness and the old Oaxacan natives who were still alive taught what they knew to the both locals and foreigners who came to them do document their knowledge.

The Oaxaca Cultural Navigator is one such effort that hosts workshops and provides educational opportunities to learn about cochineal, other dye practices and weaving techniques local practiced traditionally in the area.

If you are interested in the history of colors and specifically cochineal red, both of these books entertain, inform and are great starting points for learning about how color has played out with artists, culture and world economies. As humans, our ability and desire to mark our surroundings with color has been documented from early on. It’s hard wired into us and all colors carry deep meaning.

Red, especially, has powerful symbolic references for us: blood, war, heart, love…  We get red marks on our papers, red lights stop our cars, red dresses are sexy, red eyes in the night are scary, a red rose is romantic, a red nose might be funny, a red face is embarrassing….

What does red mean to you?

Let us know in the comment area below…

Of course, here at Artizan Made, we would like to show off some of our reds:


More from our Artizan Market!

See them all in our Red Category.

Comments (4)

  1. Morgen 4 years ago

    Very nicely done Rachel, thank you. Is’nt colour fascinating! I have used cochineal in my scarves and it really is an amazing colour, especially when you consider where it comes from.

    • Author
      Rachel 4 years ago

      I thought about you when I was reading these books, Morgen. If you haven’t read them, get them! You will love them! The Colors one is especially interesting to me in how it touches on poisonous home decor. I have seen some of that in mystery movies where arsenic or lead poisoning is finally traced to deadly wallpaper, but the book talks gives more of the back story. Very interesting…

  2. arlee 4 years ago

    And to think i used to scrape the cochineal bugs off and dispose of these when i worked in plant stores….what a waste!

    • Author
      Rachel 4 years ago

      Wow! You had the right cacti there? From the books, it seemed like cochineal are pretty picky about where they live. Efforts to grow them locally in other climates often failed…

We'd love to hear from you, so don't be shy! Leave a comment!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.