Many think natural dyes are only from vegetable sources. However, in the red family of dyes there is murex purple from a mollusk, cochineal, kermes and lac from insects.
When the Spanish came to the New World they discovered natives dying their weavings a brilliant red. The dye was obtained from outer exoskeleton of a member of the coccidae family: Dactylopius. These small insects (2-4 mm in length) live on 2 types of cacti: Opuntia, which produces over 200 types of cochineal and Nopalea, which produces 8 –10 types.
When the backs of the females are filled with eggs the insects are harvested and dried in the heat of the sun for up to 2 weeks. Some females are spared for future production
The solution of cochineal alone produces a purple hue and requires the addition of a solution of tin to produce the vibrant red color as discovered by the Dutch chemist, Cornelius Drebbel in the 1600’s. While he maintained his secret for a period of time it was inevitable that dyers in England and Europe learned of his technique and soon were producing the dye in great quantities.
Early trials of producing insects bred in Spain were not successful and cochineal was exported out of Mexico. Between 1758 and 1858 more than 27,000 tons was shipped to Spain from Mexican plantations, which farmed nearly 50,000 cacti each.
By the 1830’s Spain began breeding on the Canary Islands. Since many prefer to use natural dyestuffs there is still a market for cochineal from Central America and the Canaries.
In The Red Dyes, Swedish author, Gosta Sandberg explores the three most famous of natural red dyes, Cochineal, Madder and Murex Purple.
The Red Dyes: Cochineal,Madder and Murex Purple,
Gosta Sandberg,Lark Books, , Asheville N.C.,1994
The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe is sponsoring a “groundbreaking 130 object exhibition’ , The Red That Colored the World . The companion publication is entitled A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World.
For further information contact internationalfolkart.org.