Cochineal is a potent natural dyestuff that is derived from the crushed, dried bodies of the female cochineal bug – a scale insect native to South America. The cochineal bug lives and feeds on the Nopal Cactus, commonly known as the Prickly Pear. It dyes beautifully vibrant reds, purples and pinks.
Cochineal appears to be more expensive than some other natural dyes but 25g of whole cochineal will dye 450 grams of wool (1lb) a lovely red and further batches of varying shades of pink. You should be able to dye between 4 and 6 batches of fibre using the same dye bath.
Cochineal works best with silk or wool.
There are many recipes for dyeing with cochineal and the one below is a favourite one I use with great success.
Always use soft water when dyeing with cochineal (rain water or distilled water.) Water quality in cochineal dyeing is very important. Colour changes dramatically according to the pH.
Ensure your fibre is well scoured and washed before dyeing
Mordant your fibres with alum before dyeing with cochineal
Use a stainless steel bucket for your dyebath
5g of cochineal
100g of fibre (dry weight).
Pour 2 pints of boiling water over the cochineal and leave to soak overnight.
The next day simmer the soaked cochineal in the same water for 20 minutes then strain well and keep the liquid. Cover the cochineal (bugs) with fresh water and simmer again for a further 20 minutes. Allow to cool enough for you to handle and then strain the dye through a double muslin cloth twice – squeezing the juice through using the back of a spoon – don’t waste a drop!
Add the first liquid extraction to the bath and enough soft water to give you 10 litres of liquid which will be sufficient to dye 100g of yarn.
By adding a little cream of tartar to the dye bath the colour will lean towards crimson.
By adding the juice of a lemon to the dye bath the colour will lean towards orange.
Slowly heat the dye bath and when it is lukewarm add the well soaked and pre-mordanted yarn. (10% alum to 5% cream of tartar)
Raise the temperature of the dye bath to 85 degrees C. and hold it for 1 hour.
Unlike dyeing with madder cochineal benefits from hot (but not boiling) water. Turn off the heat and when cool remove the yarn/fleece from the dye bath.
Leave the dyed yarn to set in the air overnight or even a few days before washing.
You can use the dye again to give you a paler colour.
You can store the dye in a bottle in a cool place for a few weeks.
Over-dyeing cochineal with madder produces a true red.
Over-dying woad with cochineal produces fabulous purples.