Wednesday, October 29, 2014

- Meet the beetles: Cochineal dyeing

I need to say up front that tiny cochineal beetles did lose their lives in the pursuit of this latest natural dye experiment. Encased in waxy white webbing and tiny in size, it was easy to pretend that I wasn't doing anything untoward ... especially since their habitation was ultimately destined to be burned ...

But it did feel a little creepy. However, putting aside my moral scruples I read up on how a local blogger gathers cochineal beetles and then made up my own way (after all, when have I ever followed a recipe?)

Taking a vintage knife with a flexible blade and a bit of linen, I went out and started to scrape little bits of white off of prickly pear (Opuntia) cactus pads. The beetles were well protected, usually hunkered down on the underside of a cactus spine, presumably to deter birds from eating them.

As I repeatedly wiped the blade off on the linen, the potency of cochineal as a dyestuff became abundantly obvious. Unsure as to how much would be needed, I filled one side of the cloth, folded it over on itself and was halfway to filling the next side when a snake and I scared the heck out of each other. 

Don't ask me what kind of snake it was ... a sorta big snake is all I know. Big enough to convince me that I had collected quite enough cochineal beetles, thank you very much ...

Having read that cochineal is particularly sensitive to mineral content, I decided to use distilled rather than tap water and heated it to a simmer in the hot pot I used for tea at my last job. Fortunately, the hot pot is no longer needed for that purpose.

I dropped the beetle smeared cloth into the water and color happened within seconds ...

An hour later, I had to fish out the cloth for a look as it was no longer visible in the darkened brew ...

Still, having watched the Dharma Trading dyeing tutorials I decided to give it time to steep overnight (with thanks to KINDRED SPIRIT Dee Mallon for pointing the Dharma Trading info out to me) . 

Next I pulled together four batches of cotton and linen cloth scraps for pre-mordanting ...

putting them into canning jars with 1 tsp. of food grade alum and 1 cup of boiling distilled water ...

The plan is to do four jars with ...
  • Alum alone
  • Alum with cream of tartar
  • Alum with fresh lemon juice
  • Alum with steel wire
So tomorrow morning I will warm up the bug juice, strain out the solids, and pour it into the canning jars in equal measures.

Then I will cap the jars and wait. 

How long will I wait? I haven't a clue. Suggestions anyone?


Marti said...

It's great to see you experimenting Liz. I'm very interested in seeing your cloth results because when I've used alum, I use about 1/4 cup of alum to a gallon water, swish it to dissolve, plunk in a bunch of cotton, let it simmer for about an hr, turn off the heat and let it cool overnight. After it is cool, I wring it out, dry it on the line and then I'm ready to dye with it. I've also used diluted soy milk as a mordant but I don't heat it, just let the cloth sit in it overnight, wring it out hang it out and then use it.

Have never used cochineal so all I can say is wait until you get the color you like or to further experiment, how about staggering the removal of the cloth from the various four jars to see how many ranges of red or pink you can get...

I met a dyer at the Fiesta of Cultures here a few weeks ago, she was dyeing wool to do the traditional Colcha embroidery and she got quite a range of reds and pinks from cochineal but she bought it, did not go out and forage for it. I don't mean to be a snob, but I think seeking your dye materials, for me, anyway, makes all the difference in the joy of cloth dyeing even if you have to face the unexpected as in the thing that slithers that I cannot name cause it is my phobia...hats off to you for staying the course to collect the cochineal !

Liz Ackert said...

Ha ... you should have heard Don when he hit the part about the snake. Of course I couldn't tell him the first thing about what it looked like ... the adrenaline rush drove every detail out of my brain.

I like your idea about taking the cloth out in stages. The Hill Country blog indicates good color after five minutes, but wool and silk tend to take cochineal better than linen and cotton. Hopefully I'll have something to show by this time tomorrow.

And I'm psyched about using local cochineal. Even though I'm dyeing a very small quantity, red is more of an accent color so I don't think I'll need a lot. Now green, that's another matter ... one can never have too much green!

grace Forrest~Maestas said...

so the snake is Guardian to that piece of the Earth and let you know Only So Much.
this is good, i think.

and i would really like to know what would come of doing a little with your own well water too.
love your detail of process...priceless to me who always Intends To but then never does...
and looking at Deb McClintocks blog, the Madder...will you try to go and help
these are morning thoughts...i'll be back to re read later

Liz Ackert said...

Snake as Guardian ... lest I wipe out the cochineal population. Yes, that seems right.
And I do want to test the well water impact, but I'm not feeling too inclined to go back into the cactus, but ...
From what I've read, there will be dye left at the end of this trial and perhaps I can add well water and more cloth to that to see if the colors are significantly different (for sure they will be lighter).
I've just posted a time lapse of the dyeing so far today ... the cream of tartar coral is my favorite ... and yes, I've volunteered to harvest madder in hopes of creating some rusty coral color
Last, but not least ... still rocked back on my heels by the cloth that 2 sent you from Europe. So amazingly cool ...

Liz Ackert said...

For some reason, Blogger didn't want to take Mo's comments today, so with her permission I'm copying our email correspondence:

Hi Liz,
Just want to say you are so brave to collect cochineal bugs
Would love to see what happens if you have a go using your well water with the cochineal
and isn’t it funny that green is the most fugitive of colours in dyeing?
Victoria Finlay’s Color : A Natural History of the Pallete is a great book that I have read over and over in the past ten years
I've been revising online, so that may have made the post temporarily unavailable ... but please let me know if you continue to have problems (about which I have no idea what I'd do).
For sure there will be more cochineal trials and I'm getting ready to post a time lapse to document this one. However, I will most assuredly be waiting until the current snake movements slow down (a couple of neighbors have reported rattle snakes on their porches, so I'm a bit edgy about clomping around in the high grass where the prickly pears are).
Oh yikes!
be careful indeed maybe just wait for them to go to sleep for the winter!

Mo Crow said...

Oh goodie, I can post again Halleluja!

Saskia van Herwaarden said...

you are a Valiant Dyer, first for collecting live beetles for dyeing (which is never for the fainthearted to begin with...) and second for meeting the snake and the two of you escaping in one piece:-)

the alum is the mordant I gather: I've only ever used soy milk, oh yes and ashes as well, both in my haphazard fashion of not quite knowing what exactly (NOT!) I'm up to

Liz Ackert said...

Wood ash we have in abundance, since we cook out year round and Don only ever used hardwood chunks (no briquets for us)
Soy milk has now been added to my shopping list ... goodness, I have so many options to try between your suggestions and Marti's.
Now I just have to find a little time to make something with the cloth that's already dyed ;)

Dana said...

I salute your enterprise in gathering your own cochineal, snakes and all. They were such a mystery and a treasure in the days before chemical dyes made red commonplace. It sounds like you are experimenting with a full range of additives and it is fun to see your results.

Liz Ackert said...

(laughing) I don't know that I ever would have done it had I known the snake would enter the picture. And after a run through the wash cycle, there wasn't much to show for it. But I have no doubt there will be a next time.
Meanwhile, I just left a comment on your blog about your pomegranate dye ... what great results you got!