If you have ever been curious about experimenting with natural dyeing, then my friend, this bug is for you. Meet Dactylopius coccus, the Cochineal bug, and prepare to be impressed.
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. It dyes beautifully
vibrant reds, purples, and pinks. The Cochineal bugs live
and feed on the Nopal Cactus, commonly known as the Prickly
Pear. They have been in use as a natural dye for hundreds
of years, and are now being cultivated commercially. Cochineal
has even been used as a natural food coloring. It takes approximately
70,000 cochineal bugs to make one pound of cochineal dye.
But never fear! You don't have to hunt and harvest these
little guys yourself. Cochineal is available
in two common forms from many commercial retailers
via online or mail order. You can order a small
packet of the dried Cochineal bugs and crush
them yourself (a dedicated coffee grinder is
ideal for this), or you can order the crushed
dye powder. Either way, you don't need much,
as it only takes about 1 ounce of dye powder
to color 1 pound of fiber to achieve a medium
1 pound wool yarn
1.5 ounces of Cochineal powder
0-.5 ounces of Alum
Large pot for dye bath (your pot should hold at least 5 quarts of water, plus your yarn)
Lots of water
Heat source (your kitchen stove top is fine, as our ingredients are all non-toxic)
Glass canning jar or liquid measuring cup
Old wooden or metal utensil for stirring the dye bath
Before You Begin
You will need to wind your yarn into hanks,
if it is not already. Tie the hanks in several
places to avoid tangling in the dye bath. Once
that is done, you can put the yarn into a bath
of cool water to pre-soak while you prepare the first bath.
While the materials we are working with are non-toxic,
it is wise to practice good habits when working
with dyes of any kind. Rubber gloves are an obvious
choice if you like the color of your hands
the way they are now. A dust mask is a good
idea when working with the dyes and mordants
in their powdered form. Remember to wash your
hands frequently, and to protect counter tops
in the area that you are dyeing with plastic.
Also, kitchen tools used during the dyeing
process should not be used again for food preparation.
I label mine "Dye
Only" and store them in a different location
in my home.
It is a good idea to pre-mordant your fiber
in alum, as it is a non-toxic mordant that is
easy to work with. Alum also helps to develop
clear, vivid colors with natural dyes. Dissolve
0.5 ounce of alum in a little boiling water
in your glass jar. Fill your large pot with water
and place it on the stove. Add the alum solution
and stir. Add your wetted yarn to the bath and
slowly bring the water to a simmer. Hold the
temperature at a low simmer for 45-55 minutes,
gently stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat
and let the yarn cool in the mordant. This can
take several hours to overnight. Remove the yarn
and squeeze out the liquid. You can dye the yarn
immediately or let it dry to use later.
Preparing the Cochineal Bath
(If your mordanted
yarn has dried, soak it in some cool water to
wet it before dyeing.)
Dissolve 1.5 ounces of cochineal powder
in a little boiling water in your glass jar.
Fill your large pot with water and place it on
the stove. Add the cochineal solution and stir.
your wetted and mordanted yarn to the dye bath
and slowly bring the water to a simmer. Hold
the temperature at a low simmer for 1 hour, gently
stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and
let the yarn cool in the mordant until it reaches
the color you are after.
Carefully remove the yarn from the dye
bath and place it in a bath of plain water roughly
the same temperature as the dye bath. This is
the first of several rinse baths needed to remove
the excess dye from the yarn. You can gently
stir the yarn in the rinse bath to help remove
excess dye, but be careful to not agitate the
wool too much.
Once the water in a rinse bath is full of dye,
run another bath of approximately the same temperature
and transfer the yarn to the new bath. Continue
rinsing in this manner until the yarn no longer
releases color into the rinse bath. I like to
put a little wool wash in my final rinse bath
to help soften the yarn for knitting.
Once you have rinsed all the excess
dye from the yarn, you can hang it up to dry.
A quick spin cycle in a washing machine will
greatly reduce the drying time.
I hope you enjoy dyeing your own yarns with
Cochineal! It is a beautiful natural dye that
is fun to use and great to knit with. Who would
have thought that such beautiful colors could
come from bug guts?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janelle loves to dye wool almost as much as she loves to knit with it. She recently completed a BA in Costuming and Textile Arts, and is pursuing a career in theatrical costuming.