Weekend with the Cochineals

I mentioned in my intro that I have “urges”… I am not sure that is a good word to use… I think a chain of serendipitous events that compels actions on my part… is a better way of explaining why I do what I have done.  Let me explain how my last weekend of madness began.  (I like to say it makes complete sense if you know the whole story… like the time I tried to take a tumor  out of my head with a Dremel… it sounds bad but makes sense if you hear the whole story…  I will save that for another post).  Back to the weekend…   this is how it all started.

While at work a colleague  mentioned that “natural red coloring” often called carmine (check your labels) is made from bugs (cochineal).  This statement (think of Cliff from cheers) beckoned a night of googling and youtubing.  Here is one of my favorite YouTube videos from that night  Amelia from Peru…  —  watch closely at 4:20… she crushes several bugs… adds lemon juice smears the bug guts on her lips and says “the single girl use as natural cosmetic for carnival” (no wonder they are single)—

SO… I decide to hunt cochineal… unfortunately I found it is too early (stay tuned… that hunting will happen).  Being a determined type… I would not let this stop me so I did the next best thing and bought them on the internet (you can get almost anything on the internet).  I then had to do what logically has to be done with cochineal (nope not on my lips nor in my food) dye something red.

In discussing my anxiously awaited bugs, I was asked what are you going to dye?  I offered the truth that I didn’t know… something cool maybe a shirt.  I  then mentioned that I had watched a Navajo lady dye wool red… after spinning it…. bingo it came  to me (you see… all of it makes sense now).  I went back on the internet and learned new words like top and roving (already washed and carded wool) then ordered some natural undyed roving.   I also purchased a drop whorl and a loom… (all of that will be discussed in future posts).  This is how it all began and the rest of this post will describe the process I used to dye wool this past weekend.

For those who flip to the end of the book to read what happens… I offer this… a before and after preview (we all suffer from attention deficit)

Before Dye:


After Dye:


Now back to the post… read on for those who want to know how I did this (isn’t that color beautiful)

The bugs finally arrived maybe one of the weirdest things I have ever had mailed to me.   They don’t look like much, have no smell, and definitely are not red. (still would not smear them on my lips).

Below are the steps for cochineal wool dyeing (wow that word is close to dying).

Step One:  Crush cochineal (1 ounce) into powder (used our mortal and pestle… My wife didn’t stress… or didn’t see… either way it worked great)

Step Two:  Pour boiling water (1 pint distilled or rain water… important hard water reacts with dye and produces poor results) over cochineal powder and let sit over night.   (Smells like… well… crushed bugs and looks like blood… Don’t think you have to worry about a kid accidently eating or drinking it)

Step Three: Mordanting the wool (from the french word mordant… My wife is french but I don’t find here “biting” or caustic… ).  This step helps the wool absorb the dye as well as changes the end color… all depending upon what is added.   I presoaked the wool (150 grams) for an hour than dissolved 12 grams of Alum and 10 grams of Tartaric Acid in 2 gallons of distilled water (mixed marriages do have their consequences… gallons mixed with grams… sorry).    Added the wool (wet) and simmered at 93º F. for an hour. I than removed the wool and let sit overnight to dry.  Some more pictures… for those just looking for bug gut pictures


Step Four:  (next dayBoil cochineal dye again for 40 minutes in 2 gallons of distilled water.  Let cool down to under 90º and added wool (rinsing wool may need to happen…  too much alum will make the wool sticky… I did not rinse my wool)  I added another strainer on top of the wool to keep the wool under the dye.

Step Four and a Half: (messed up… good thing no one has read this)Before adding wool to the cooled down dye, the dye needs to be filtered through a coffee filter or equivalent.  (although the bugs were crushed to a fine powder, if the dye is not filtered there will be black specs throughout the dye which will attach to what ever is being dyed.. and this is not visually appealing)

Step Five: Remove Wool when at desired color  and let dry for at least 2 Days. (I found after 3 hours I had a beautiful red the same red you see in many Navajo blankets)

All that is left is doing something with the wool… (“doing” something sounds odd maybe I should have written “making” something with the wool…   the wool is just the beginning… ) 

I can not say enough about how much I love this color… and I think I love cochineals (at least when used for dye).  You can call me weird I don’t mind…(jesh… I act like I don’t care even though I do)

Last picture… think about what you see… and then think about how it was made… magic:

red yarn






27 thoughts on “Weekend with the Cochineals

  1. I am wondering if perhaps you are my son in disguise…he speaks the way you write.excellently according to his mother..oh wait. that would be me! okay, so you write excellently. And did you ever wonder who the first person was to say “I think I’ll crunch up these bugs and dye wool with them?”

    Liked by 2 people

      1. No, thanks! I don’t even kill spiders. Live and let live, I guess 😊

        Acid dyes don’t really have much of a smell (unless you use vinegar instead of citric acid) and the colour range is amazing. Love it!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. That red! It got stuck in my head, and since I was planning a trip to the most local dye shop I could find (still halfway across the country), I added the cochineals to my list as well as tartaric acid. I only ever attempted dyeing cochineals with alum only and that gives a purple/pink/whatever but not red. I had almost sworn that I wouldn’t need cochineals for anything, but now I definitely want to try your recipe.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t yet, I have theoretical knowledge of this plant. It dyes a bit like indigo would, meaning that you’ll have a yellow-green dye bath that’ll react to oxygen (I’m thinking it would be best to dye in something you can close off, like the jar I used for dyeing indigo). I’m not sure about the mordants to use to be honest. Sounds exciting though 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I found a book in my mother’s collection of questionable dye-recipes, that talks about woad, but it seems like the “soda ash” I used for indigo would be good for woad as well, but they don’t talk about glucose or fructose. The difference is though that they use the fresh plant in this recipe. I think the recipe will differ whether the plant is fresh, dried or in powder form. It also seems like in the old days they used urine to start the reduction, like with indigo (I would like to try that some day, not sure about how my neighbors will appreciate the smell of that experiment…). They talk about low temperatures for dyeing (50°C). So I would definitely do this “au bain marie”.
        Important is that the wool will only show its color after exposure to oxygen, so you have to leave it out for a bit to find out whether the color is what you would like it to be.

        Liked by 1 person

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