A visit to the Cochineal Center

14 January 2015

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We went to
Centro para la difusion del conocimiento de la grana cochinilla tlapnochestli

this afternoon.  It is a little farm just outside of Oaxaca where they raise cochineal and have a little education center.  I went with my neighbor who had taken a dyeing class there several years ago. 

We walked in past some small fields of thornless prickly pear cactus to some farm shed buildings and were greeted by Manuel Loera Fernandez.  We were the only visitors except we brought along our young taxi driver who knew nothing about the cochineal.  He spent over an hour with us.

The process of growing the cochineal is that big fat ears of the cactus are harvested and planted in soil in trays in a screened in shed.  Then little tube baskets with females ready to lay eggs and hung on each on to inccoculate  them with bugs.  When the tiny nymphs hatch the crawl around for up to two day looking for the right spot then they bury their mouth into the cactus ear and stay put for the rest of their lives.   They feed on juices from the cactus and cover themselves with the white powdery stuff to keep from drying out in the sun.  The nymphs rub on their mom to get some of the white stuff before they roam around because the are quite vulnerable.  The usual life cycle is 3 mo. from inocculation  to harvest, but the weather effect  how fast they grow.  The ones in the picture at the top will be harvested next week and started  on 29 Sept.  They are a little slow because it has been cool.  Harvesting is brushing them off into a basket.  They are dried and stored for use.  The bugs are tiny and it takes many thousands of them to dye any usable amount of fiber.  The cactus ears are discarded after the harvest.

The health of the cactus ears, basically how juicy they are, is what determines the size the insects will obtain.  There are other prickly pear cactae (cactuses?) that will grow the cochineal to twice the size of the ones that they use but they are full of thorns!  So the spineless one is used for the sake of the farmer.   When I lived in New Mexico it was called Mission Cactus because they grew it around the walls of the mission for food in desperate times.

The male cochineal bug has a very different life cycle ; it pupates and emerges from the cocoon as a tiny flying bug and spends the 3-5 day duration of its aldult life mating.   We did see one but the stupid camera wouldn’t take pictures in that moment.

So then we walked by a shed that looked like a dye workshop and I asked him how they mordented for cotton.  He said they used a three day process, alum-tannin-alum, and that it gave much better results on cotton than just  alum.  I agree even if I have done it all in one day but it is a huge investment of time and labor.  I asked him is he had ever used aluminum acetate and he had never heard of it.

He then showed us some coyuche, green cotton and other natural dye plants.  The coyuche and green cotton plants are bushes  not the thigh high plants that I saw growing in New Mexico.  Their display of natural dye stuffs gave me ideas of what they have available here and what they use.  I bought some marigold flowers from him  for a yellow as all I have seen at Eufrosina’s studio are beiges and tans  that pass for yellow.  I think the marigold flowers should give a golden yellow. I bought 300g from him.
Here in the area where cochineal  was first domesticated it is highly regarded.  When they say colored they mean colored red.  There doesn’t seem to be any local plant in the rubia family to give madder red.  Yet they do not seem to know how to dye cochineal well on cotton, that knowledge seems to be lost in the time of synthetic dyes.  But there must be some every compelling reason to do 3 mordents baths and then a dye bath  to get cochineal red on cotton instead of one sure fire synthetic red dye bath.  Even with the demanding wash down required for fiber reactive dyes on cotton, they are sooo much easier  and predictable than the natural dyes.
If we get alum on Saturday we will try cochineal on cotton with an alum mordent and try the marigold flowers too.

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3 Responses to “A visit to the Cochineal Center”

  1. Lauraine Says:

    Fascinating Karen! I am enjoying your blogs so very much!

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  2. Karen, Do u know the chemical structure of the cochineal red? Is it similar to the hemoglobin or myoglobin rings; does it contain a metallic element such as Fe or Cu? Does the alum catalyze SO4 salts like in fired clay reds? What is the botanical red in autumn maple leaf red?
    I’d like to meet you. I used to read about your interests in YS environmental concerns and now see u are a Facebook friend of Amie Johnson. Do you know Phyllis Logan who also has lived in Oaxaca? May I write to your e mail address? I am especially interested in red, partly because I am red/green color blind and apparently lack the retinal rhodopsin chemical that is triggered by the long wavelength red. Also my recently deceased “ex”, Liz Visick had a life-long passion for red and in a weird way often turned red with lupus after sun exposure. Hope this doesn’t freak u out but doesn’t God work in mysterious ways?

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    • The principal colorant in cochineal is carminic acid, it has many benzene type rings but no metal. It is one of the few red dyestuff approved for human consumption. The pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries use most of the cochineal grown and drive the prices up for us who want to dye with it.

      I will email you so that you have my email.

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