Friday, October 30, 2009

Cochineal Dye and Prickly Pear Cactus

What is white and cottony and lives on cactus and makes lipstick rosy, embroidery carmine, and fruit punch red?

There's a little bug that makes a beautiful red dye. It is the Cochineal bug, and it is still today the safest red food coloring there is. While other, artificial red dyes were found to be hazardous and carcinogenic, this ancient natural product of Mexico is something we can use without worry. Fruit punch is often colored with it (although I bet you won't find "little critter" in the list of ingredients)! If you are an artist, this is the basis for "carmine" in your paints.

These little bugs live on Prickly Pear plants. They make cotton to hide in, and you can spot the little tufts of cotton even from the road. They don't move about at all, once they are in their little cottony blankets. I think they must live whereever Prickly Pear cactus lives, because I have seen them everywhere.

They are grown commercially, raised on cactus plantations in South and Central America and the Canary Islands. They are harvested and dried, and that is pretty much it - they don't require much processing.

In fact if you mash them you will have water-soluble carmine dye suitable for use in anything you wish to turn red.

They may need a fixative when used for dyeing fabric or yarn, to reduce fading and running, although they will never be completely dye-fast. If you've ever taken socks out of the washer and found they had turned pink, you may have washed something with them that had been dyed with cochineal.

Cochineal is the main reason that we "wash reds separately"!

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