Dyes of antiquity: Carmine cochineal

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Cochineal is another of the dyes I received from the Guild and used at the workshop a while back.  In fact, there was a choice of cochineals.  In what I realise now was my ignorance, I chose ‘carmine cochineal’ because it was ground up and I was unsure how I could adequately grind the whole dried insects I also have.  As you can see, after an initial period of being dull ornage, the dye bath was an impressively shocking pink.  It turns out that ‘carmine cochineal’ is not a shade of cochineal but a preparation of cochineal boiled with ammonia or sodium carbonate.  I borrowed Frederick Gerber’s Cochineal and the Insect Dyes 1978 from, the Guild and found that the deeper red colour I had in mind when I saw the term ‘carmine’ could only be obtained from this preparation with the application of a tin mordant which I am not prepared to use.  the colours we achieved with alum were well within the range indicated by the included colour chart of wool samples (those were the days!)

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The colour range on this card (with madder beneath for comparison) is impressive even without tin. 

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We dyed organic wool. I dyed silk paj and twined string (the orange string was dyed with madder). 

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I brought the vat home with me and dyed a lot more fibre in an attempt to exhaust it.  Here is grey corriedale mordanted with alum and overdyed with carmine cochineal.

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And spun–three plied.  This is my first ever crocus flower, by the way!

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The magenta silk embroidery thread had maximum time in the bath, since I fished it out when removing the dyestuff (in its recycled stocking) prior to disposing of the bath!

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Filed under Natural dyeing, Spinning

12 responses to “Dyes of antiquity: Carmine cochineal

  1. I grind my bugs in the coffee grinder 🙂
    I used to get a nice red from cochineal, with just using alum. The bugs I used were over 30 years old, given to me by a friend who had brought them back with her after traveling in Mexico learning natural dyeing and weaving.
    My more recent attempts, with newer bugs, have given me more of a blueish red.
    Cochineal is VERY ph sensitive. I would play around with that in mind.
    Love all of your results!


  2. Pia

    I think it’s interesting that it was treated with ammonia, from what I remember I got much better colour adding acid to the dye bath!


  3. Who can resist cochineal, what a colour, what variety of hues!!! Wonderful.


    • I’ve never tried it before, and have to agree! You can understand why it was such a massive trade–so much colour relative to dyestuff!


      • I forgot to mention – I use pepper grinder to grind cochineal. And alum with cream of tartar as mordant. I like the colour with rhubarb root mordant here.


      • I like the colour with rhubarb too, and this is one of the few dyes to appear to have bonded with the rhubarb. A pepper grinder is a great idea–and one I could access, so thanks for the tip–I hadn’t thought of that as an option. And with your thoughts and Gerber’s colour chart–it seems clear this is a place where CoT makes a difference. I am often unsure whether it does and so use it rather sporadically. Many thanks!


      • I learned about Cot as a must for dyeing wool from Michel Garcia’s DVD. I know it’s generally used less and less by nat dyers (some abundant even alum) but he explains that COT ensures even absorption of alum by wool – among other things.


      • That’s interesting–because I also have seen the dvd and his explanation was the first time I thought I understood what the point of using CoT was, as opposed to taking it on faith. And as you can tell, I don’t run far on faith!


  4. we got the most wonderful deep red with madder at the Michel Garcia workshop by co-mordanting with gall nut extract (10%) and 10% citric acid on wool. a medieval sort of red rather than the primary colour, a touch of red brick to it. what is CoT?


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