Monthly Archives: June 2022

Fresh cochineal dyeing

Back over a month ago now, I went to a class to learn how to carve a butter spreader. This was a way to learn some green wood carving skills, so that I could learn to carve a spoon (in the following class). The class was taught by Sam from the lovely Folk of all Trades. I had a great time and came home feeling empowered to use my tools. So much so, I carved my first spoon before the spoon carving class, where I built my skills and confidence and realised I had some incorrect ideas I was able to sort out–super important in learning new skills! Here is my butter spreader nearing completion.

At this stage you may be wondering what this has to do with cochineal. We arrived early for the class and took a detour so we could have a short walk, and what should I see but prickly pear infested with cochineal (a type of scale insect). My beloved kindly agreed to go back after the class so we could harvest some.

Prickly pear is an invasive weed in Australia. But not until I researched cochineal in Australia did I realise I had altogether the wrong idea about it. I had thought prickly pear came first and cochineal was introduced to predate on it. But I was so wrong. Prickly pear was introduced to Australia with invasion in 1788, (from Brazil) and it was brought to Australia in 1788 in order to begin a cochineal industry here. Spain and Portugal had a worldwide monopoly on cochineal, and (for example–but a non-trivial example–) the British army wore red coats, making the cochineal trade of great interest to the British.

So actually, we have prickly pear because of cochineal, and not the other way around. We have them because of the dye industry and dye trade of the 1700s, and their close connections with imperialism and militarism. And from there, to us harvesting cochineal from an invasive plant in Australia in 2022 with two keep cups, a fork and a teaspoon. Sorry about the poor focus in that photo! But not as sorry as I am about the colonisation of this land and the long term harm it has wrought–of which this is just one small example.

I have become quite prepared to try natural dyes out with little prior knowledge of the process needed. So long as I know enough about the plant or insect to keep it safe from my potential overharvesting (where relevant) and to keep myself and others who may come into contact with it safe–I am prepared to trial and error my way through the process if necessary. For one thing–I have a lot of lawn mower sheep fleece. If I have dye fails I have wasted time and dyestuff but I can overdye or compost the fleece without a lot of regrets. Many of my dyes are weeds, windfalls or on their way to “green waste”. And I always learn something, so even the time is rarely wasted. In this case I knew I had at least one book with a “how to” section (it was focused on dried cochineal though). I also thought I remembered India Flint blogging about fresh cochineal, so I took that as a encouragement (I found her post–enjoy).

I scraped the cochineal into a small, double layered bag I’d made from cotton voile, with french seams. I made a few bags from a scrap a while back for some other dye job with a strong risk of little tiny bits escaping into fleece, never to be removed–it might have been dried cochineal! Having a pre made dye bag on hand was perfect. I dug into my book collection for guidance and decided to modify with acid, as our lime tree is in full fruit and some of the limes are not ideal for eating but much too good for wasting–and lime would be traditional in Mexico.

From there I guessed just about everything from information about dried cochineal. In general, when guessing, I put in a little mordanted wool (if mordant is required), heat for as long as suggested, and then add some more wool, and then some more wool if colour is still coming, and so on. Dried cochineal is incredible stuff that gives and gives and seems impossible to exhaust, though it gives paler and paler colours. The fresh cochineal behaved the same way.

The first round of fleece was almost tomato soup level red. I don’t know if the change to purpler colours might mean I should have added more lime juice– but from there it went to watermelon and then to coconut ice and fairy floss shades of pink. I did laugh out loud when I remembered that when I was making coconut ice with my mother as a child–we were colouring it with cochineal extract!

After a LOT of dyeing, this is all that remained of the dye. And here is the wool ready to spin!

Oh, and a spoon!!!


Filed under Natural dyeing


Recently, a dear friend sold me her industrial sewing machine. It is fast and it sews through many layers with ease, and it is set into a fair sized table. Once I got past being very scared using it, it made me think of quilts, and when I made an assessment I thought I had at least 5 “in progress”. Which is a lot, although to be honest, most have not progressed very far! Classically, I had an idea about how to use up little scraps and I made some blocks, and then I stopped. I decided that the time had come to move some on. I had a lot of trouble photographing this quilt, with no genius ideas about how to get it laid out flat and also in decent light. In fact, no idea how to keep it from getting more and more crumpled waiting for its photo to be taken!

This one began with some blocks I’d pieced in the 1990s. With curved seams! Then there were squares cut for a quilt that I decided not to complete (because my colour and fabric choices were just not good enough for it to look good). Its other component parts have long since been turned into other things.

I had quite a bit of calico, and that seemed a plausible foil for all those prints. So I began to create the quilt with lashings of calico of several different weights and shades of cream. Most of it has come from op shops, but some from friends and some has arrived at my place already made into things. Some arrived washed and some did not.

Then when I had a central panel, on with figuring out how to frame it.

More calico, a dead red sheet, and some scraps from my Mother-out-law. A few squares of a scrap I picked up at an op shop years ago. More calico!

The batting–is an old flannelette sheet, mostly. It had already had the edges turned to the middle (a common strategy for extending the life of sheets in generations before mine). So there was a seam down the middle. Some of it was so threadbare even so that I patched it with a nightie, and then sewed on an ancient pair of pyjamas and something that might once have been a sling (for a broken arm), since they were all made from flannelette. And so, to the back.

A feature panel with a great deal of calico and other random roughly cream fabrics, and some more red sheet. I am not much of a quilter, so there are some straight lines of stitching holding all the layers together. I made the binding out of what was left of all these fabrics, and there you have it. A quilt that will warm the lovely friend whose family linen press yielded all that flannelette and some of the calico.


Filed under Natural dyeing

An indigo dyed bag

Long, long ago, a friend travelled to Japan. When she came back, she brought a small pack of indigo dyed scraps that she gave me as a gift. They look like the work of a contemporary dyer. I thought they were absolutely lovely, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with them. Years passed. When I signed up for Soul Craft Online, it turned out there was a lovely project included in the event. It was a drawstring bag. One night I realised this was what those scraps could become!

Apparently I am quite incapable of making a project just the way that the designer proposes… and so this one is not exactly as designed . But I am just delighted with it, and with having found a way to enjoy those beautiful fabrics from my cherished friend.

Thinking about the climate emergency and climate activism a lot has had me thinking more about the interconnectedness of everything that makes life possible–the air we all share; the water cycle in which water circulates constantly but it is all the same water forever and for all; the stolen earth on which I live; the way that even as it dies and decays everything that was once alive creates the circumstances in which new life can grow. It is on my mind a lot and it appears in conversations and images so that others show me what I’ve missed, add richness to my thoughts, and share their thought with me.

I love that tiny scrap with the leaf print on it! On the inside, a small but lovely (to me) leaf print on cotton. It looks like E Crenulata to me, so perhaps it was a print made away from home.

And also inside, on the lining, I’ve recorded one of the best compliments ever. Tucked away where occasionally I’ll find it and be reminded of it, and strengthened by it.

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Filed under Natural dyeing