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!!!