close up of prickly pear cactus with beautiful pink bulbs
[ Knitting ]

My Yarn Was Dyed With Bugs?!

purple yarn with purple speckles sitting next to red, orange and purple variegated yarn

My Yarn Was Dyed With Bugs?!​

Yes!

At least many of the pink and purple yarns you can find in my shop were dyed with insects. Insects are just one of the many sources of natural dye, but a very fun one for us to explore today.

First thing’s first: what are they?

Cochineal is a scale insect that feasts on the prickly pear cactus.

The carminic acid found in the insect produces a strong red color which is both lightfast and washfast. Since there are a limited number of natural sources for red dye, cochineal has and continues to be an important source for use today.

Photo by Frankie Lopez on Unsplash

Where Do They Come From?

Cochineal originates from Central and South America.  Used for somewhere around 1500 years, it has been a highly valued dye. Fun fact: it was one of the most important exports during the 15th century because it was valued so highly by Europeans (second only to silver).

My source imports their cochineal from the mountains of Peru where it is wild-gathered by indigenous people. They only collect the insects after they have ended their natural life cycle. 

tiny dried insects spilling out of a tipped over mason jar

How Do I Use It?

Cochineal comes to me in the form of dried insects. Here’s an overview of my process:

  1. Using my dedicated coffee bean grinder, I grind them to a fine consistency
  2. I measure out what I need on my dye scale
  3. Add the cochineal grounds with some hot tap water to a dye pot
  4. Bring the pot to a boil and then simmer on the stovetop for 30 minutes.
  5. After it has cooled, I strain off the larger particles and then run it through a fine particle filter
  6. Now it’s ready for me to add my yarn!

The colors produced from cochineal can be shifted from crimson to scarlet to lavender to violet depending on what is added to the dye such as alum, tin and iron. Truthfully, I’ve only scratched the surface of shifting colors with my own experiments.

The other interesting tidbit about cochineal is that it doesn’t need a mordant (a chemical compound that makes a dye stick to the fiber) unlike most every other natural dye.

bright pink dye being poured into filter in kitchen sink

Why Do I Love It?

Cochineal is fascinating to play with because it can produce such a vast range of colors. 

I’ve used it to create everything from pale pinks like Day Trippin’ to the purples in Enchanting Fall and Purple Harvest. Plus, the dye bath looks so beautiful! =) 

The other thing I love so much about it is because it’s such a strong dye, I can use the exhaust bath– the dye left after removing yarn from the dye bath– to dye another batch of yarn a lighter shade and can sometimes repeat the process a third or perhaps fourth time. This is a wonderful way to reuse this precious and expensive resource since, unfortunately, I’m unable to grow cochineals in my garden!

What’s Not To Love?

My biggest struggle in dyeing with cochineal is how difficult it is to rinse out of the yarn. While the color produced is gorgeous, it’s quite labor intensive to remove the dye remnants and thus requires a lot of time and a lot of water. To rinse out a deeply dyed color like Purple Harvest takes at least twenty minutes of squishing water through the yarn and changing out the saturated water with clean, fresh rinsing water.

I’m currently working with my husband on an improved method for rinsing yarn…one of the many blessings of living with an engineer (thank you Babe!). He has done some great research for me on this important step of the dye process and is building me what we’ve come to lovingly call The Rinse-O-Matic =) 

Anything more you’d like to know about cochineal? Ask me in the comments & I’ll do my best to answer =)

(For further reading about the history of cochineal, check out A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield)

Picture of Mindy Kingery

Mindy Kingery

When I'm not dyeing, designing or dreaming of yarn, you can find me digging in my garden, hiking with my family or working on one of my many, many WIPs.

4 Comments

  1. Enjoy your information, specially about the bugs! that they eat cactus pears.
    I did not know cochineal dye does not require a mordant; that you can use the left over dye water to dye even more batches.
    Oh, oh, bad news…dyeing requires alot of water. I guess I will stick to knitting!

    1. So glad you enjoyed the post today. Yes, dyeing does require a bit of water and some dyes like cochineal are particularly water-heavy. There are always ways to improve water usage though and I’m definitely working on that!

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