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Cochineal – Red Coloured Gold

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they were shocked to see the locals wearing red clothing in their everyday life. Red was the colour of royalty in Europe, and so not only forbidden to wear, but also very very expensive to buy, and here were all these locals, parading around in red everyday clothes!
Like many dyes used in Teotitlán, the colour red is sourced traditionally, using the female cochineal beetle, a parasite that lives on the nopal cactus plant, indigenous to Mexico. After feasting on the nopal juice, the insect produces carminic acid to deter predators, and it is this acid which is used for red dye.

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At 3 months, the juvenile insects are cultivated onto a new cactus pad and the older (female) insects are harvested by steaming them. Cochineal insects are very small (you could fit 3-4 of them on your little fingernail), and so it is a very intricate and time consuming business. Anyone for a cochineal farm? Once dried, cochineal is sold at around 1500 pesos/kg, making it one of the most expensive raw materials for weavers to buy, and it is treasured like gold.

The dye is prepared by using a metate to finely grind the dried cochineal into a powder. It can then be mixed with water to produce an intense red colour (think Ribena). The addition of baking soda (alkaline) will turn the liquid deep purple, and lime juice (acid) will make it a bright pinkish colour. Watching a colour demonstration by one of En Vía’s weavers, Ludivina, it is chemistry in action – but my science classes were never this interesting, or useful. The best dyers can coax the most incredibly complex colours out of the natural raw materials – combining them to make wonderful tapetes that are studies in subtle colour combinations.

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When dyeing, nothing goes to waste, and several batches of wool will be put through the same dye lot, each time producing lighter and lighter shades of reds, purples, and pinks. Each colour is fixed using wood ash or sea salt.

During the 15th century when Aztecs were in power in this part of Mexico, the local people were required to pay taxes in chocolate and cochineal. Ever wonder where the term Aztec red came from?
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico the 1520’s, they defeated the Aztec rulers, but the locals were still required to come up with in cochineal – which was shipped back to Spain regularly by the 1700’s to produce red for clothes and religious purposes.

Today, it is used as a dye for fabrics and cosmetics and preferred over aniline dyes as it is non-toxic. It however, still originates from an insect, just ask Starbucks, who had to change their strawberry drinks after vegetarians and vegans discovered they were coloured with cochineal.

2 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on The Element of Nature and commented:
    A nice little article explaining the basic science behind the prevalence of red clothing in Mexico – carminic acid, found in the Cochineal insect. With it’s high price as a red dye, an efficient total synthesis would be useful!

    Sun, 15 Jun, 2014
    • Thanks for the reblog!

      Sun, 29 Jun, 2014

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