Cochineal: Part 1

I was all set to wake up early, crush the beetles, put them to soak, drain the mordanted fiber, rinse it, and generally get things ready before breakfast. When I woke up about eight, the room was rather dark and there was the drip drip of rain outside.

Off to a rip-snorting start.

So, after some thought and trying to decide whether I really wanted to do this, I plunged ahead. (Now, you have to understand, I literally had a bad dream about doing this a couple nights ago, and a wonderful sinus infection to deal with.)

I started with the cochineal. You can either use them whole, grind them up, crush them slightly, or convert them into powder. My method? Stick the little beetles into a ziploc inside a bigger ziploc, set on the concrete outside and dance. Actually, it was more like a controlled kicking and grinding than dancing, but it crushed them up a bit. They were a lot harder than I imagined, and rather small. It would take three to be the size of a Tic-Tac.

Then I put them in a jar with boiling water to sit and soak until I was ready for them. This (and the crushing) supposedly helps you get as much color as you possibly can. They didn’t smell too bad; rather like fish food. This picture is from a later step, but you can see the wonderful color the water turned.

Soaking Beetles

Soaking Beetles

While they were steeping I hauled the mordanted yarn down to the woods and commenced triple-rinsing, just to make sure all the extra chemicals were off. Assuming there were extra chemicals. This lowered the temperature of the yarn, so I had to try and bring it back up to at least room temperature before it went into the simmering dye water.

And, speaking of dye water, it turned a lovely red, but remind me never to just dump in the ground beetles again. The recipe said you could swirl a piece of fleece around in there and it would catch all the little bits. Well, I went through three handfuls of wool (see above photo) and there were still some beetles doing the backstroke through my liquid. (That last bit was what you call “poetic license.” They were not swimming around.) This was after simmering the beetles for twenty minutes.

Dye Froth

Dye Froth

They looked very much like strawberry syrup, foam and all. I let the water cool a bit, did the swirl thing with the wool, and decided there couldn’t be that many chunks left. I mean, look at all the fragments I already got out! In went the yarn, and I soon found out how many were left.

3 Responses to Cochineal: Part 1
  1. Mama Mentor
    February 17, 2009 | 3:02 pm

    Could you put the cochineal in a cheesecloth bag and still get the dye to be as deep? Or would you have to put it in loose and then strain it before adding your fleece? This is fascinating!

  2. Rebekah
    February 17, 2009 | 4:38 pm

    I know you can put it in cheesecloth, but I don’t know if that affects the color. And the straining thing would have worked if I had a good strainer. As it was, the only thing I had was coffee filters, and in my case, pouring four gallons of crimson dye out of an enormous stock pot through a coffee filter and into a smaller pot is asking for trouble.

  3. Whitney
    February 17, 2009 | 10:53 pm

    Oh, Rebekah. You make me laugh out loud. :)
    Sounds like an adventure. :)

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