Bugs are the winners

I suppose I should say “insects!”  Last week our friend Chris and I decided to do some cochineal dyeing.  The insects that create the magnificent purple and red colors is dactylopius coccus. These are insects that feed  on prickly pear cacti, and are native to the southwest and Mexico.  The colors that can be produced from drying and then crushing the bugs are amazingly beautiful.

The mordanting pot
The mordanting pot with grey yarn and some white lamb locks

Natural dyeing is not something I do on a regular basis as there are a few more steps involved before you get to the actual dye pot.  Not bad, but instead of just soaking the yarn or roving in a vinegar and water bucket, you need to mordant or prepare the wool by heating it up in a pot with some alum (or iron, tin or chrome) and keep it at a certain temperature for an hour.  Just a little more fiddly than I usually care to bother.  (Particularly since my lobster cooker got crushed over the winter and is not fixed yet, so it means using the kitchen stove).

Last week during one of the stormy days we had, I mordanted two skeins of silver/grey wool and some white lamb locks which I popped into a lingerie bag.  Then the next day I went down to Chris’ house and we proceeded to fire up the dye pot.

In the dyepot
In the dyepot


Just out of the pot
Just out of the pot

Chris had already prepared the cochineal by crushing the bugs and simmering them overnight in a crockpot on low.  Then the liquid is strained (get all those buggy parts out of the dye stock) and she added it to more water in a big pot and then heated that.  So we put our wool in and let it simmer for about a half hour.  I wasn’t sure what kind of color was going to be produced, because the dye water was a deep ruby red color.  The skein came out an amazing purple, and the locks, both batches of which were in bags, were not as deeply colored, more a lavender, but they are all amazingly beautiful!  It was a fun process, and in the meantime Chris and I had a lovely visit.

(Just a note: I would not, nor would Chris, have used our kitchens if we had been mordanting with something other than alum,  as the alum and the bugs can’t do any harm to people.  Actually, cochineal insects are used to color food, so it is not something I would worry about!)

Locks and yarn drying (very dramatically in front of the clematis!)
Locks and yarn drying (very dramatically in front of the clematis!)

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