Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history

Surprised at Leewood: dyeing with cochineal


Dyeing at Leewood: If you have been following for a while, you’ll know that Jane Deane and I are researching natural dyes on five different fleeces, initially using four dyes. The  four dye-days were / are open to to the public. Visitors can watch, ask questions, and howl at our inability to do basic maths without recourse to endless bits of paper and the assistance of passing goats.

We are dyeing at Leewood, a smallholding on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon. So far we’ve worked with weld and madder; this week it was cochineal. We used raw dyestuff  and there is a post on preparing a stock solution of Lanzarote cochineal here. At Leewood we decided to use Mexican cochineal rather than Lanzarote. Why?

Mexican dyestuff  is reputed to be stronger but is more suited to the historical aspect of our interests. It also has a significant local connection.  Lanzarote cochineal arrived on the natural dye scene in about 1830, which is relatively late in terms of pre-synthetic dyes. Our dyestuff was a gift from a friend, who had obtained it while in Mexico from Rancho Tlapanochestli, Oaxaca. If you are reading, thank you, Ana.

A brief history lesson: When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, Hernán Cortés heard of the existence of nocheztli, or grana, which the Aztecs used for a rich, red dye. Recognising its efficiency compared to insect dyes available in Europe (eg: kermes, St John’s Blood, Armenian Red), specimens were sent to Spain in the 1520s. The Spanish monopolised the dye, so it rapidly became a great prize to pirates of all nations. A fabled English ‘pirate’ of the age was a Devon boy, Sir Francis Drake, sometimes known as ‘Queen Elizabeth’s chief pirate’. He was born in Tavistock, a few miles from Leewood. You can see Sir Francis, probably dressed in cochineal-dyed garments, in this portrait from the National Gallery.

What happened: Neither Jane nor I consider ourselves novices, but we were taken aback by our first batch of cochineal dyeing this week. Using our normal water source and mordant we failed to produce  colour on any one of five fleeces after around two hours’ dyeing in the jars. The dye ‘baths’ had turned from red to purple but the fleeces were virtually undyed.

Resourceful Jane suggested a different water source and we started a second batch.  That resulted in almost instant dyeing –  and the expected cochineal red. Why? We have absolutely no idea. We aren’t working in a laboratory so can’t analyse the water content of the original source which clearly had some vital part to play. But we take notes on pH, temperature, quantity etc and all the fleeces are dyed from the identical mordant and dye solution. It is the nearest we can get to comparing like with like.

The final surprise was that the initial batch, at first so reluctant to dye, did after four hours pick up very pale colour. This varied most from fleece to fleece of any of the three dyes we have tried. Why again? No idea.

Instead of working with indigo for our final ‘public’ day we are going to retest some of the dyes, comparing water sources.  To find out more about the final ‘open’ day or how to find Leewood, see this page.

Book: For a really interesting read on the history of cochineal I recommend A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield. My own copy is published by Black Swan (2006).

3 thoughts on “Surprised at Leewood: dyeing with cochineal

  1. Wow! That’s stunning about the water! How good you’re making your research open-ended so you can divert to examine in more detail something as fundamental as water. I wonder whether also the Lanzarote cochineal would differ to the Mexican one, whether something uptaken by the bugs (or, ahem, processing them) would also cause differing results depending on water origin/type/source. Or maybe it was affected by the asteroid flying past???

  2. Hi Robin, We were certainly surprised at how much difference the water made with cochineal. Also, we are still exploring questions more than answers. We need to check if there are differences (water, mordant method etc) we aren’t taking into account.
    Lanzarote cochineal might well differ from Mexican. I used the cochineal ‘blend’ bought from general fibre / dye suppliers a year or so back when I offered to check out the Lanzarote product for Asociacion Milana. I needed an alternative against which to test the Lanzarote dyestuff (at the time I didn’t have the Mexican).
    I did find there were differences and that the Lanzarote gave a stronger red on silk.
    But it raised the interesting question of suppliers not being prepared to give sources for their dyestuff. My suppliers didn’t want to, or couldn’t, and eventually said it was a blend of several sources.
    I think you would agree, it’s really important to know where dyes originate. Dyestuff sourced from one area might be sustainable, but not if sourced from another. It’s the same with our food – we need to know where it comes from.

    Asteroids. We never thought of those. And what about astrology and their being no r in the month of June?

  3. Weather. Sun. Heat. Explosion of, after years (?) of none. But you’ve probably thought of asking a biologist what might have been in the water due to the recent sun? Assuming that is, you were again using river water. Just an after thought 🙂

    I agree, it’s so important to know how and where and how dyes and other materials and food are grown or sourced. But no ‘r’ in June, it def wasn’t that… there wasn’t one in May either!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s