Thursday, March 7, 2013

Cochineal - A Natural Red Dye

A current exhibit at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, AZ, provides a great education on the source of one of several natural red dyes that has been used for centuries. You may be more familiar with madder red dye which is derived from plant roots, but a tiny beetle, the cochineal, is the source of another red dye used in many textiles. The insect feeds on the Prickly Pear cactus and produces carminic acid which is extracted and mixed to create the dye called carmine.
According to wikipedia, the dye was used in Central America in the 15th century for coloring fabrics and in fact, it became an important export during the Colonial period.

Prickly Pear

This exhibit, however, notes that the dye was produced as early as the 2nd century in Mexico and South America.

Various shades of red, deep crimson, purple and even black are possible.

A lovely variety of items dyed with cochineal (co shin ee' al) are beautifully displayed

 Historic Navaho textiles

The dye is used for many things besides textiles; notably in foods and cosmetics.

 You may see it listed if you check nutrition labels carefully.

In 2012 vegetarians became upset when they heard  that 'crushed bugs' were used to color various product at Starbucks.Learn more here if you are not squeamish. 

Starbucks has stopped using the dye in their products but it is a natural product and as such as become more popular again for use in foods due to the uncertainty of all the artificial additives in foods.

See the  museum website for more information on this and other current exhibits and be sure to visit it if you are ever in the Phoenix area.

Click here for more on natural red dyes.

Another peek inside the Heard:
 Pictorial Navaho Textiles


  1. Oh how I wish I could see this exhibit! If there were any handouts I hope you'll share at LLQSG. Always looking for info for my files on fabric dyeing.

  2. I remember the upset when the news reported this being used in foods! (Obviously none of those upset ever worked in a restaurant!)

    Thanks for the interesting post!

  3. So interesting. Does it help us date quilts, like early or mid or late 19th century? Is the red color characteristic enough so I can say for certain a fabric is cochineal red as opposed to madder red?

  4. Hi Ann,
    Good questions. I have not done extensive research on this or any other dye so am not confident enough to give a definite answer but being that both cochineal and madder dyes were used so early I don't think it would be a good clue to date when just viewing a textile. I understand it's very hard to prove what type of dye has been used other than in a lab. Sounds like one more thing to add to my list of topics for more study. Anyone else with help on this?


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