Cochineal: A Very Short Story of “RED”

Wars have been waged, tributes paid, and civilizations overturned because of cochineal. Cochineal is one of the most valuable commodities on earth. Some say, it is more costly per ounce than gold. For the uninitiated, cochineal is used to dye fiber RED (and purple, pink, orange, and all shades in-between). Remember the Red Coats of the British Army — their coats were dyed with cochineal. Yes, cochineal is a “parasite,” I reply in response to a question recently asked. Aztecs had exacted fealty payments in cochineal from Zapotec and Mixtec subjects long before Cortes conquered southern Mexico. However, not soon after, the Spanish created a controlled world monopoly on the commerce of cochineal. The holds of galleons were filled with tons of dried powder to export to Europe, as a royal and middle class sought to bedeck themselves in red — symbol of power and prestige.

cactus-bugs.jpg

Where does cochineal come from?

A beetle grows and develops on the fleshy leaf of the prickly pear cactus. It becomes imbedded, morphs from male to female, lays its eggs, multiplies, and after about three months of development is ready to be harvested. In Teotitlan people call this beetle a bug. The bug is picked off by hand, dried, and then crushed. It is about the size of an ant. If you pick a live bug off the cactus, put it in the palm of your hand and crush it, it cactus-bugs-2.jpgoozes a deep, rich red, like the color of blood. Add lime juice or ash and watch a color transformation. It takes a g-zillion little dried bugs to make an ounce of powder. In the Chavez home, they crush the bugs by hand with a mortar and pestle.

Oaxacan rugs and textiles dyed with cochineal are much more expensive because of the cost of the dye. One can pay up to 50 percent more for a piece that is all naturally dyed with cochineal. Because of the costs, cultivation and preparation time, most weavers in response to market demands for cheaper goods, have put aside the traditional methods of dyeing with cochineal and are using aniline (commercial synthetic) dyes instead.

Oaxaca, once the center for cochineal cultivation, has been surplanted by Peru which produces the largest quantity of cochineal in the world. With renewed interest in cochineal by weavers, the cochineal farm just outside of Oaxaca city is cultivating and selling the little bugs. You can even find souvenir packets of them in gift shops on Alcala Macedonia.

6 Responses to Cochineal: A Very Short Story of “RED”

  1. I am interested in any follow-up comments about 1830’s and 1840’s production of export quality cochineal dyed cloth to France. I can be reached at nivon@yahoo.com. Thank you. A. Nivon

  2. My great grand father, Jean Antoine Nivon (Antonio), was a silkworm weaver in France. He immigrated to Oaxaca in the 1830’s and made a lot of money with cochineal dyes. Unfortunately, he lost most of his fortune when the German scientists discovered a substitute chemical dye fifty or so years later.

    • Hola, Alejandro. I have heard many stories about the introduction of chemical dyes and how that had a financial impact on the local population. Now, there is a serious health problem, too, because weavers use chemical dyes to tint the wool, do not wear protective masks, and develop lung disease, including emphysema and lung cancer. There is a strong movement to return to natural dyes, but the cost to purchase cochineal is high and the time to prepare the wool is long, resulting in higher prices for better quality work. The average tourist does not see the difference and continues to buy based on low price. The market demands will change the practices if people will it. Thank you for sharing your family history.

    • I would like to reach Alejandro Nivon who posted a comment. Jean Antoine Nivon is also my relative. Is there a way for you to forward him my email?

    • Dear Alejandro,
      I enjoyed your article on the cochineal dyes. Jean Antoine Nivon is my 2nd great grandfather. My link to the Nivons is as follows
      Jean Antoine Nivon
      Federico Alejandro Nivon m Gertrudis Petriz
      Guadalupe Nivon Petriz m John George McNab
      Easton Jeanne McNab Nivon m Harry Gropper
      Harriet Joan Gropper McNab (me)
      There are many many cousins from the family of Federico Alejandro and Gertrudis and I am just now getting to know some of them.

      With warm regards,
      Joan

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