Words and photography by Annemieke Buursink.
Oaxaca de Juárez, June 2016.
A few centuries ago cochineal was one of the most mysterious and wanted products in the world. It was greatly valued by the Aztecs and brought to Europe by the Spaniards, who were very careful to protect their monopoly on this precious product. Not sure if they were chasing a plant, a fruit or an animal, pirates from different nationalities tried to benefit from its impressive red dying characteristics. Oaxaca was one of the principal regions where cochineal was being produced, but today, due to the introduction of the cheaper and less time-consuming synthetic red dyes, there are only a few cultivators left. Initiatives like that of the organization Bii Daüü Zapotec Textile Arts Center are trying to recover the traditional and natural ways of dyeing the wool and the production of dyeing ingredients, including the cochineal insect.
One of the participants of the En Vía program, Rafaela Ruíz Gutiérrez, and her husband Mariano Sosa Martínez, both members of Bii Daüü, showed me the process of the small-scale production of cochineal on the roof of their house in Teotitlán del Valle.
Cochineal, nocheztli (or cactus blood) in Nahuatl, is a parasitic insect that lives on the nopal de Castilla cactus and contains carminic acid, the famous red dye, to protect itself from other insects. With a few drops of limón the color changes miraculously into a bright orange and in combination with lime water it turns into purple. There are two species of cochineal: wild cochineal and domesticated cochineal. The latter produces more red dye, has visible scales and produces less cotton-like material, which protects them from the rays of the sun.
Mariano Sosa Martínez learned how to cultivate cochineal during a workshop in Tlapanocheztle (Santa María Coyotepec, Oaxaca) in 1994, as a member of the organization “Sarapes Arte y Tradición”. He shared his knowledge with the other members of the organization and since then gives workshops in and outside Teotitlán del Valle. He also passed on his education to his daughter, now also producing cochineal on her own. At the moment there are 4 people actively producing cochineal in the village to his knowledge.
1. To start the production of cochineal you need a cactus pad with female fertilized domesticated cochineal insects. When the female insects have a pink drop attached to their bodies (the nymphs), they are ready to be recollected with a small container.
2. The female insects with their young are traditionally put in a tulle bag of 4 by 4 centimeters and are hung on a new cactus pad. This part of the process is called infesting. The bag has small holes through which the young crawl and find a soft and tender spot on the cactus, where they will attach and drink the juice of the nopal. The female insects are dried for dyeing usage.
Mariano has found another technique of infesting, taking up a little less time than the tulle bags. He ‘sows’ the nymphs with a strainer on new cactus pads lying flat on a wooden plank. After three to four days, the young have attached themselves to the cactus and the pads are hung by a string on a wooden frame.
3. After two months the males have developed into small butterfly bugs with wings. They only live for 6 or 7 days, which they use to mate with as many female insects as possible, flying from one cactus to the other.
4. The fertilized female insects stay on the cactus and give birth to nymphs one month after the mating at the age of three months. The circle starts over from here.
5. The female insects are processed, dried and ground on a metate or grinding stone.
Producing cochineal is a very time-consuming and labor-intensive business. Every insect has to be recollected by hand and all the cactus pads have to be cleaned of unwanted predators with a needle. Wild cochineal forms one of the risks for the domesticated cochineal, and has to be removed from the cactus. There are also predator insects like the lady bug and the locally known gusano de tambor (drum worm). These worms live on the cactus and feed on the cochineal insects, leaving behind a spiderlike web.
Internationally the cochineal dye is being used for all sorts of products, including make-up and as a colorant in food and beverages. In Teotitlán del Valle the red dye is being used as a pigment in a regional dessert called nicuatole, but mainly for the dyeing of wool for the villages famous rugs.
At the moment Rafaela and Mariano produce approximately 1 kilo of cochineal a year, 250 grams each three months. This is not enough to dye all the wool they need for the rugs, so they buy the additional cochineal from a vendor from Querétaro. In Oaxaca there are also commercial cochineal farms in San Bartolo Coyotepec and in San Agustín Amatengo, both with representatives that sell the cochineal door-to-door.
“The aim is to be self-sufficient one day”, says Mariano. The organization Bii Daüü, officially founded in 2004, has approximately 1 hectare of land where they cultivate cactuses (it takes about 6 months for the cactuses to mature) and plants like pericón, nogal and marush, used for dyeing the wool yellow or brown.
Dyeing with cochineal
Depending on the shade or color Rafaela and Mariano like to achieve, they need three to four days to dye the wool naturally.
Day 1: Preparation of the wool
First they wash the wool, then boil it in water with potassium alum (15-25% of the weight of the wool), which they use as a mordant; it will open the fibers so that the wool will absorb the dye.
Day 2: Preparation of the yellow extract (optional)
They boil the pericón or marush plants for 1 hour in water, then add the wool and let it boil for one additional hour. Then they leave the wool in the water during the night.
Day 3: Dyeing with cochineal
They remove the wool and put it in clean water. They add the cochineal (5-18% of the weight of the wool for bright colors, 3-4% for soft shades) and boil it for 1 hour (2 hours maximum), then they let it rest overnight.
Day 4: Wash and dry
They remove the wool from the water and wash it with biodegradable detergent, then they let it dry in the shade.
Colors achieved by cochineal
Using cochineal in combination with plants you can get the following colors:
Reds: Various shades of red, including guinda or burgundy red, are achieved by dyeing the wool only with cochineal in a pewter or stainless steel container. In combination with plants like the lengua de vaca, other shades of red can be acheived.
Oranges: If you combine the cochineal with plants like pericón, producing canary yellow, or a plant locally known as marush, producing a golden yellow, you can get a variety of oranges.
Purples: There are two ways to get purple colors. The first method is dyeing the wool with cochineal in an iron container, the second technique is to color the wool red first with cochineal and then with indigo.
Browns: Dyeing the wool yellow and afterwards boil it in water with cochineal in a copper or iron container for 5 minutes, will produce brown colors.
Development and future
During the eighties there was a large demand for rugs in the village. “Every three months foreign companies came to buy rugs by the hundreds”, says Rafaela. Dyeing the wool with natural ingredients was too time consuming. It takes you at least three days to tint 3 kilos of wool with natural dyes, whereas it takes only 1 day to dye 50 kilos of wool with synthetic dyes. That is one of the reasons why a lot of people in the village changed to synthetic dyes a few decades ago.
Rafaela was part of the first women’s organization in Teotitlán del Valle, “Mujeres Que Tejen”, concerned with the negative effects of the synthetic dyes. She took a natural dying course from an abuelo (literal translation: grandfather, commonly means male elder in the community) from the village and is using her skills now to dye the wool necessary for the family’s production of rugs.
A former member of the organization, Fausto Contreras, is now setting up a cochineal cultivation program at the Bachillerato Integral Comunitario (BIC), the local high school, and planning a natural dyeing program as well. Family members of Rafaela and Mariano have also been inspired by their enthusiasm. Bit by bit, the knowledge of natural dyeing ingredients is being passed down to the next generation, who will hopefully keep this beautiful ancient tradition alive.