four pink mini skeins of yarn and some white and pink flowers

Natural Dyeing With Cochineal

Today I want to take you along on an experiment of natural dyeing with cochineal. Overall, cochineal is one of my favorite dyestuffs to use due to its versatility and straightforwardness. And it creates the most vibrant shades of pinks.

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Origin & Applications

Cochineal is the only dyestuff I use for natural dyeing that is not derived from plants. It is made from cochineal beetles. The cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) is a scale insect from which the natural dye carmine is derived. A primarily sessile parasite native to tropical and subtropical South America through North America (Mexico and the Southwest United States), this insect lives on cacti in the genus Opuntia, feeding on plant moisture and nutrients.

picture by www.canaturex.com

The insect produces carminic acid that deters predation by other insects. Carminic acid can be extracted from the body and eggs, then mixed with aluminium or calcium salts to make carmine dye. Carmine, also called cochineal, cochineal extract, crimson lake or carmine lake, natural red 4, C.I. 75470, or E120, is a pigment of a bright-red color. It is a popular food color, used in yogurt, candy and certain brands of juice, the most notable ones being those of the ruby-red variety. In addition, carmine has been used for dyeing textiles and in painting since antiquity [1].


If you want to learn how to dye yarn with natural dyes, you can check out this step by step tutorial on my Youtube channel:

a woman holding a yellow skein of yarn. a second picture is showing a basket filled with colorful skeins of yarn. a text saying: How to dye yarn at home with natural dyes

Tips for Natural Dyeing with Cochineal

  • Natural dyeing literature often recommends using very high amounts of dyestuff to dye a skein of yarn. In my experience, this isn’t always necessary. Cochineal is a powerful dye and I never use more than a ratio of 1:40 (e.g. a 100 g skein of yarn and 2.5 g of cochineal) and still achieve strong and vibrant colors. In addition, cochineal is a more expensive dyestuff, therefore using a smaller amount is also more cost effective.
  • Natural dyeing with cochineal is very productive. Always have enough ready to dye-yarn on hand for a second or even third exhaust of the dyebath.
  • Cochineal is pH sensitive. This means you can achieve a broader range of colors by altering the pH of your dye solution. You can find more information on this topic in the natural dyeing experiment below.
  • To broaden the range of colorways even further, you can use different colored yarn bases. Using a naturally white or cream yarn, for example, will give you a completely different result than a grey yarn.
  • Cochineal dye has to be washed out very thoroughly after the dyeing process. In my experience, a lot of excess dye comes out of the skein during washing. This effect is called “bleeding”. Since you don’t want the bleeding to occur when washing your finished knitted piece for the first time, wash the skein of yarn several times until the water runs clear.

Form of Dye Material

You can purchase cochineal either as whole bugs or in powdered form. So far, I have only used the powder.

If you are located in Europe and are looking for a European supplier, you should consider Canaturex. They are based on the Canary Islands and sell cochineal as whole bugs, in the grain form. It is a family owned business and they were granted the EU quality logo for their products.

The Natural Dyeing with Cochineal Experiment

List of Materials

Undyed skein of yarn100 g
You can simply use an undyed, natural skein of yarn. Maybe you even have some suitable yarn already in your stash. If you want to use a yarn that is in the form of a ball or cake, you have to create a skein first. This can be done by using a swift (this is the one I use and can recommend).
I used some of my own yarn bases (100% German Merino wool).
Alum14 g
Alum or potassium alum (KAl(SO4)2·12H2O) is a mordant which means that it is used to set dyes on fibers by forming a coordination complex with the dye. It increases the fastness of the dye.
DyestuffCochineal
PotYou can use an old pot or acquire one just for natural dyeing purposes. This is the size I use if I dye only one skein at a time, it has a holding capacity of 6 qt (5.7 L).
Bucket or Washing PanTo scour and wash the yarn.
Kitchen ScaleTo measure the alum and dyestuff. This is the one I use.
TieTo secure the yarn and avoid tangling. You have to use something that is stable in boiling water and doesn’t give off any color. I usually use some kind of package cord.
SpoonWooden or stainless steel
Dish ShoapWhatever you have on hand.
This is used to scour and wash the yarn.
Wool Laundry DetergentThis is the one I use and can recommend. It is gentle and doesn’t have any smell.

Precautions: Don’t use the same pots and utensils for natural dyeing that you use for food preparation. Always wear gloves. Creating the dye solution and the dyeing process itself should be done in a well ventilated area. I often use a cooking plate that I put on my patio.

Instructions

Mordanting

To ensure good colorfastness, I always mordant the yarn with alum before dyeing with cochineal. If you want to learn more about mordants, you can have a look at one of my previous posts about mordanting.

Slow Dyeing Process

You have to take your time with natural dyeing. When dyeing with cochineal, I always prepare the dyestuff the night before the dyeing process itself. I weigh the cochineal in a small glass jar and pour some boiling water over it. Then I put the lid on and let it sit overnight. On the next day, it is ready to use and can directly be simmered with the yarn.

Experiment Setup

Let’s have a look at the color range I was able to achieve in more detail. For this experiment I used two dye pots, two different pH environments and two exhausts.

Pot #1 contained 2.1 g of cochineal and a 120 g skein of yarn. I used citric acid to lower the pH to 1. For the second exhaust, I used a 20 g skein of yarn.

Pot #2 contained 2.1 g of cochineal and a 120 g skein of yarn. I left the pH as is (which is around 7 in my tap water). For the second exhaust, I used a 10 g skein of yarn.

cochineal dye solution pH 7 on the left and pH 1 on the right

Natural Dyeing Process                   

I slowly heated both pots and let them simmer for 60 minutes. Then I turned off the heat and the pots cooled down and sat overnight. On the following day, I took the skeins out of the dye pots, washed them thoroughly and hung them up to dry. I then took two more skeins and repeated the process in each dye pot.

Natural Dyeing with Cochineal: Color Results

You can see the results from pot #1 in the two skeins on the right. The vibrant reddish pink came from the first exhaust and the coral pink from the second exhaust.
On the left are the two skeins from pot #2. The dark pink was from the first exhaust and the lighter pink in the smaller skein from the second exhaust.

You can really see the difference the pH of the dye solution makes on the final color. I also find it very interesting that the colorways of the different exhausts of the same dye pot look distinctly different, not just lighter/darker.

Here is an example to show you the difference the color of the yarn base can make. The concentrations were the same as the ones mentioned above and the dye solution was acidic. The burgundy red color one the left was dyed on a grey base. The lighter red/pink on the right was dyed on a base with a natural, slightly yellow color.

As you can see, you can create various shades of colors even with using only one dyestuff. Now imagine using two or more extracts or plant materials to dye yarn. The possibilities are nearly endless!

If you would like to have a closer look at some of my cochineal-dyed colorways, these are the skeins that are currently available in my Etsy shop:

Pin It For Later: Natural Dyeing with Cochineal

cochineal bugs, cochineal in powder form and four skeins of yarn dyed with cochineal

Want to learn how to dye yarn using natural dyes?

I have created a beginner’s guide to natural dyeing that contains everything you need to know to get started. And the best thing: it is available for free!

four hand dyed skeins of yarn in shades of purple and blue on a wooden surface and a text saying beginner's guide: www.rosemaryandpinesfiberarts.de. natural dyeing. everything you need to know to get started dyeing yarn with natural dyes

Sources:

[1]         Wikipedia

Annika

I am a yarn dyeing artist, writer and educator.
I am also an avid knitter and love to create something with my hands every day.
Read more about me here:
https://www.rosemaryandpinesfiberarts.de/about-the-writer/

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