Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Cochineal Bug - An Oaxacan treasure

The Grana Cochinilla Fina, commonly known as simply Cochineal, is a vibrant red dye produced from the female scale insect (Dactylopius Coccus)  that lives on and feeds off the the pads of the Nopal cactus.  The dye is produced after the insects are dried and ground up.  It takes 70,000 insects to make one pound of dye!
Bulmaro Perez Mendoza is showing one of the cactus pads with the Cochineal.  He and his family live in the town of Teotitlan de Valle that is famous in the state of Oaxaca for their hand woven rugs.
Not all Nopal cacti are the home to these insects.  Other Nopal cacti are used in making salads and others produce the sweet red edible fruits known as tunas that are used in syrups, beverages and ice creams.
A huge Nopal cactus in the courtyard of the ex-convent in Ocotlan.
Bulmaro is showing me how he and his family dye the yarns with the Cochineal.  

From 1750 to 1810, Oaxaca was the world capital for its export of Cochineal to other areas of the world: Europe, Asia and Africa.   After gold and silver, this was the next valuable commodity.  It was first shipped to Spain in 1526, just after the conquest and soon became the most popular dye of choice.  The uniforms of the British army were dyed with Cochineal as were the wool coats worn by European royalty.  
Today Cochineal is used in a variety of products:  coloring for lipsticks and makeup (especially for hyper-allergenic cosmetics), pharmaceutical companies for their pills,  some strawberry yogurts, Campari and even some of Campbell's soups.
The dyed yarns are set with a mixture of lime (available in the market as seen above) and water.
In the early 1880's there was a decline in the industry due to the introduction of synthetic dyes.  There has been a resurgence of the use of Cochineal and the weavers of Teotitlan de Valle are going back to using the natural dyes.  In fact, there is a research farm, Tlapanochestli, in Santa Maria Coyotepec, dedicated to the revival of Cochineal.  Visitors are welcome, demonstrations are conducted and there is even a small gift shop where one can purchase Cochineal paint sets, soaps, yarns....  A visit by Prince Charles's to Tlapanochestli is a testament of the continued interest in the history and significance of Cochineal!

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