Spinning in Cowgirl Boots – A History of Red Dye

I’ll never be a dyer of fiber or yarn. I leave that to others. I have a mommy that dyes fiber with stuff she finds in her backyard and a close friend that dyes yarn with commercial acid  based formulas. Mostly I just play assistant and/or appreciative audience. Mostly I just say things like “Ooo! That’s pretty.”

red yarn dyed with cochineal

But I have learned the basics. And I’ve always been interested in the history of textiles, dyeing included. Before the days of commercial synthetic dye formulas, we humans only had natural dyes. Natural dyes are trickier to work with and often rare. Some colors were rarer than others and those dyes used to costs fortunes, literally fortunes. One of the most important natural dye substances comes from the New World and it made plenty of people their fortunes.

Meet the cochineal beetle, a little parasitic bug that lives on prickly pear cactus and makes some of the best natural red dye in the world.

female cochineal beetles on prickly pear cactus

For the record, they don’t normally look like that. In that picture they have been uncovered so we can see them in all their buggy glory. Normally they look more like this:

Image from cactuslover.blogspot.com

So for this Spinning in Cowgirl Boots, I’m spinning up some red roving and talking about bugs. And history. And British Redcoats. And the cultivation of prickly pear cactus. And somehow Clint Eastwood and his Spaghetti Westerns got in there too.

Want to try dyeing with cochineal? Knitty has a short how-to article that should get you started and Cochineal Dye will sell you the supplies. They have small and large bags of dried bugs (lol) or whole kits complete with yarn.

Some more of me spinning and rambling:


8 thoughts on “Spinning in Cowgirl Boots – A History of Red Dye

  1. Hey Jenn – you should come on over to Santa Fe to see the new exhibit on cochineal at the International Folk Art Museum. It’s amazing to see what “primitive societies” could do with textiles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you like them! I’ve gotten lots of positive feedback so I’ll probably continue on until it starts to bore people.

      Then maybe I switch to videos of bad cats taking naps in cardboard boxes. I have plenty of that going on in my home too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a package of cochineal bugs that I purchased 20+ years ago when I thought I was going to be a spinner (and dyer) of wool. I’ll have to do some research to find out if the bugs lose their dyeing effectiveness over time.

    Liked by 1 person

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