I’m not exactly known for my minimalist aesthetic. In my own work, or reflected in the objects I choose to surround myself with, there is a definite OMG-all-the-colors-all-the-patterns approach. The most common manifestation of this preference (affliction?) is my spellbound, magnet-like attraction to bright, heavily embroidered textiles. They routinely stop me in my tracks, are counted among my prized possessions, and figure prominently in my artistic inspiration. The genesis of this infatuation, I think, took place at a young age when I serendipitously discovered a trove of Guatemalan textiles in our upstairs cupboard which my mother had collected on a trip some twenty years earlier. Behind some old board games, and boxes of photo slides, glimmers of bright yellow and turquoise peeked through a plastic bag. They were a color revelation to my eyes, accustomed to the beige sameness that permeated our 1990s L.A. suburb, and completely unaware that household items could be so evocative of joy. I ran downstairs with eager, bordering on accusatory questions. It was on that day I learned about quetzals and ancient pyramids shrouded by jungle, pyramids my mother had climbed and jungles she had explored. These discoveries had providential consequences. Beyond exploding my young brain with the knowledge that my mom had done some seriously cool shit, it made me wonder why everything in our human-made world wasn’t this colorful or exciting to look at. I still wonder about that, actually.
There’s something about well-crafted textiles (no matter the time period they were made in), that makes them resonant and even emotionally reminiscent. Much like their traditional fine art counterparts, textiles have the power to transport and inspire, while representing a common object or feeling we strongly relate to. Except a rug, coat, or quilt does so in an even more accessible way, because it's a thing we treasure, but it's also a thing we use. It means that when we look at a beautiful quilt, we can't help but think about what it would feel like to lay under it, and when see an intricately embroidered 18th century jacket, we marvel at the skill it took to produce, but also wonder if it was stiff and uncomfortable for the person who owned it. In a mechanized and mass produced world, we rarely stop to think about how so many things that make daily life possible are made. But beautifully crafted textiles confront us with the gap in our own knowledge; they jolt us into the realization that human hands used to make EVERYTHING and that certain levels of craftsmanship and artistry are exceptional.
After reading the paragraph above, I bet you won’t believe me when I say that I had no intention of buying a rug when we visited Teotitlan del Valle, a small village outside of Oaxaca City populated almost entirely by master weavers. The Spanish introduced wool and European looms to the area when they colonized, and the local population swiftly mastered spinning, dyeing, and weaving with them. Though the rugs and textiles themselves are a product of introduced goods, the designs employed are of Zapotec origin, and they are BEAUTIFUL. I put up a good fight, but it was no match for a crimson runner that had just come off one of the looms expertly operated by Rosario Martinez Vasquez and Ernesto Maldonado Gonzalez. Dyed in five different scarlet shades all derived from cochineal, I felt like I was seeing the color red for the first time. Cochineal creates hues so rich and saturated, they look almost incandescent, as if they are glowing red like a hot ember. Knowing about the process of dyeing with cochineal ahead of time did not prevent me from being completely spellbound when I got to witness it in person. I imagine the Spanish Conquistadores were utterly astounded by the sight of the bright red pigment, knowing how difficult it was to produce back in Europe and therefore how coveted it would be.
The process of using cochineal has changed remarkably little over the centuries. Once harvested with a brush from the cactus paddles where they grow, the insects are dispatched, and then left to dry in flat trays or sometimes in an oven to expedite drying time. They can then be processed further to extract a purer pigment, or can be ground up for use. The ground cochineal can be added to a dyepot with other additives (acidic ingredients make a more orange color, alkaline ones such as baking soda bring out a more purple hue), boiled with the wool or fiber of choice and then left to air cure for a few days. A weaver we met said she could produce a hundred different shades from cochineal with additions to change the chemistry or slight differences in the dyeing process. For more detailed, professional instructions on dyeing with cochineal, try a quick search on youtube, there are many.
So, what exactly makes that beautiful bright red anyway? Cochineawhat? It’s a bug, a true bug even. I mean that in a taxonomic sense, cochineal insects belong to the order hemiptera, or true bugs. Often mistakenly labeled as type of beetle, Dactylopius coccus, is actually a type of scale insect. The female cochineals produce carminic acid, an evolutionary response to ants and other predators, that also happens to be the most gorgeous shade of red. Before you get all: EW BUG ACID NO THX on me, take a moment to contemplate you that you’ve probably eaten cochineal many times, possibly put it on your face before a night out, and admired stunning cochineal red pigments in renaissance paintings without even knowing it. And you’re still here! Though cases of people allergic to carminic acid are rare, with an FDA estimated three cases over a ten year period, it still mandated that carminic acid be explicitly listed on labels for those who are aware they have the allergy. It’s also helpful for vegetarian or vegan folks who do not want to eat insects based on their dietary restrictions. The pigment extracted from cochineal is not only remarkable in its heavy color load, it’s also incredibly well suited as an ingredient for consumer products. Stable at many temperatures, including being cooked or frozen, as well as acidic environments, cochineal is a natural pigment that can be used to make your favorite shade of lipstick, energy drink, or canned fruit.
The stigma about insects in foodstuffs is pervasive to many westerners, and I hope that will change. Even if you want to avoid eating insects because you think they are gross, you already have at some point. It’s a part of food manufacturing. To pretend that we, as humans, have complete control over which other species we interact with or inadvertently consume is a farce. We share a planet (and often a body, if you think about our microbiome) with many other organisms that not only belong in our ecosystem, but make it possible. This is an aside, obviously, as I’m not planning on eating this rug or sharing a recipe for cochineal pie with you, but it is important in pointing out just how much these little critters shaped our modern world, and the colors in it, edible or otherwise.
Hundreds of years before cochineal was being used to make our frappuccinos, indigenous people of modern day Mexico and Peru were using it in their art and textiles. Some of the earliest textiles known to be dyed with cochineal come from Peru and date from the 2nd century AD. Cochineal naturally occurred in tropical and subtropical South America and Mexico, in areas where its host plant, a species of Optunia nopal cactus, also grew. Once the technique for dyeing with cochineal became more common, large scale cultivation began and cochineal as a highly valued product was born. For over a thousand years, American cochineal dyes remained a secret from the rest of the world. Over that time, cochineal cultivation spread to modern day Mexico, particularly in the region of Oaxaca. In fact, there is a region in Mexican state of Oaxaca called Nochixtlán, meaning “place of the cochineal,” from a derivation of the Nahuatl word for cochineal, nocheztli, which in turn means “blood from the prickly pear.” As the name implies, this region was the epicenter of intense cochineal production, and a robust pre-Columbian industry.
The appeal of bright red as power color was not lost on the Aztec kings, who levied large amounts of cochineal as tribute from the region after it was conquered and folded into the Aztec empire. Taxes and tributes paid in the form of goods produced or widely available in newly conquered regions allowed the Aztec seat of power in Tenochtitlan to maintain a conqueror-conqueree relationship with far flung parts of the empire, while benefitting from products they could not produce solely within areas under their military control. This complex and remarkably varied (the King will have his lip plugs!) political tribute system is meticulously detailed in a volume titled the Codex Mendoza, supposedly named after the viceroy to New Spain who commissioned it in the mid 1500s. It lists one region tributing (among other things) 800 handfuls of quetzal feathers, 20 gourd bowls of fine gold dust, 1 feathered headpiece, and 40 bags of cochineal. The intended audience for the Codex was the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in order to illustrate the wealth and of his new conquest. En route to Spain, it was intercepted by French pirates and made it’s way to a different King, Henry II of France, who history does not record as fancying lip plugs.
Though Spain was late to the cochineal party, they had a taste for rich red pigments, and wasted no time in starting to export cochineal at a premium price. They immediately coopted the existing tribute system from the Aztecs as an organized looting method, instead diverting loads of cochineal and speedily sending them on trade ships. Only a few decades after the Spanish began their violent conquering and plundering of the Americas, they were exporting as much cochineal as possible to eager buyers back in Europe. A Spanish naturalist named Jose de Acosta studying flora and fauna in Peru, noted a ship carrying 72 tons of cochineal heading from Lima to Spain in 1587. Spain obfuscated the origin and manufacturing process of cochineal so that it could maintain a monopoly on its export. It seems like this was an intentional effort to protect a valuable trade asset, but truthfully wasn’t too difficult to control since confusion surrounded the nature and life cycle of cochineal for quite some time after the Spanish started exporting it. Not surprisingly, only two ports in Spain were allowed to receive the precious cargo, further protecting their monopoly. In 1599, a pictorial manuscript titled Memorial de Don Gonzalo Gomez de Cervantes was made depicting the cultivation of cochineal in great detail, it is thought to have been commissioned by the then viceroy of New Spain.
Since the value of red as a power color predated the spread of cochineal to Europe and other places, what were artisans outside the Americas using before then? There were relatives of the cochineal native to parts of the Mediterranean, called kermes scale, which had been used in the past. However, they were hard to collect, and were said to create a weaker pigment. Some of the earliest pigments used in textiles were made from powdered iron oxide and ochre, which were rubbed into the fibers of cloth in order to color it. There were plant dyes, like madder root, which made a more orange color, and a pigment known as shellfish purple - which (you’ll never guess) was a purple dye made from several types of sea mollusk. Cochineal was the red they had been waiting for.
The cultivation of cochineal did not end with the colonial period, though the advent of synthetic dyes diminished it as a powerhouse crop. Since we were living in Oaxaca, an area known for cochineal production, I was eager to see the propagation process in person. We took sweltering bus ride to the town Santa María Coyotepec, to visit a cochineal research center and farm called Tlapanochestli. We perused some exhibits on the history of cochineal, its uses, and finally what I was most excited to see, the raised beds where the insects are reared. For commercial production of cochineal, the plants must be artificially infested in order to expedite the density needed for a sufficient harvest. This is done by collecting an egg laying female from one plant, putting her in a little cylindrical incubator basket, and attaching it to another plant. Small instars creep out of basket and attach to the plant, this process is repeated until every paddle is infested with cottony white splotches of cochineal. The dusty white covering is actually a type of wax they secrete for protection, something other hemipterans do as well. I managed to secure a jar or refined carminic pigment from the proprietor, which I’m incredibly excited to turn into printmaking ink. I never had a serious interest in making my own inks, but something about looking down at a velvety little pile of finely ground, perfectly red pigment makes you think: "I want everything to be this color!" Maybe it's just me, but history seems to indicate otherwise.
Once cochineal made it to Europe, it was carried along trade routes and manufacturing chains that extended from London, to Constantinople, to Manila. The iconic red coats of the British were made with the finest English wool and dyed by the Dutch who became masters at using cochineal. Ironically, cochineal red would come to be the symbolic color of colonial power, and often the violent rule that accompanied it. The story of cochineal is the story of empire, greed, exploitation, genocide, human artistic achievement, and chemistry. It is literally interwoven into our collective cultural, art, and food histories. Not bad for a chubby little invertebrate that could be mistaken for a bit of laundry lint.