The Perfect Red

a  cochineal painting of Oaxaca de Juaréz

When the Spaniards first came to Mexico, they were amazed by the brilliant red colour of the blankets of the Aztec nobles. They learned that the dye for these blankets was paid as tribute by some people who lived to the south. The source of the colour was a type of cactus  beetle that produces carminic acid as a means of protection. A few weeks ago, I was able to visit a site where the cochineal is produced.
Today there are very few cochineal plantations.

The beetle lives on nopal cactus that grow in the desert areas of Oaxaca state.
The cacti are cultivated on the plantation.
Nests are placed on healthy cacti.
The eggs begin to hatch and leave the nest.
Clean, fertile females are placed in "Zapotec nests" to be fertilized by the males. They are kept at a temperature of about 27degreesC. As the eggs hatch, the mites leave the nest and infest the nopal.
The nopales are infested.
Only the females survive to feed on the nopales. They are harvested after about 90 days.
The cochineal must be cleaned and sorted.
It takes 80,000 to 100,000 insects to make one kilogram of dye. Once, second only to silver as an export of Mexico, today the cochineal dye in Oaxaca is used mostly by the native weavers to produce textiles. The colour can be changed by adding an acid or a base to it. Even when different people squeeze the beetle, the colour is slightly different.
The pink and scarlet wool is from cochineal.
Weaving in an important industry in Oaxaca. Most of the inexpensive weaving sold in the zocalo is from commercial dyes. The cost and time involved in production make cochineal  relatively expensive in Oaxaca. Children learn to weave at about age 6 in the pueblos.
This wool has been dyed with natural dyes.

There has been renewed interest in natural dyes in the last few years. Most Oaxacan dye is used locally but Peru exports cochineal that is used in printing, art and cosmetics.

As for me, although I have resolved to buy little during this visit, there is a beautiful scarf in the Museo de Textil store. Perhaps, I will go and take a picture of it!


  1. Fascinating. Like you, I'm less and less inclined to bring any more "stuff" home, but I imagine it must be very tempting...

  2. The colour is exquisite and the textiles in the museum shop are works of art but because I admire something does not mean that I have to buy it. I still have much too much "stuff" at home.

  3. I admire your ability not to purchase - there are so many beautiful temptations. However, I too have reached an age when I am trying to rid myself of "stuff" and the hardest thing to offload is stuff with memories.

  4. It is about the memories not the "stuff." I have too much of everything at home. It becomes more apparent, the more I travel.


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