When Norman Kennedy was asked why he didn’t use some of the new labor and cost-saving devices for preparing cloth, he answered with his own question: “How much is a pound of pride and maybe a half a pound of satisfaction?”
This weekend Norman came to Issaquah to teach us to dye with bugs. Cochineal = bugs. My intensive 10-minute research on the subject reveals that cochineal, tiny parasitical bugs whose ground-up bodies produce a red pigment, are cultivated on a certain species of cacti that is grown only in Peru. The squeamish among you should now avert your eyes.
Aren’t they cute? Get this: cochineal dye is used as “a popular ingredient for food and beverage applications both for its distinct pink, red or purple colour and for its stability in acid and heat.” This means that when your darling little child or grandchild is drinking that fabulously delicious red Kool-Aid, she is quite literally drinking bugs. Yum.
The thing is, there is currently an international shortage of cochineal. Apparently many of those darn Peruvians figured out they could get more money for silly things like asparagus, bell peppers and avocado, and stopped growing the cacti a few years ago. Climate has also played a part in the scarcity of the creatures.
Therefore we surprised Norman with this lack of cochineal, and substituted lac. Lac dye also originates from insects like mealybugs and other scaly insects like this one:
Such a pretty little thing. Lac dye is slightly more acceptable to we delicate flowers, for it is made not from the bodies of bugs, but instead from their secretions, which coat branches and is then harvested from the branches. Also, I don’t think it’s used in food. Yay.
We first mordanted our wet wool by adding alum and cream of tartar to the dye bath. We had each brought two 2-ounce skeins of wool to dye, and there were two dyepots filled with boiling water. Into one of the pots we put fustic dye to produce a yellow color (relax: fustic is made from the wood of a sort of mulberry tree). Norman’s goal was to create a more scarlet color in this pot. In the other pot, we did not put the fustic. We added lac powder to both pots, added our yarn and let it sit overnight.
I can’t say that I’m in love with lac, at least not in the manner these skeins were dyed. The color is too pale and insincere, but the difference in colors is quite interesting.
On the left is the color produced with fustic and lac, on the right is lac alone.
Along with the dyeing, Norman taught us how to spin cotton and flax. And of course all this was accompanied by the beautifully constant flow of stories and recollections from his Scottish past. Good times.