Colourful Cochineal Eco Print

It never ceases to amaze me what treasures that ‘Mother’ nature has up her sleeves! As I fall deeper into that obsession of dyeing and printing with natural materials I discover even more wonderment! Combining some pre-dyeing with eco printing leads to a colour explosion. Let me introduce you to Colourful Cochineal Eco Printing!

It always amazing me how I get drawn it… On a recent trip to a small shop with all kinds of fibre and dyeing goodies I went berserk! I was on a mission to get some indigo (more on that soon) but I found something else; small little bugs!

What the heck is Cochineal?!

Cochineal is a tiny tropical scale insect which creates natural carmine dye. Amazingly, there it was, a little container of dried tiny tiny bugs. And according to the knowledgable fellow it is an amazing dye that gives great colour. I was quite intrigued!

Cochineal is known to give much colour for the small amount of material. As little as 3% of the weight of fibre that you are dyeing can give good colour (calculate weight of material against weight of cochineal) 10-20% will give string colour.

How to use Cochineal

The little dry carcasses (don’t worry, you can’t really see any arms and legs) can be ground up either in a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder as this is a food safe anyway.

It grinds quite small so it can be used as is or strained out of the water. I have tried both methods with success. I use a scrap of organza as a fine mesh strainer similar to making tea.

Once the dye water has been made I add my silk fabric to the pot and slowly bring it to a low simmer. Heat can kill the colour so I’d rather bring it to a low simmer gradually. I hold the heat for about an hour and then let it sit and cool over night to set even more colour.

Lovely strong pink! Note the dark specks? Those are the residue of ground cochineal. They may give some darker spots so you may want to strain the dye-water. I am not too concerned with perfect even colour.

The Bundling

I rely on my favourite leaves to print; sumac and maple. These were used fresh however dried can also work. As stated in the introduction you will need something to wrap the layers around.

Lay the silk flat and place the leaves. The fronts and back print differently so vary the pattern as you like. This method does not dip the leaves in iron water.

The key is to have everything as smooth and flat as possible for defined prints.

Rather than soaking/dipping the leaves in an iron-water solution I use an iron blanket here. Old cotton sheets ripped into strips are soaked in a weak iron-water and wrung out well. This way the iron comes into contact around the leaves rather than on them. It is then carefully laid over the leaves.

As a barrier to stop bleed-through another layer of plastic is placed above the iron blanket. (strips cut from drop sheet plastic can be tailored to the right width) Flatten and smooth before rolling tightly.

The bundles are then wrapped with string and ready for the pot.

Be aware that this instruction shows how it has worked great for me however results may vary according to many factors. The iron-water strength, the leaves, the fabric, the water PH, all play some role in the final outcome. But that is what makes it interesting! It truly is ONE OF A KIND!

The Eco Print Processing

I prefer to steam my bundles as then there is less water and also less darkening at the ends of the rolls. These have been steamed outside on a BBQ side burner in an aluminum lidded roaster. Make sure to check that the water does not disappear! I steam for about 2 hours. I can usually start to smell some odd aroma from the leaves ‘cooking’.

When I unrolled my first Cochineal dyed piece I almost lost my mind with the amazing colours! I was hooked even more now! I can barely keep up with buying silk…

To allow a bit longer chance of picking up colour I sometimes place the steamed rolls in a blanket as they will hold the heat and ‘process’ even longer. Once cool they can be unrolled.

Go ahead… Do a ‘happy dance’! I am sure that I did! As an artist who has painted for so many years of my career this just astonished me so much. The variation of the pinks and purples and reds! I believe (no chemistry degree here) that it is all about the acid and alkali reacting with the dye. Many reds change according to acidity as seen with red cabbage. Cochineal however is not fugitive and has great lasting ability.

Once dried and ironed I can’t seem to stop looking at it…

…or taking pictures!

Oh, by the way, my apologies to the little cochineal fellows (actually it’s the females, figures)! Take comfort in the fact that your ‘colour’ shines on for many years to come and we will be in constant awe of your amazing abilities! Thank you!

And thank you to my readers for joining me…

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  1. Hi Barb,
    You have one of the best blogs that one can find in the day and age of everything relating to money. To get such valued free lessons are truly appreciated by countless people like me. I have followed your blog for quite long and finally gaining confidence to start diy ing in eco- printing. I shall start with cotton t-shirt and am looking for clear printing. So I shall start by scouring for 2 hours in washing soda. How many times do I do this ? And if I do eco-printing on another day can I dry snd keep it ? For any silk : Can I eco print without mordanting ? Or do I need to do mordanting ?
    Thanks Kas

    1. That’s a lot of questions! When I started I used cut up old cotton bed sheets to test on until I got the hang of it. Yes, scour, if the water was really dirty you can do it more than once. The really important part (esp for cotton) is the mordanting. There are many ways but one easy one is using a 50% diluted soy milk soak and dry (3x is better). You can also use aluminum acetate for cotton but it’s harder to get. There are some recipes as well as my post You can also search online. Iron is a good aid to make prints just experiment about strength. I work as an artist so I tend to just ‘wing it’ for recipes. Once you are getting some results then venture into clothes etc. Silk prints quite easily without even a mordant or using alum. Good luck! There is an eco printing section under the home menu…

  2. Hello Ma’am! First of all I love your are inspiration.
    Want to know, in this process you have pre-dyed the silk, so before placing the leaves on it, is the silk wet (i.e. directly taken from the dye bath) or dry?
    Also, can we use readily available dyed silk for this method?

    1. Thanks! The silk is damp from the dyeing (as stated wrung out) and then the leaves are added. It needs to be wet/damp for the reactions to take place and print. Commercial dye is too permanent and will not provide the unique reactions of dyes/tannins/mordants. It’s all about experimentation… It’s a magical art form!

  3. Thank you for sharing. The colors are fantastic and I’m excited to try this.
    Do you have a good resource for buying conchineal for dying?
    Thank you

  4. I love your tutorials on eco dying. My question is, can you use the Kool aid dying technique for your silk or cotton and then use the leaves to print on the fabric? Is it necessary yo use organic dyes for coloring the fabric before printing? Thanks for any suggestions.

    1. If it’s just a colour background then you could dye first. The natural dyes will react with the tannins/iron and give unique results sometimes making the colour change. It adds so much interest. My favourite are the madder, logwood and cochineal.

  5. Maravilloso trabajo! Gracías! por tu generosidad en compartir. Son un ayuda invaluable para mi para mantenerme en el objetivo propuesto. Realmente inspiras!!

  6. As so many have said, this is simply stunning! I’m itching to try it now, so thank you very much for sharing your knowledge and technique, being super detailed with your tutorial and answering questions. What a gift you are to the creative community!

    1. Oh thanks! It’s one of my favourite dye techniques! Do some small tests before expecting exact results… This art form can be affected by so many variables! It’s magic in the making!

  7. Hello! Did you let the silk scarf dry before adding the leaves? Or was the scarf still moist when you added the leaves onto it? Thanks!

    1. The scarf is still damp. The process needs some moisture for the transfer of prints into the fibre. Be careful not to be too wet either. It takes some experimentation until you get the results that you like. Good luck!

  8. Thank you for sharing
    I am a beginner, for eco print mentioned in the impact of dyeing iron water and tannin, please ask tannin refers to the flower leaf itself or other media dye, ask you more specific explanation of what tannin is, thank you.

    1. The leaves have levels of tannins in them, some more than others. In my other post about Myrobalan I used it as a tannin carrier blanket and dye. It took me a lot of experimenting to figure out the mysteries! When in doubt; try a test! Good luck!

  9. Dear Barb
    This art piece is wonderful
    I would like to ask you why the same leaves gave different colors, eg maple leaves showed different colors
    Thanks, love

    1. That’s the ‘magic’, they all have different dyes and ability to react with dyes as well as iron and PH levels. I don’t think anyone exactly knows what they will get. Even different leaves from same tree give different results depending on the amount of sun! That’s what keeps me interested!

  10. Hi Barb, I can’t thank you enough for sharing your eco-dyeing knowledge!
    I live in Panama, and here in the tropics, finding plants that work is quite a challenge. We do have different species of eucalyptus, black elderberry, hibiscus, Thai basil, almond and a few other plants that work well. And, I LOVE the iron blanket method! I am totally addicted!
    I ordered some cochineal and indigo powder online, and am getting ready to do a dye bath with cotton, using the cochineal. But, if the ratio of cochineal to WOF is 3% – 10-20%, how much water do you use? And also, since I’m using cotton, is it necessary to mordant it again with alum after the dye bath?
    Again, thank you kindly for sharing your tips and secrets! I just made a donation to support your time and effort. And, you’re so right! Eco-dyeing is like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re going to get!
    Happy Trails!

    1. Cochineal yields a lot of dye/colour by weight of fibre (WOF). How much water? Enough to allow it to move freelayas it will absorbs what it can. Start small… I love cochineal! It can give a rainbow of colour! Lucky you for all the species of plants!