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, thanks for sharing your amazing skill!!

    I printed 2 habotai silk scarfs with maple, peony and rose leaves. I learnt from you that strong iron water makes dark print. So I diluted with Vinegar. I soaked silk for 9 hrs in alum
    Water and vinegar. I used plastic as a barrier. But still I got ghost print and very dark. Only rose prints are fine. How can I fix it? Can you please give me some suggestions?

    Thanks you again for sharing this beautiful art. I absolutely love it.

  2. I appreciate your knowledge and share of technique, though it pains me to see this beautiful eco-art combined with plastic, which is so environmentally detrimental:(
    May we, as artists, not sacrifice the sustainable tradition of “ECO” printing for our goals!

    1. I know the use of plastic is not the best. I reuse the strips for years, and also reuse my twine each time. I was thinking how much would be wasted if I bought boxes of parchment paper. I reuse my bags from the breads etc. I do not use them as one use at all. I also save a lot of energy since I do my processing in the microwave , no hours of fuel, gas or electricity for the steaming/cooking. All my iron blankets are from thrift stores. I try when I can… 🙏

    1. I am not sure what you mean. If they are processed with the heat.leaves and iron they are permanent. They can be washed by hand with a PH neutral soap. I wash mine a few times after printing.

  3. Hola Barb, te escribo desde Colombia, estoy real mente agradecida de encontrar tu sitio web, tienes unos trabajos y un talento maravilloso, me encanta lo que haces y me inspira a iniciar una investigación de las especies botánicas de la zona donde vivo, aun no eh realizado el primer trabajo con tintes, pero después de ver los hermosos trabajos que publicas y tu amabilidad al querer compartir con todos tu sabiduría me inspira a hacer mis primeros experimentos, muchas gracias, un abrazo

    1. “Hello Barb, I am writing to you from Colombia, I am really grateful to find your website, you have wonderful jobs and talent, I love what you do and it inspires me to start an investigation of the botanical species in the area where I live, not yet I have done the first job with dyes, but after seeing the beautiful work you publish and your kindness in wanting to share with everyone your wisdom inspires me to do my first experiments, thank you very much, a hug” – Thanks so much!!! I bet you have some great leaves there! Experimentation is the key! Good luck!

  4. HI barb –
    Do you just put the ground cochineal into a pot of water, and then put the fabric in that and start heating it, or do you have to boil the cochineal in water first to extract the color, and then put the fabric in it? I’m going to start this project tomorrow!

    Thank you!

    1. Cochineal doesn’t take much heat to get the colour to release, don’t overcook it as you will lose some of the richness of colour. You can heat a bit first and then add the fabric. I tend to use extra soaking time rather than a lot of cooking.

      1. Okay – thank you! I did that, and I am now just rinsing the dye out of the fabric and getting the iron water ready – wish me luck!

  5. Cc j’ai enfin fait une petite pause et je suis très contente de voir que des artistes fassent des choses incroyables avec le coeur bravo ça me donne envie de me remettre à la peinture merci 💞

    1. Yes! I think art has helped so many over the last couple years. I know it makes a huge difference for me. All I can hope for is that I can inspire others to feel the joy of ‘making’!

    1. I actually did not and it has held well since it is a protein fibre and I also used iron.. The recommended amount is 15% for WOF (weight of fibre). Be careful as cochineal is sensitive to PH levels.