Cochineal: The Red that Colored the World
Cochineal: a red dye consisting of the dried bodies of female cochineal insects (courtesy Merriam Webster dictionary)
If you saw my post earlier in the month about the Regency gown I’m sewing, you know that I’ve been caught up in textiles and fabric colors recently. And I wasn’t alone apparently. Shortly after my post about the gown, fellow Regency author Collette Cameron posted a really interesting piece about Regency colors, shades such as aetherial, mazurine blue, and pomona green.
One Regency shade, coquelicot, a poppy red, reminded me of an article I’d tucked away, a Wall Street Journal review of an exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, “The Red that Colored the World”. The exhibit
tells the story of how cochineal red made its way around the globe, from Aztec culture to the paintings of the High Renaissance to modern-day haute couture. Through a choice selection of objects and intelligent wall text, the show transcends an exercise in social studies and becomes a smart visual feast, crisscrossing cultures and spanning centuries.
In a comment on my post about the dress I’m sewing, fellow writer Nancy Mayer said that the fabric I thought was “puce” is actually a crimson. Puce has more brown in it–it derives from the French word for “flea”, though as far as I know, it wasn’t made from insects. (Hmm, another research topic, for another day.)
Cochineal red, however, was. The cochineal dye brought back from the New World by the Spanish is derived from bugs harvested from nopal cactus pads. The insect looks very similar to the June bugs that invade my house every summer, but I’ll spare you a picture.
Prior to the New World import, Polish cochineal colored the textiles of Europe. But the carminic acid that produces the pigment is far more concentrated in the American source (17-24% vs. 0.6%). The Mexican cochineal wiped out the Polish trade.
The dye was used for a range of colors, from pinks to burgundies. Cocchineal red was the color of British officers’ red coats.
It was also used as an artist’s pigment, and as a food dye.
Synthetic dyes developed in the nineteenth century replaced cochineal, but the natural dye has made a comeback as a food colorant in jams, processed meats, maraschino cherries, ice cream, lipstick, and many other food products. Think about that the next time you bite into a piece of commercially made cherry pie!
The Colonial Williamsburg Journal has this wonderful article on the history of cochineal dye, and, I’m happy to say that “The Red that Colored the World” is coming to Orange County, California’s Bower’s Museum on October 15th! The WSJ reviewer says
It’s easy to cavil that “Red” could use fewer textiles—which are here in dizzying profusion—and more Old Masters, but for sheer dazzle, bolstered by gentle erudition, this is a model of its kind.
There’ll be no “caviling” here–I’m a big fan of exhibits of textile art!
What about you? If you’re in the SoCal area, is this an art show you’d want to attend?
Images: First image, credited, from the Bowers Museum webite. All other images, Wikimedia