To dye for – Red

Madder (rubia tinctorum) has been used for centuries as a red dye. It is well known as the dye for Turkey Red or, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the red coats for the British during the eighteenth century. Wild madder yields a subtler pinky brown. Unlike many natural dyes, madder contains natural mordanting agents and does not need to be mixed with iron or tin or other materials.

When Spain entered the New World, another source of red dye became available to Europe; cochineal. ((Cochineal was already known to and used by the Aztecs and the Maya people as well as the Incas and pre-Incas in Peru.) Insects similar to small beetles live on the cactus found at the higher altitudes in countries such as Peru. A visitor to Peru will see this grayish bloom on the cacti growing wild in the Sacred Valley. It looks like some form of fungi but is actually an insect colony. Cochineal is  the blood of the female of this species and dyes vibrant red, pink and purple. I have read that the Pope’s robes were dyed with cochineal. Without a proper mordant, cochineal is not colorfast.

Spain held a monopoly on cochineal for years, making the bright scarlet very much sought after and very expensive. It was the color of the rich and paintings from this era contain frequent splashes of red clothing, wherein the subjects demonstrate their wealth and high status. Similar to the use of Tyrian purple in earlier times. This dye was discovered in antiquity and traded by the Phoenicians. It is made from the shells of the common Mediterrean Sea Snail. It was both rare and expensive (the Phoenicians held on to their monopoly for years) and became the color of royalty. It has never been produced synthetically commercially. Efforts to transport the insects to Europe failed. They were transported successfully to Australia where they caused a whole new raft of problems.

Cochineal is still used as a dye and appears in both candy and lipstick. Think of that every time you put something red on or in your mouth.


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