How to dye fabric and yarn with cochineal

Hi Creative Mamas! In this post I will show you how you can create beautiful bright pink color by dyeing fabric and yarn with cochineal.

I first came across cochineal dye many years ago when I visited Mexico for the first time and I was fascinated at the color produced by the cochineal bugs.

Cochineal History

Cochineal is a natural dye which comes from Central and South America and was used to dye carmine red color by indigenous cultures.

It has been tracked as back as 1000 BC. Apparently the Spanish colonizers discovered it in Mexico in the sixteenth century and tried to keep it a secret.

By the eighteenth century cochineal cultivation was already happening around the world. Due to the nature of the harvesting process cochineal has always been an expensive dyestuff and in the olden days it was reserved for the rich people.

What is Cochineal?

Coccus Cacti or scarlet grain

Referred as scarlet grain the coccus cacti is a female insect which is carefully gathered and dried.

It’s such as small insect that it needs to be collected by hand by brushing the insects off their host plant which is the Nopal Cactus.

Once these insects are dried, they are grounded to a powder and used for dyeing.

Cochineal dye colors

The colors will depend on the quality of the cochineal and the quality of the water. Soft water will deliver the best results.

The mordants that you use in combination with cochineal will deliver different results as well.

  • For a blue-red color you can use Alum as a mordant
  • For a maroon-red color you can use copper as a mordant
  • For a rich red you can combine tin and alum
  • For a purple red you can combine alum and iron

I personally only use Alum as a mordant in combination with an iron water solution and I find that this is enough to provide me with a range of different colors and tones.

Check out this article for more information about how to best use mordants in combination with natural dyes.

Cochineal extract

You can get cochineal dye in extract form which means that the dye has been isolated from the cochineal female bugs and therefore it’s highly concentrated.

If you are using extract powder be sure to check the manufacturer’s recommended measurements because you will need less extract than you would need cochineal insects to achieve the same color.

Dye extracts are great if you are in a hurry and you want to avoid the whole dye extraction process.

cochineal extract

Cochineal bugs

You can also get dried cochineal bugs. Once they are dried they look grey and metallic. The color needs to be extracted from these dried insects to create the dye bath.

cochineal bugs

How to dye fabric and yarn with cochineal tutorial

This tutorial will show you how to dye protein fibers (silk and wool). You can check the comprehensive Guide of the whole natural dyeing process as well as how to dye cotton with cochineal in this tie dye tutorial.

Download your FREE Natural Dyeing MINI Guide.

EASY 8 steps process to create bright colors from natural dyes that will last forever (even if you have never done it before)

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Materials and Equipment

The first thing to do is to weigh the fabric. this needs to be done when the fabric is dry. Record this measurement. It will be used to calculate the amount of mordant and the amount of dye needed.

protein fibers ready to be dyed using natural dyes - cochineal

Step 1: Scouring

The scouring process is important because it will remove all excess oils, dirt and industrial processes that may prevent the dye from penetrating the fiber dyeing the dyeing process.

For wool:

  • squeeze the fibers gently immersing fully in hand hot soapy water
  • Use 1 tablespoon of neutral PH soap.
  • Leave to soak for 15 mins. Remove and rinse in hand hot water.

When handling wool you must be extra careful not to shock the wool fibers. this can cause felting. Always handle them gently and raise and lower the water temperature gradually.

For silk:

For silk you can follow the same method but since silk can withstand high temperatures I simmer the silk for thirty minutes just to make sure it’s totally receptive to the dyeing process.



Step 2: Mordanting

Since we are dyeing protein fibers such as wool and silk I will use Alum (Alluminium Potassium Sulphate) as a mordant. Follow this recipe:

  • 10 % Allum (Alluminium Potassium Sulphate ) WOF (weight of fabric) and 8% cream of tartar WOF (weight of fabric). So if I am dyeing 200 grs of fabric or yarn I will be using 20 grs of Allum and 16 grs of cream of tartar
  • Dissolve Alum is a pot filled with lukewarm water
  • Use rubber gloves and mask for this mordanting step
  • Add the wet wool yarn or fabric into the pot
  • Make sure the material is moving freely inside the pot to avoid streaking in the dyeing process
  • Bring the pot to a 90 degrees C temperature/190 degrees F. Simmer for 40 minutes
  • Let the bath to cool by itself

Step 3 A: How to dye with cochineal extract

If using cochineal extract use 5 grams of extract powder for 100 grams of fabric/yarn. Always check the manufacturer’s instructions when using extract because the strength may change depending on the brand.

Dissolve the extract into a small amount of water and make a paste. Add some hot water to the paste and then add this solution into a big stainless steel pot. Make sure it’s well dissolved and there are no lumps.

cochineal extract

Your dye bath is now ready!

cochineal extract

Step 3 B: How to dye with cochineal bugs

If using cochineal bugs you need to grind the bugs. You can use a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder machine. Once the bugs are ground soak in water overnight.

The next morning add the soaking bugs into a big stainless steel pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 1 hour. Let the dye bath cool by itself.

Step 4

Immerse the wet fabric or yarn in the cochineal dye bath. Make sure that the dye bath is lukewarm and raise the temperature to a simmer slowly. Simmer for 1 hour.

Keep the fabric moving all the time to avoid streaking. The wool yarn can sit in the dye bath by itself but make sure that there is plenty of room for the dye to penetrate through all the fibers.

dyeing fabric with cochineal dye

If dyeing wool you must be aware of possible felting. To avoid this, bring the bath to a simmer very slowly and make sure the dye bath doesn’t go too hot.

dyeing fabric with cochineal dye

After 1 hour remove the fabric but you can keep the wool yarn inside the bath until it has cooled down.

Remove the fabric/yarn and rinse well until the water runs clear.

dyeing fabric with cochineal dye

The photo below illustrates the results of dyeing wool with cochineal using the recipe from this tutorial

wool yarn dyed with cochineal alum mordant

The photo below illustrates the results of dyeing silk following the recipe and instructions of this tutorial.

You can also check out how to dye silk in different ways with natural dyes.

Using mordants and modifiers to extend the color palette

After you have finished dyeing your wool or fabric you can either stop there or you can keep extending the color possibilities.

Playing around with mordants such as iron as a post mordant or color modifier is great fun!

The photos below illustrate how the original cochineal carmine red color can be modified into a soft pink and a deep maroon color by using iron water which is an alkaline modifier and lemon juice which is an acid modifier.

wool yarn dyed with cochineal alum mordant

This photo shows the pink on the left was modified using lemon juice, the carmine red in the middle is the original cochineal dyed yarn and the deep maroon on the right is the result of adding iron water as a modifier.

wool yarn dyed with cochineal alum mordant

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Other Natural Dyeing Recipes for you to check out!

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