Cochineal in South and Central America
Cochineal is a traditional natural dye for colouring textiles in South and Central America and has been used for beautiful, lightfast and permanent scarlets, pinks and reds for centuries. Cochineal was so important in Mexico that the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma I (Montezuma or Motezuma), levied an annual tribute of cochineal dye on dependent states in the 15th century and cochineal became Mexico’s second most valuable export after silver in the colonial period.
Cochineal appears to have been used in Peru for about 1500 years and in Mexico for 1200 years. Mexican cochineal was one of the main exports of the Spanish empire from the New World and as important as gold or silver. Peru remains the most important producer of cochineal and accounts for 85-90% of world production but commercial production in Mexico collapsed in the late 1800s. Several countries, including Chile, Botswana and the Canary islands, also cultivate some cochineal and are together responsible for the remaining 10-15% of production. More on the history of cochineal in Central and South America here…
Cochineal in Europe
Red was an expensive colour to produce in medieval times and red clothes were an important status symbol, with the result that red dyes commanded high price. Cochineal was introduced from Mexico to Europe following the Spanish expedition to Mexico in 1518. Cochineal produced a deeper and longer lasting red than madder and therefore the cochineal red dye was very highly valued. The Spanish kept the source of cochineal secret and cochineal was thought to be a plant seed for nearly 200 years.
In the nineteenth century, when artificial dyes were developed, the production of cochineal declined markedly; red became very cheap to produce, and was no longer valued.
The distinctive redcoats of the British Army were dyed with cochineal. More on the history of cochineal in Europe here… Coming soon.