Materials & Techniques


Cochineal refers to a red natural transparent lake colorant that has poor lightfastness and fades in strong sunlight, yet adheres extremely well and vibrantly to protein fibers of camelid and sheep. It is prepared from the bodies of the female scale insect, Dactylopius coccus, which lives as a parasitic on the prickly-pear cactus native to Mexico, the Canary Islands, and Central and South America. Cochineal dye was used by indigenous populations throughout the Americas, and was later adopted by Europeans who used comparative lac dye prior to the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century. The pigments are extracted from the dried bodies of insects using water or alcohol. The substance contains about 10% carminic acid, 2% coccerin wax, and 10% fat: the crimson color of cochineal dye is attributed to cochinealin, or carminic acid. Cochineal is also used in medicine as an antispasmodic.

Drawn from

  • Kimberly L. Jones, PhD, Inca: Conquests of the Andes / Los Incas y las conquistas de los Andes, Gallery text, 2015.
  • Ann Rowe, “Glossary,” in Weaving and Dyeing in Highland Ecuador, edited by Ann Rowe, Laura Miller and Lynn Meisch (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007): 289-295.
  • Getty Vocabulary, AAT (cochineal (colorant): AAT: 300013597; cochineal carmine (lake): AAT: 300311203; cochineal (color): AAT: 300311501).

Related Multimedia

Originating in Africa, the precious dye indigo has a long and varied heritage. Its relationship to slavery, profound influence on fashion, and spiritual significance are all part of an untold story, filled with tales of those who shaped the course of colonial history and a world economy. Author of Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World, Catherine E. McKinley provides a closer look at this familiar, yet still mysterious, color that appears everywhere from African garments to todayâ019s fashion shows.

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