by Catherine Mehrl Bennett
A Perfect Red, by Amy Butler Greenfield (Harper Perennial, 2006), was recommended to me after one of our Aldus Society events by paper marbling and calligraphy artist/instructor, Ann Alaia Woods, after I told her about our upcoming visit to Oaxaca MX with the Archeological Conservancy group. The historical research and global perspective of this book illustrate the importance of a red dye [cochinilla granules] developed from a nopal cacti parasite in Oaxaca Mexico, which first came to Europe’s attention by way of the Spanish conquistadors. “Cochinilla” is the Spanish version of the word, and the oft used anglicized version is “cochineal”. At one time cochinilla granules were the least expensive per kilo and were a more concentrated and color-fast dye compared to other European red dyes on the market, so demand for it quickly made it as valuable as gold or silver. Weavers created gorgeous red robes and clothing, which the rich and powerful class paid top dollar for. Later on, when synthetic dyes were invented, the competition was too great for the cochinilla market to survive, and production in Oaxaca all but disappeared. [In regard to synthetic dyes, Ann recommends a book by Simon Garfield, MAUVE, How One Man Invented A Color That Changed The World (Norton, 2002.) It is about the English scientist, William Perkin, and what developed from an accidental discovery he made when he was only eighteen.]
Today, a special nopalry (an organically certified cacti farm) exists in the state of Oaxaca as a way to bring back the important history of cochinilla in Oaxaca. It also provides many local crafts people with an organic natural source for red dye and other colors that can be obtained with additives. It was a pleasant surprise when a visit to the del Río Dueñas nopalry was added to our tour group itinerary at the last minute! I even had my book with me to read during the trip, as I was only half finished with A Perfect Red. A small museum was the beginning of our tour, followed by the nopal paddle greenhouse, and then the studio where artist interns are encouraged to experiment with the dye in their artworks. Our guide was artist and architect, Edgar Jahir Trujillo, and he sold his cochinilla painting of a winged insect to a member of our group. The painting technique he used involved dried nopal paddles, dipped in the red dye, to impress texture onto the wings of a male cochinilla insect.
I took many photos and detailed notes during the nopalry tour, where we learned step-by-step about the cultivation of this natural dye that was originally produced only in the Oaxaca valley. Also included here are notes about a famous Oaxacan weaving workshop and a handmade paper co-op we visited, both of which make use of local, organically produced dyes. Photo credits for the liquid dye pot and table of paper fibers go to my spouse, John M. Bennett.
The nopal cacti grown at the nopalry has no needles. Only paddles from the highest quality plants are used in the greenhouse where the cochinilla insect is nurtured. These parasitic insects are protected from too much sun, while micro predators are controlled as well as possible, and the cacti are protected from breezes that might blow the tiny insects away. The fertilized eggs of the female insect take 90 days to mature, then the insects on the nopal paddle are carefully removed with a fine bristled brush into a bowl (about 3 grams of insects per paddle). The fat, impregnated females that are best for breeding are separated out by a sieve and put into a woven palm mat tube (approx. 3” long). Both ends of the tube are blocked with netting to protect the cochinilla from predators like spiders. The tube nest is hooked onto a fresh nopal paddle which is control dated with an inoculation date. This date tells the greenhouse workers when the 3-month hatchling development period is up, and when to empty the females from the nest. A small orifice in the mat tube allows male and female baby bugs come out and populate the nopal paddle like the parasites that they are. Each female insect builds a white webbing around itself on the cacti, which helps protect it as it doesn’t move around and has no wings. (An aside: Zapotec mythology about the protective white webbing was that “The Cloud people surrounded blood from the gods with white fuzz.”) The males are tiny white flies with a life span of only three to five days. The male’s proboscis breaks off after coming out of the mother, so it can’t even eat! It’s only goal is to fly around and mate with females within its very short life span.
After 15 days of incubation in the palm mat tubes, the females are removed and added to other insects brushed from the nopal paddles that were not used for breeding. Together, they are set out to dehydrate and die in the sun, or they could also be dried in an oven. The nopal paddle (only used once) is fed to animals or composted. One hundred forty thousand of the dried insects equals one kilo of cochinilla. If you squish a cochinilla insect in your palm, its blood reacts with elements in the skin, which affects the color. Thirty percent of the cochinilla powder is pure coloring agent (pure pigment) that will last forever, and will not react to the pH of different surfaces. The carminic acid in the insect protects it from viruses, but is also the most important element used for dye. To get the carminic acid from the powder made from the dried insects, water plus alum are added to make a liquid, the liquid is boiled, then it is put through filters. Two chemical additives that achieve color variations are: Citric acid from limes for less scarlet, more pink, and bicarbonate of soda for mauve (dark purple). Artist interns working at the nopalry can achieve many texture and color variations in their art through experimentation with additives.
Ignacio del Río Duñas is one of the main shakers and movers to revive the chocinilla industry in Oaxaca, and he helped establish this nopalry. He is the author of Grana Fina Cochinilla (published by the State of Oaxaca) and his book was available in the small gift shop. A few cochinilla products like lipstick and tie dyed T-shirts are also sold in the shop. Edgar told us that until the nopalry gets more investors they do not create huge batches of products because money would be needed for merchandizing efforts to move cosmetics quickly. For now, most of the dye is sold to local artists and craftspeople. Edgar said that artificial dyes can be health hazards, though I’ve also read that there are some individuals who have allergic reactions to cochinilla. Another side note: Cochinilla is too organic for tattoo inks.
On another day we visited the Zapotec weaving town of Teotitlán del Valle, where we were graciously welcomed into the workshop of Isaac Vásquez García and son, Jeronimo. They and other family members spin and dye their own wool, using it to weave beautiful rugs on big looms. These rugs sell well to tourists in their shop called “The Bug in the Rug.” While dying wool yarn with cochinilla (the bug!), alum and acacia fruits and freshly squeezed lime juice are added to fix, darken, lighten or intensify the color. They also use Tehuantepec indigo, dyes derived from lichens, the acacia tree, and other natural sources. Many of the original natural materials and the resulting dyes were displayed and demonstrated to our group by Mr. Vásquez García. The book, A Perfect Red, especially mentions Isaac Vásquez García as having “helped to breathe new life into Oaxaca’s age-old textile arts, allowing them to pass to a new generation.” And…”when the craft of natural dyeing had almost vanished from Oaxaca, a few artisans like Isaac Vásquez…sought to revive the old techniques. Coloring wool with cochinilla…”
Our group also traveled to San Agustín Etla, Oaxaca, to visit a papermaking co-op with a separate workshop for silkscreen printing, a gallery, and a gift shop. El Taller Arte Papel Oaxaca was begun in 1998 by Francisco Benjamín López Toledo, a famous Mexican artist. He helps this papermaking co-op to get grants and he commissions their paper to use in his art practice. The goal of the co-op is to create paper from only renewable sources and materials, and to leave a small footprint on the earth. In addition to only using natural fibers, they don’t use catalyzer agents. It took 8 years of learning and organizing to establish the co-op. Today, artists come from China, Finland, Arab countries, and Japan to give paper workshops. They grow and use natural fibers from the Kapok tree (the green variety, as the black kapok tree is more rare) which is also known as the sacred Ceiba tree (Tree of Life). Also used are the natural fibers of Chichicastle, agave, Majahua, white cotton, Coyuche cotton, and lion’s paw.
These fibers are first boiled with bicarbonate of soda. Mechanized Hollander beaters are used to further break down the fibrous pulp. Lots of water is used for soaking the fibers and water also helps with the swishing of the pulp when it is screened. (After use, the water is filtered and strained and treated so it’s fit to consume, then gets delivered to Oaxaca City by tank transport.) The paper screening technique involves swishing liquid pulp from side to side and then up and down in order to cross stitch the fibers, thereby evening out and strengthening the paper. This workshop has their own watermark embedded in the boxed screen, which leaves its mark in either bas or high relief; its design is a heart with a swimmer approaching. After swishing in the screen, the water is pressed out with big sheets of felt. They use synthetic/industrial felt as it’s easier to peel off, doesn’t decompose as fast, and so it gets reused. Then the pressed pulp sheet is turned out onto a zinc tin sheet to dry. The tin sheets are cut from recycled materials like construction siding. Before the paper dries they can press decorative indentations into it, or add decorative leaves or shiny mica bits. In the same workroom, hanging to dry, were molded paper portraits of historical Zapotec leaders we’d seen at one of the archeological sites with our tour group.
Tree bark may take up to 5 years to decompose before it’s ready to use, so this paper is pricey. Today’s cost is 300 or 400 pesos for a 2’x3’ sheet of handmade paper, though the strength of the US dollar made it very affordable for us to buy. There is a kind of Japanese seed that is made into gel that uses less fiber and makes a thinner, yet very strong paper. They can’t get it directly from Japan because of customs limits but a local seller makes it available to them in powder form. That lighter weight paper is the kind I bought from their shop, which I rolled up to pack in my suitcase. Other items in the shop included paper kites and blank paper journals silk screened with designs made by Francisco Toledo, and also jewelry made from rolled paper beads. You can see photos of the paper making process and some of the gift shop items at: http://www.mexicoartshow.com/artepapel.html