How to Dye Fabric with Insects (Not Cats)

pokey bolton

dickens dyeing
Dickens wondering whether to pounce on my freshly sun-printed fabric.

My Maine Coon cat, Dickens, likes to help me make art, especially when I'm dyeing outside.

He has luxurious fur that is quite beautiful, but it is also has a magnet for the flora and fauna found outside my home. Burrs, sticks, and the occasional bug become enmeshed, and it's my job to get them out. Especially before he tries to nap in my fabric stash.

I don't know what's harder, combing the stuff out of Dickens' fur, or keeping him still while I do it.

Now, if only my big kitty could wander past a prickly pear cactus and pick up a few hundred cochineal insects for me without getting entangled in the plant. Then I could use those juicy bugs to make cochineal dye.

cochineal insects for dyeing
Dried cochineal insects.
Photo by Joe Coca

If you're looking for a rich red hue for your fiber, you can't beat cochineal. It's made by drying the insects then pulverizing them to a fine powder. A small amount of in the dye bath will saturate an amazing amount of fiber.

cochineal dyeing
Different concentrations and fibers yield
a wide range of colors.
Photo by Rebecca Severeide

Frankly, I'm not sure I'll be dyeing with crushed bugs myself.

But I was fascinated by the long andI have to say itcolorful history of cochineal that I learned from Colorways: Artisan Hues in Fiber and Fabric, the new interactive Interweave eMag about dyeing fibers the natural way.

Not to mention feasting my eyes on the gorgeous variations of red you can achieve with cochineal.

Two artists, Trudy van Stralen and Demetrio Bautista Lazo, share their methods for dyeing with cochineal in the eMag. You can read the articles on screen or download them as a PDF that you can print out for handy reference while dyeing.

But Colorways doesn't stop at red. Via slideshows, video, and articles, it takes you on an interactive tour of the world to delve into the mysteries of why cotton comes in so many shades naturally or how women in West Africa are literally dyeing for a better life. There are tutorials and even a humorous historical ballad about woad blue.

I will definitely use the knowledge I learned from Colorways to inspire my dyeing projects this summer. Colorways is a feast for the fiber lover, especially those who enjoy dyeing or want to learn more about dyeing with natural stuff.

All I have to do now is keep Dickens out of the weeds and away from my stash!

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