Pretty In Pink : Cochineal Instructions

The world has been taken yet again by the effervescent hue of pink. Gretta Gerwig’s new feminist take on Barbie has taken the media by storm. The paint used for the movie set even put a run on the world’s supply! 

We wanted to bring you some recipes for creating the color in a natural and harmonious way. 

Kassia St. Clair, in The Secret Lives of Color takes us on a journey through how the color came to be named in modern times. “The first reference in the Oxford English Dictionary being used to describe pale reds is the late seventeenth century”. 

Our recipe today comes from the historically charged and potently packed insect cochineal. 100g of whole cochineal insects will dye about 900 grams (2 pounds) of fiber to a deep red shade.

Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) is a scale insect that invades the nopal cactus and is about the size of a grain of Arborio rice with a silvery purple hue. The best cochineal is dark and full of carminic acid. We obtain only the finest grade cochineal on the market. You will also need a small amount of Cream of Tartar for the extraction process.

Cochineal is one of the only natural red colorants that the FDA approves for use in food and cosmetics. It comes in a variety of preparations: in raw or insect form and in a finely processed powder or liquid. They sort the insects themselves into several grades. Carminic acid is the bright red color of cochineal. It depends on how pure the extract is but manufacturers use it in cosmetics or as a food color.  In 2012 everyone freaked out to learn that Starbuck’s Strawberry Frappucino was colored with carmine, or cochineal. But carmine has been used as a food color since the 1960s. 

Fiber Preparation and Mordanting

We offer scouring instructions for wool, alpaca, silk (protein), cotton and plant (cellulose) fibers on these How To pages. When dyeing with cochineal, protein fibers mordanted with aluminum sulfate alone create reddish purple shades, and protein fibers mordanted with alum and cream of tartar yield fuchsia to red shades.

How Much Cochineal to Use?

Use the table below as a guideline for achieving light, medium and dark shades. In all cases, you may be able to dye additional fabrics or yarns with the exhaust dye bath, so don’t throw it out and have some extra mordanted fibers ready once you have dyed your initial color.

Depth of shadeAmount of cochineal as a percentage of the weight of fiber (WOF)Notes
Light1-2% WOFExhaust dye bath will dye additional fibers a very pale shade of pink.
Medium3-5% WOFExhaust dye bath will dye additional fibers a pale shade of pink.
Dark6-10% WOFExhaust dye bath will dye additional fibers a light shade of pink.
pouring a red liquid from a clear plastic beaker into a pot of water

Addition of Cream of Tartar ( From pink to red )

Adding up to 5% WOF (2 tablespoons Cream of Tartar for approximately 1 pound/454 grams of fabric) into the dye bath will shift the color from a reddish purple to a vivid flag red.

How Much Water to Use?

The amount of water to use in the extraction process varies according to the size of your dye pot and the amount of bugs you have, but keep in mind that the liquid you are making is your dye bath, so use less water than the total capacity of your dye pot. The object is to get as much color as possible out of the bugs. You may also dry the pulp and save it for eco-printing.

Extracting the Dye

  1. Measure the bugs and grind in a coffee or spice mill to a powder.
  2. Place the ground cochineal powder with 1/2 to 1 quart of non-mineralized (distilled) water in a non-reactive (stainless steel or enamel) saucepan and bring to a boil. Add cream of tartar as indicated in the table above and boil for 10-15 minutes.
  3. Using a cheesecloth and strainer, strain the colored dye solution into a non-reactive vessel like a 5-gallon bucket and reserve the bug pulp. 
  4. Place the pulp in the saucepan with fresh water and repeat Step 2. Strain this second solution into the bucket.
  5. Repeat Step 2 until the bugs are no longer yielding much color (the dye solution will be light pink). Usually, this takes 3-4 extractions.
  6. The reserved bright red liquid is your dyebath. Pour the dyebath into a dye pot and proceed to dyeing. There is usually enough cream of tartar in your dye bath at this time to create a beautiful vibrant fuchsia. If you want a flag red shade, add a bit more cream of tartar to the dye bath. If you want a more purple shade, add dissolved iron to the dye bath.

Adding Fibers to the Pot

Fill the dye pot with water so that the fibers move easily. Add the extracted liquid and stir well. Add the wet, mordanted fibers to the cold dye pot and begin heating the water and bring to about 90 degrees F (33 degrees C), rotating the goods gently. Hold at this warm temperature for 30 minutes, then bring the temperature up gradually to 180 degrees F (80 degrees C), rotating gently. Hold at this temperature for 30-45 minutes rotating regularly.


Using the same temperature water as your fiber, rinse the dyed goods once or twice to remove excess dye, then wash gently in a neutral liquid soap. Dry away from direct sunlight.

Reusing Dye Baths and Disposal of Dye

Any exhaust baths with dye color left in them may be used to dye additional materials. I keep extra small skeins of mordanted wool yarn and throw those into the exhaust baths. There will usually be some residual color in the dyebath, even after using the exhaust bath. Dispose of the used dye baths in accordance with your local municipal guidelines.

For additional questions on our Cochineal Insect Instructions, please contact [email protected].