Crushing on Cochineal Red

After a bumpy, mangled three-bus connection, hour-and-a-half adventure to go a mere 24 kilometers (navigating in my embarrassingly stilted Spanish), I stumble – late, I might add, but we will call it being on el tiempo mexicano – onto a family farm with loaded pomegranate trees, a parade of wooden looms on a covered porch, a chill dog, countless buckets, and a lovely all-of-4-feet grandmother wrapping me in a gracious hug. As a designer and color professor kicking off to my yearlong sabbatical in Mexico, I’ve trekked from New York City to to legendary weaving village, Teotitlán del Valle, in the Oaxaca region of Mexico, for a wool dyeing workshop.

The care and attention to handicrafts in Mexico – here from the milling of pigments to the tedious hours on the loom – inspires me. The ancestral power of learning and making and skill building results in meticulously-crafted products with a handmade richness.

Upon arrival, I soak in the presence of generations of weavers on the property while the son – an immensely kind, highly proficient weaver fluent in English with a PhD in Sustainable Manufacturing – greets me. The grandmother works incessantly nearby. She is strong – physically and emotionally – and she radiates. She laughs fully and often and, despite all of the physically hard work, emanates a seemingly endless reserve of energy and joy. They speak Zapotec on the property, but the grandmother also speaks Spanish. Together, the grandmother and I squeak out an entertaining day of conversation with the few words we have in common.

First task at hand: making the legendary red pigment from cochineal bugs that cluster on cacti. This pricey pigment – coveted for centuries by artist, designers, and those commissioning their work – shows up in our contemporary lives, too, in lipstick (yep, the luscious red-hued tubes such as Chanel Rouge Coco Shine) and Strawberry Frappuccinos. Seriously, just look for “carmine” or "natural red 4" in the ingredients list.

Red ready, I kneel on wadded rugs next to a pile of tiny, no-longer-living black beads and a volcanic stone matate. Triceps in high gear, I determinedly grind those bugs into a fine, fine powder – noticing myself caught up in a reverence for the creatures on the lava rock beneath me by obsessing over not spilling a fleck. (Sorry, I did flurry some powder onto the family floor.)

Next, I inelegantly wrap skeins of wool (sustainably sourced from a neighboring farm) into specified loops. 

The grandmother and I pound them through a 3-tub washing circuit then squeegee and hang them in the sun. 

She kindly insists I wear a hat for the heat.

With a random rock from the property, the grandma crushes a translucent faceted chunk of alum. 

We dump the alum dust with the smashed cochineals and a touch of cream of tartar into one of those ubiquitous jicara fruit shell bowls of the region.

All the while stirring with a bamboo stick, we scatter the cochineal mix into a boiling cauldron. 

Hmmm, the water looks quite pink. We lop in the wool. Add limes, I learn, to make the water more acidic. I cut the tiny citrus orbs with a flimsy knife as I float them on the edge of the plastic bin steps away. Then, a big crush with all of my body weight to get the juice to leave the coarse thin skins. 

Pour the juice in and, instantly, the pot flushes a reddish purple.

Letting it simmer, we sidetrack to transform pomegranate skins into a green-yellow dye. (Fresh pomegranates make our color a beautiful murky lemongrass green, but drier pomegranates produce a stronger yellow, I’m told.)

We refuel on grandma’s prepared lunch of black fatty-skinned pig foot with beans washed down with pineapple-mango water (my first taste of both concoctions, I admit), before I try out the looms, wade through the piles of naturally dyed yarns, and admire their rugs. 

Meanwhile, the boiling bug pot soaks the initial skeins into a magnificent red-pink.

In Oaxacan bliss at the end the pigment-steeped day, I luxuriously tuck into a taxi with a Virgin Mary mural on the ceiling and covet the fat bag of cochineal-colored threads gifted to me upon departure. 

Tengo suerte – what a mind-blowing chance I have to learn from the legacy of makers in this colorful country. Oh, did I mention I’m trekking to Saltillo, too, to experience the Lacuna Collection tiles being meticulously crafted in the tradition of generations? Uh huh.

Want more on cochineal? Read, Amy Butler Greenfield’s A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color of Desire. And, Dixza Organic Farm is a perfect place to rouge up your hands, if you are so inclined. www.dixza.com

About Jada Schumacher

Jada Schumacher, a designer and the founder of designorange in New York, is also an professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a color and trend reporter for the Japanese government. Her specialty lies in all things color – whether it's wearables, architecture, interiors, or home goods. She fervently believes that good design changes lives.

Jada and her designorange team are obsessed with materials. They search the world for just the right materials for every project with the knowledge that whatever they settle on ultimately inspires the design of the finished product. For example, her Lacuna line of handcrafted tiles available through Clay Imports combines traditional tile making materials with the same methods craftsman have been relying on for generations.

Above and beyond mere design, Jada integrates a profound sense of social responsibility into all she does. A percentage of designorange profits are donated to the Child Aid charity: a charity that empowers children in Guatemala to read and learn.