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Cochineal: the ingredient to make red dye wool in the Andes

As a trained art historian with an interest in fabric arts, I get excited about ancient dyes that were made from natural materials: Tyrian purple, which was derived from a few species of sea snails; lichens in England and Ireland that produced a variety of greens; and a variety of plants and minerals that created a deep indigo. Despite all my study, I couldn’t figure out what was used to create the saturated red of the hats, mantles and skirts of the indigenous women up in the Andes. A type of tree bark? A berry? I wasn't sure, but I really needed to find out. I decided to visit Chinchero, a small town in the Sacred Valley famous for its master weavers.

A colectivo picked me up in Cusco, drove me down a steep winding mountain pass, and dropped me off at the outskirts of Chinchero. Before I could even take a step, I looked up at the small houses in the village to see a woman wearing a dress of the same color I was looking for. After a brief, albeit animated discussion in broken English and Spanish, the woman said, "I'm a weaver. Come. I'll show you."

Directing me through a doorway to a courtyard behind her house, the weaver pulled up a bench, and poured me a steaming cup of munia tea. Satisfied I was comfortable, she settled herself onto a small stool. "First," she said, "we'd need to start with the wool."

Reaching into a wooden bowl, my new friend pulled out a green plant. "This is called sasha paragay," she said as she threw a branch into hot water and vigorously mixed it with her hands. The plant soon formed a sudsy brew into which she dunked a brown, dirty handful of wool. After swishing it around for a bit, she told me, deadpan: “It’s important to wash the wool, because sheep never take showers.” A moment later, a faint smile on her face, she held aloft the washed wool.

“Notice,” she said, “that it’s cleaner than it would be if it had been washed by detergent. Also, it will stay bright white, unlike if it were to be whitened by bleach, which would eventually turn it yellow.”

Wool washed, it was time to get dying. The weaver waved her hand over a table laden with colorful balls of yarn matched with the natural ingredients that had dyed them. Beneath the red balls of yarn was what at first glance looked like a dull, grey grain,

“Know what this is?” she asked, smiling, holding up one of the tiny grains between her thumb and forefinger. Without waiting for a response, she crushed it into the palm of her hand and added a small amount of salt water -- immediately, the liquid turned a deep shade of red.

Wiping a bit of the vibrant red in a splash across her lips, the weaver cocked an eyebrow. “It’s called cochineal,” she grinned. “It's an insect. Once it's dried, mixed with calcium salts, and then dried, it makes dyes for clothing and, clearly, lipstick.”

The cochineal makes its home on prickly pear cacti, which grows across the Sacred Valley and in Mexico. It's also the most commonly used substance on the planet used for the production of red dye. Dried and then ground, it had been used traditionally for clothing by many of the indigenous peoples throughout Peru. Since the Spanish invaded the Inca, however, cochineal has grown in popularity around the world, and its color in tapestries, paintings, and beautiful woven Persian rugs.

After she was finished showing me the secrets of Andean red dye, the weaver tucked a thin crimson belt into my hand. "To remember Peru," she said. I thanked her and handed her the handful of soles that had been in the bottom of my bag. She pocketed them in a small woven pouch and waved me to the doorway.

"To remember Peru," she repeated as I started to head down the road. "To remember Chinchero."

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