Growing up in The Canary Islands, my brother and I loved making excursions and exploring nature. In these adventure-filled days, we would remove a silver part of the local cacti. We did not know what this “attachment” to the cacti was. We only knew that it leaked a red ink, and we would use it to paint on paper.
Around 2013, I traveled around Africa and met many craftspeople. I was mesmerized by the work I saw, particularly the colors some achieved using natural sources. Back in The Canary Islands, I started to study how to incorporate it into my work as a fashion designer. My research was focused on my childhood dye source: the cochineal. A tiny insect whose history is of utmost importance to my hometown.
A plump parasite that lives in cactus, it is originally from Mexico and was introduced to the Canary Islands in 1835. During the mid-nineteenth century it brought great wealth to the islands. Given its high concentration of carminic acid, it was used for centuries to obtain the most precious and stable reds, pinks and purples for the textile industry of that time. Unfortunately, this period of wealth did not last long, since some time later it coincided with the discovery of synthetic dyes by William Henry Perkins in 1856. The cochineal once again had a period of expansion in the 80s, being used, this time, in the food industry by large companies such as Campari. And it remains still a dye source used by the food and beauty industries, which goes to show yet another layer of connection to be observed between food and fibers.
When I started researching the cochineal insect and its uses in the textile industry, what surprised me the most, was the lack of awareness by most Canarians, who have no idea about this important part of our traditions. There are however, some that not only know about the relevant role the cochineal has played in our history, but that are working hard, so it can also be a part of our future, not only our past.
NIlia Bañares, a local weaver and natural dyer (and one of my favorite artisans), told me about Lorenzo Pérez, a young entrepreneur with an ambitious project. Lorenzo is the owner of CANATUREX, a company that has been reactivating cochineal cultivation in the Canary Islands, and a member of ACECICAN (the Association the Cochineal Growers and Exporters of The Canary Islands). The cochineal has long been a part of his family’s history and he had an idea of requesting and obtaining a seal of quality for it. In 2014, and after 3 years of waiting, he was granted the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) seal by the Community Registry of the Denominations of Origin of the European Commission in Brussels. For him it was a logical step. If products like cheese and wine have a PDO, why wouldn’t the cochineal have this seal also?
It was thanks to Lorenzo that I learned about the life cycle of the cochineal. Most importantly, the fact that in the Canary Islands, the cochineal is picked up when its vital process has finished, in the spawning season. Only the female cochineal can be used for color. When she is young, she walks around the cactus until finding a comfortable place to feed from and stays there forever, as in the process she loses her legs and will not be able to move. The male, however, keeps his legs. He also has wings and his lifecycle consists on flying around the cactus to fecundate the females. After the female finishes her spawn process, her life ends. It is at this moment that they are collected. This whole process lasts around three months.
After meeting with Lorenzo, and deepening my knowledge about the connection between the cochineal and my hometown, I felt inspired to use Canarian cochineal for the first collection of my brand, Savia de Oro. Since then, I also started teaching workshops where I share this long-forgotten knowledge. I imagine a future in which all Canarians know and value this important part of our tradition, and our future can become a better version of our past.
Cochineal remains a dye source used by the food and beauty industries. In these cases, it is treated in laboratories and afterwards referred to as “red E120” or carmine. In recent years, there has been a push to create more transparency, as most customers do not know that those terms refer in fact to an insect. Which goes to show yet another layer of connection to be observed between food and fibers, and the importance of open information.
Author Ivana Oro, is the founder of Savia de Oro, a project whose mission is to create a revival for the use of natural dyes today, and also to preserve the artisan traditions of the Canary Islands.