To Dye For
"Bugs are not going to inherit the earth. They own it now. So we might as well make peace with the landlord." -Thomas Eisner
What is your favourite colour?
For those of you who answered, purple or red, I apologise because we're stepping back to 1500 BCE. A time where true red did not yet exist in the western world and purple was exclusively worn by royalty and those deemed worthy.
Phoenicia (now known as Lebanon) was famous for its trade in a certain dye called Tyrian Purple which was notoriously expensive. Romans and Greeks used this rare colour as a status symbol. Their hold on it was so strong that the courts ruled that only certain people could wear it and even restricted who could make the dye.
Tyrian purple was unique due to the molluscs it was sourced from. These molluscs produce pigment from glands that contain secretions they use to defend themselves. For one week, this gland is extracted, salted, and heated in a vat. While this process seems quick and easy, the stench was so offensive that wives were granted the right to divorce their husbands if they became dyers!
Extraction of the pigment was not for the faint of heart, and it was a lengthy process to obtain enough for sale. 1.2 grams of pure dye would be yielded by 12,000 snails, enough to dye garment trimming. Putting aside the fact that you would have to walk around smelling rotting fish for a while, the colour did not fade over time. Due to its colour fast properties and sun brightness, it was well worth the investment.
Purple was not the only colour derived from creepy crawlies. Cochineal and Kermes insects were used to produce red. While this may not seem impressive today, it was a big deal in 16th century Europe. Red was the most elusive colour out there. No one could create the true red we have today. Artisans and dye makers used all kinds of roots, herbs and plants to create red, but it always came out brown or orange. The closest they could get to it was Turkey Red. However, this was time consuming and involved rancid olive oil, cow dung and ox blood.
This was until the Conquistadors came upon a land where it was everywhere. In Puebla, Tlaxcala and Oaxaca they used the Cochineal bug to create the hue. They grind up the bugs and mix them with water to produce a brilliant red dye. This dye was used to create vibrant colours for clothing and artwork, and it was highly prized by the Aztecs. The visitors were so shocked that they immediately sent word to King Charles V, thinking they could bolster Spain's coffers with this well-kept secret.
Only a select few still produce Tyrian purple today, and it sells for £4,000-£100,000, while cochineal bugs are used to safely dye medicines, makeup and food.