As a folk magic practitioner, I make and use a lot of red thread in my practice, not only relying on the folklore from around the world and the qualities of the color red, but as an animist, the spirit of the natural dye matter itself. For this reason one of my favorite red dyes is pokeberry, a poisonous “weed” that grows abundantly in my region and a plant ally of mine. I look forward to each fall, collecting the dangerous clusters of jewel-like berries and coloring wool with a scarlet hue, but of course there are plenty of other materials and processes to get red dye. Using red pigment as a dye is one of the most ancient practices in art and textiles, and most people think of madder root carrying the banner of that history, alongside the infamous (and kind of disgustingly complex) recipe for Turkey Red. Aside from pokeberry, my other go-to red dye to use specifically in the summer is informed by my Slavic heritage and isn’t a plant at all. In fact, it’s a type of insect--cochineal.
Nowadays most people associate the use of cochineal with Mexico and South America, which has dominated the dye industry since the 1600’s; however, variants of the cochineal insect can be found in other parts of the world, specifically in Central European countries like Poland. Polish cochineal (czerwiec polski) also lends its name to the month of June (czerwiec) which is when the bugs would be collected from fields before being boiled, dried and processed to become a dye. In fact, the bugs were often referred to as St. John’s Blood, making a link to Summer Solstice, or St. John’s Night as syncretized with Kupalnocka.
The red dye of the insects comes from the scales of the female bug, which contains carminic acid. It is important to note that in order to get a good red from the dye, you must use very soft water, which is the exact opposite of dyeing with madder root, which requires really hard water with high levels of calcium carbonate. This is why ancient peoples paid attention to the sources of water they used and often collected various waters from sacred wells, lakes, rivers, etc. to use for different purposes.
This summer solstice I honored this ancestral tradition by using rainwater and cochineal to dye more red yarn to finish my sacred nettle garment which is already warped and ready to go on my loom!
*Important note: While the cochineal insect is not currently protected in Poland, it is listed in Ukraine as a protected species. Please do not illegally collect Polish Cochineal. Instead, if you are interested in cochineal, please purchase from ethical companies like Botanical Colors. While they source their cochineal from South American countries, they have a verified regenerative cochineal industry that supports indigenous peoples who have been stewards of this web of life for centuries.