About the Antique Rugs of the Future Project

Sheep Breeds of Azerbaijan

Sorting, Washing, Carding, Spinning

"The advantages of handspun yarn to machine spun yarn"

Rediscovery of Ancient Natural Dyes
Our Natural Dyestuffs


Difference between synthetically and naturally dyed rugs

Weaving and Finishing Steps

Galleries of ARFP Caucasian Azerbaijani Rugs




Azeri Turk








Scientific Name

Cochineal, Kermes

qırmız böceyi

kırmız böceği






قرمز دانه ، قرمز شراب كش

Dactylopius coccus or Coccus Cacti, Porphyrophora hameli type (Caucasia), Porphyrophora polonica

We can summarize all the insect dyes which have been used for rugs into three main groups. These  insects are biologically different from each other:

1. Cochineal dye which is isolated from:

a) Porphyrophora hameli - This local type of cochineal has been used in Azerbaijan from ancient times up to the 20th century.

b) Margarodes polonicus and Porphyrophora polonica. - This is called Polish Cochineal. Of the various insect dyes known to readers of oriental decorative art literature, the Polish Cochineal coccid dye insect and its dye are least familiar. However, this coccid dye producer was for many centuries a dominant factor in the textile dye trade and commercial history-of eastern Europe and the Near East. While there is little specific evidence that Polish Cochineal dye was used in any category of Oriental rug, its presence in the market at the time certain rug types were made would be a complicating factor in drawing conclusions about insect dye use.

c) Dactylopius coccus or Coccus Cacti- The cochineal dye which is originated in Spanish America or in other Spanish territories, from a cactus-feeding insect, and was used in certain rugs and textiles of the Caucasus, Persia, and Turkey.

2. Kermes - Kermes (originally kırmız, qırmız ), originates from the word "kirmizi", which means "red" in all Turkic languages. Kermes dye extracted from the dried bodies of the females of a scale insect in the genus Kermes, primarily Kermes ilicis (formerly Coccus ilicis) or Kermes vermilio, distantly related to the cochineal insect, and found on species of oak (esp. Kermes oak) in Mediterranean countries, also in certain parts of Iran.

3. Lac dye -The lac dye originated in Northern India, from an insect (Kerria Lacca), producing both dye and shellac, and was used in rugs and textiles in India and in areas along trade routes where lac was available.

Distribution of insect dyes used in rugs and textiles



Insect Sources



1.1) Cochineal of Azerbaijan (Qurd qırmızısı, Gırmız, Kirmiz)

Porphyrophora hamelii - in Margarodidae Family

Azerbaijan, perhaps Central Asia on roots of Aeluropus grass, eastern Anatolia, salt marshes of Nakhchyvan (Nakhichevan), also territory of today's Republic of Armenia

Used up to early 20th century

1.2) Polish Cochineal

Polish Cochineal (Margarodes polonicus, Porphyrophora polonica) in Margarodidae Family

Sandy soils of eastern Europe and perhaps Asia; on roots of low plants, Scleranthus perennis

Difficult to harvest but widely used, into 19th century

1.3) American Cochineal

Spanish Cactus Cochineal; Dactylopius coccus in Dactylopiidae (= Coccidae) Family:

Parasite feeding on nopal and opuntia cactus; varying parts of Spanish America, Canary Islands and Malaga, Spain

Supplanted old world dyes at different times in rug-making areas

2) Kermes

Oak kermes (Kermococcus vermilis) in Kermidae Family

Branches of oak shrub {Quercus coccifera) in Mediterranean coastal regions - Western and Southern Turkey, Greece, S.Italia, Holy Lands,  N.Africa, also some parts of Iran and N. Iraq

Partly replaced by American cochineal in the 17th- 18th century

3) Lac

Kerria lacca

India, South East Asia


Table A. Descriptive Characteristics of Insect Dyes for Oriental Rugs and Textiles



Class: Insecta
Order: Hemiptera
Suborder: Sternorrhyncha
Superfamily: Coccoidea
Family: Margarodidae
Genus: Porphyrophora
Species: Porphyrophora hameli

Porphyrophora hameli - Kirmiz (Girmiz)
Male and Female (bottom)

a) Historical References

The earliest historical reference to this dye or color is dated to 714 B.C., when Sargon II of Assyria attacked the kingdom of Urartu* and acquired as part of the booty "scarlet textiles of Ararat and Kurkhi."

A number of references in the Middle Ages to a red of Azerbaijan document a region-specific dyestuff, particularly in the writings of Muslim geographers of the 9th through 14th centuries.

Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī  (973-1048 A.D.) and Hamzah Al-Isfahani (d. 961) mentions about the production of insect dye in Azerbaijan.

Ahmad Ibn Yahya al-Baladuri (Balazuri) (d. ca. 892) described Ardizat, to the east of Agridag (Ararat), as Karya-al-Kirmiz, the "town of kirmiz."

According to the 10th century Muslim Arab writer, geographer, and chronicler Mohammed Abul-Kassem ibn Hawqal (born in Nisibis; travelled 943-969 CE), the city of Dabil (Dwn, Dvin, Duvin, Touin) stood north of Ardasat (Ardisat) and was the place where they made "the beautiful color called kermez...(of) a certain worm."

The 14th century famous Azerbaijan
geographer and historian Hamdullah Gazvini (1340), mentions the production of girmiz/kirmiz in the plains to the south of Marand, in S. Azerbaijan.


Urartu*- After the fall of the Hittite empire, at the beginning of the first millennium B.C., kingdom of Urartu was formed in eastern Anatolia, which was to survive for 300 years. Urartu, who were closely related to the Hurrians and Hittites in origin.

Sargon II (right), king of Assyria (r. 722 - 705 BC), with the crowned prince, Sennacherib (left)


Abū Rayhān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī (September 15, 973 in Kath, Khwarezm – December 13, 1048 in Ghazni) was a Muslim polymath of the 11th century, whose experiments and discoveries were as significant and diverse as those of Leonardo da Vinci or Galileo, five hundred years before the them and Renaissance.

b) Cochineal of Azerbaijan - Gırmız (Porphyrophora hamelii): Entomology, Geography, and Biochemistry

Cochineal Red of Azerbaijan rugs was invariably prepared from the coccid species, Porphyrophora hamelii Brandt. Taxonomically, P. hamelii, is a member of the Margarodidae, a family of the super family called Coccoidea (or scale insects). The margarodes spend much of their life burrowing in the ground and feeding on the roots of certain host plants.

All categories of the Coccoidea have quite specific host- parasite relationships. whereby the coccid insect owes its survival and geographic distribution to specific plants.
Cochineal of Azerbaijan - Gırmız insect, P. hamelii, feeds on the roots and lower stems of a number of grasses placed within Aeluropus littoralis. The most often identified host grass is Aeluropus laevis (equivalent to Dactylis littoralis or Poa pungens). This plant is found in the saline marshes along the River Araz, extending to the marshes near Lake Urumia, South Azerbaijan. The flat valley floors around Agridag in Eastern Anatolia is also the common site for the grasses.


c) The life cycle and related biological aspects of the Cochineal of Azerbaijan - Gırmız

As with all these dye insects, it is the female which produces the colorant. The insects are collected for dye harvesting during the non- terrestrial mating phase in the early fall. Insect density on the ground and the host grass during this period can be very high. An English translation of the writing of German geographer Friedrich Parrott, ca. 1829, describes "...a number of cochineal insects, some of which were creeping about on the dry sand and short grass, but the greater part were collected...in large nests, round the roots of a short, hard species of grass - the dactylis littoralis...." Parrott was in Caucasia when he made these observations.

In September and October, the cochineal of Azerbaijan emerges from the soil very early in the morning and mates. Fertilized females reenter the soil and lay eggs. In the following April and early May, larvae emerge from the eggs and leave the soil briefly to feed on the new grass. They return to the soil and attach themselves to the roots of the host grass for the balance of the feeding cycle. The dye-bearing female cochineal adult insects are gathered at the time of mating in the autumn.

d) Chemistry & Biochemistry of Gırmız Dyestuff

Methods for the isolation and purification of the dye from the cochienal coccid have still not been fully duplicated from the centuries-old fragments of archival data. We do know a fair amount about the insect's biochemistry, however. In terms of economics and trade, we know that there was a single annual harvest of the adult female in the autumn and that the dye amounts to up to 5% of the insect's live weight. Also, isolation of the dye is complicated by interferences from a rather high fat content, up to about 30% by weight.

The range of colors in the dye extraction media was a simple function of the chemical conditions of the dye harvesting process, while the appearance of the dried cochineal insects themselves could range considerably. In Babenko's article, reprinted here, the director of the laboratory investigating the cochineal of Azerbaijan -girmiz noted that the dried insects were not red but were a variety of other colors. This remark is of marginal relevance to the technology of the dye. Any dye/chemical technologist would confirm that the biochemical form of a dye or pigment in the insect as well as the visual appearance of the insect itself need not accord to the eye with the chemically isolated, pure dyestuff. Linguistically, the various oriental languages which use the root term for worm in various words for red could also intend for this term to connote "red (of the) worm."

What is the chief chemical principle of the dyestuff in the cochineal of Azerbaijan? The answer to this question was not to be found in the open scientific literature, although the related research results of Dr. H. Jonathon Banks for the closely related Polish Cochineal dye product showed that carminic acid was virtually the entire active color principle. Only traces of other colored substances were found.

Identification of carminic acid as the color principle in the cochineal of Azerbaijan, the same as that in the American (Spanish) cactus cochineal and the related Polish Cochineal, may help explain why the Azerbaijan species ceased being a dominant trade material in western Asia. This is discussed further in the report.

e) Use of cochineal in Decorative Arts of Azerbaijan

We would expect that Caucasian rugs of Azerbaijan made as recently as the 18th century and perhaps later would have used cochineal red from Porphyrophora hamelii. When one carefully reads the comments of F. R. Martin and later writers concerning the vivid scarlet red in that group of rugs called the Dragon carpets, especially the earlier examples produced in the 17th and early 18th centuries in Azerbaijan, there is reason to expect that cochineal of Azerbaijan red was used in the earliest carpets of this group and some of their stylistic ancestors.

There is little hard evidence to indicate that use of the cochineal of Azerbaijan as dyestuff in local rug production ended with any phase-out of this red dye as an exportable trade item. There is a general paucity of evidence at the remote village or town level to show either ending or continuation of Cochineal of Azerbaijan - gırmız use. However, in the September, 1987, issue of the Wright Research Report, Wright furnishes information indicating continued use of the cochineal into the early 20th century. In 1925, A. S. Piralov, author of a 1913 study on rugs, wrote a report on rugmaking in Trans-Caucasus. In the report, he cites observations and statistics of M.G. Reliev to show:

"...cochineal is found in the barren steppes of Ganja province (of Azerbaijan) and in the swamps and salt marshes of the Autonomous Republic of Nakhichevan (part of Azerbaijan) in the Araz valley, where the rural population in peacetime (pre-World War I) collected up to 500 puds (9 tons) a year." In the Wright report, either Piralov or Reliev does confuse what is obviously the cochineal of Azerbaijan with the American (Spanish) cactus coccid, since it is noted that "...Coccus cacti (kyrmyz to the natives) is far superior to madder...cochineal is an extremely precious dye and beyond compare." Note also how the persistence of the term "kyrmyz, qyrmyz" in the native area of the cochineal of Azerbaijan would induce and sustain confusion between the local coccid and the oak kermes coccid insects.





Class: Insecta
Order: Hemiptera
Suborder: Sternorrhyncha
Superfamily: Coccoidea
Family: Margarodidae
Genus: Porphyrophora
Species: P.Polonica or Margarodes Polonicus

Margarodes Polonicus (Polish Cochineal) and Scleranthus perennis (plant)

Of the various insect dyes known to readers of oriental decorative art literature, the Polish Cochineal coccid dye insect and its dye are least familiar. However, this coccid dye producer was for many centuries a dominant factor in the textile dye trade and commercial history-of eastern Europe and the Near East. While there is little specific evidence that Polish Cochineal dye was used in any category of Oriental rug, its presence in the market at the time certain rug types were made would be a complicating factor in drawing conclusions about insect dye use.

Historical Record

Prior to the development of aniline, alizarin and other synthetic dyes, the insect was of great economic importance, although this was declining after the introduction of Mexican cochineal to Europe in the 16th century.

According to Donkin, R.A., the research work of Pfister establishes the earliest documentation for Polish Cochineal dye in textiles, those found in Egypt and Syria, dating to Hellenistic-Roman times. Pfister's work in the 1930's involved tests for distinguishing kermes, madder, and cochineal in textiles of  Sassanid and Chinese origin. To this writer, however, either Kirmiz or Polish Cochineal sources were possible.

Ancient Slavs developed a method of obtaining red dye from the larvae of the Polish cochineal.

The Capitularies of Charlemagne, according to Donkin, R.A., have the earliest mention of Polish Cochineal (vermiculo) in the West (812 A.D.). There are a number of citations for the 12th century and later regarding the presence and harvesting of Polish Cochineal in eastern and central Europe, and these are summarized by Donkin, R.A. and Brunello, F..A number of the leading medical botanists and herbalists of the 16th and 17th centuries described the Polish Cochineal insect.

The earliest known scientific study of the Polish cochineal is found in the Herbarz Polski (Polish Herbal) by Marcin of Urzędów (1595), where it was described as "small red seeds" that grow under plant roots, becoming "ripe" in April and from which a little "bug" emerges in June. The first scientific comments by non-Polish authors were written by Segerius (1670) and von Bernitz (1672). In 1731, a Dutch biologist living in Gdańsk, Johann Philipp Breyne, wrote Historia naturalis Cocci Radicum Tinctorii quod polonicum vulgo audit (translated into English during the same century), the first major treatise on the insect, including the results of his research on its physiology and life cycle.In 1934, Polish biologist Antoni Jakubski wrote Czerwiec polski (Polish cochineal), a monograph taking into account both the insect's biology and historical role.

From about 1800 on, Polish Cochineal was mainly employed in eastern Europe, specifically in Poland and the Ukraine, and via trade routes in central and western Asia. A number of travelers in their chronicles of the 19th century refer to the "cochineal" produced in Russia and brought to Kashgar, Kabul, and Herat via Bukhara. This type of cochineal may have relevance to the available data we have regarding the use of two types of "cochineal" in Turkoman tribal rugs and trappings.

Trade and decorative usage of Polish cochineal

Polish cochineal was widely traded in Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the 15th-16th centuries, along with grain, timber and salt, it was one of Poland's and Lithuania's chief exports, mainly to southern Germany and northern Italy as well as to France, England and the Ottoman Empire. In Poland, the cochineal trade was mostly monopolized by Jewish merchants, who bought the dye from peasants in Red Ruthenia and other regions of Poland and Lithuania. The merchants shipped the dye to major Polish cities such as Kraków, Gdańsk (Danzig) and Poznań. From there, the merchandise was exported to wholesalers in Breslau (Wrocław), Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Augsburg, Venice and other destinations. The Polish cochineal trade was a lucrative business for the Jewish intermediaries; according to Marcin of Urzędów (1595), one pound of Polish cochineal cost between four and five Venetian pounds. In terms of quantities, the trade reached its peak in the 1530s. In 1534, 1963 stones (about 30 metric tons) of the dye were sold in Poznań alone.

The advent of cheaper Mexican cochineal led to an abrupt decline in the Polish cochineal trade and the 1540s saw a steep decline in quantities of the red dye exported from Poland. In 1547, Polish cochineal disappeared from the Poznań customs registry; a Volhynian clerk noted in 1566 that the dye no longer paid in Gdańsk. Perennial knawel plantations were replaced with cereal fields or pastures for raising cattle. Polish cochineal, which until then was mostly an export product, now continued to be used locally by the peasants who collected it; it was employed not only for dyeing fabric, but also as a vodka colorant and an ingredient in folk medicine. It is known that Turks obtained the dye from local traders, and these people used the dye for wool and silk, and even for decorative coloring of the tails of horses.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the extension of Czarist Russian colonial control to western and central Asia was accompanied by trade development in the Polish Cochineal dye. With the partitions of Poland and Ukraine at the end of the 18th century, vast markets in Russia and Central Asia opened to Polish cochineal, which became an export product again – this time, to the East. In the 19th century, Bukhara (Uzbekistan) became the principal Polish cochineal trading center in Central Asia; from there the dye was shipped to Kashgar (Xinjiang), Kabul and Herat (Afghanistan). Since we know that the dye was used in eastern Europe for wool and silk and later was distributed into Turkoman tribal areas, there is reason to assume that the Polish insect probably accounted for the scarlet red in at least some of the extant rugs of those regions and of this period.

Polish military commander, Stefan Czarniecki (1599-1665), in a crimson costume typical of Polish magnates

Entomology, Geographical Distribution and Dye production of  Polish Cochineal (Margarodes Polonicus)

The Polish Cochineal, like Kirmiz insect of Azerbaijan, belongs to the Margarodidae family of the Coccoidea. It is a soil dweller and root feeder, and breeds and feeds exclusively on the roots of the host plant, Scleranthus perennis (Perennial knawel). This is a low-lying plant distributed narrowly in Poland, the Ukraine, and Lithuania. It grows on sandy, dry, acidic soils. It can grow up to 15 cm high and has white flowers of 2-5 mm. Polish Cochineal has also been known to feed on plants of 20 other genera, including mouse-ear hawkweed (Hieracium pilosella), bladder campion (Silene inflata), velvet bent (Agrostis canina), Caragana, smooth rupturewort (Herniaria glabra), strawberry (Fragaria) and cinquefoil (Potentilla). The insect was once commonly found throughout the Palearctic and was recognised across Eurasia, from France and England to China, but it was mainly in Central Europe where it was common enough to make its industrial use economically viable. (It is not clear whether the areas except than Eastern Europe produced the dye coccid in commercial quantities) Excessive economic exploitation, as well as the shrinking and degradation of its habitat, have made the Polish cochineal a rare species. In 1994, it was included in the Ukrainian Red Book of endangered species. In Poland, where it was still common in the 1960s, there is now insufficient data to determine its conservation status and no protective measures are in place.

The insects were harvested shortly before the female larvae reached maturity, i.e. in late June, usually around Saint John the Baptist's day (June 24), hence the dye's folk name, Saint John's blood. The harvesting process involved uprooting the host plant and picking the female larvae, averaging approximately 10 insects from each plant. In Poland, including present-day Ukraine, and elsewhere in Europe, plantations were operated in order to deal with the high toll on the host plants. The larvae were killed with boiling water or vinegar and then dried in the sun or in an oven, ground, and dissolved in sourdough or in light rye beer called kvass, in order to remove fat. The extract could then be used for dyeing silk, wool, cotton or linen. The dyeing process requires roughly 3-4 oz of dye per pound (180 to 250 g per kilogram) of silk, and one pound of dye to color almost 20 pounds (50 g per kilogram) of wool.

Scleranthus perennis (Perennial knawel)

Biochemistry of the Polish Cochineal

Similar to other red dyes obtained from scale insects such as kirmiz red of Azerbaijan and American (Spanish) Cochineal dye, the red coloring is derived from carminic acid with traces of kermesic acid. The Polish cochineal extract's natural carminic acid content is approximately 20%.





D. coccus is native to tropical and subtropical South America and Mexico. This type of insect, a primarily sessile parasite, lives on cacti from the genus Opuntia, feeding on moisture and nutrients in the cacti. Scientifically, the cochineal dyestuff from this New World coccid is carminic acid, the same chemical species found in both the Polish (Porphyrophora polonica) and Kirmiz coccids (Porphyrophora hamelii). Carminic acid can be extracted from the insect's body and eggs to make the dye.

After synthetic pigments and dyes such as alizarin were invented in the late 19th century, natural-dye production gradually diminished. However,
renewed interest in Europe and the United States in natural products and handicrafts, and current health concerns over artificial food additives have renewed the popularity of cochineal dyes, and the increased demand has made cultivation of the insect profitable again.

Female (left) and male (right) Cochineals.


The cochineal dye was used by the Aztec and Maya peoples of Central and North America. Eleven cities conquered by Montezuma in the 15th century paid a yearly tribute of 2000 decorated cotton blankets and 40 bags of cochineal dye each. During the colonial period the production of cochineal (grana fina) grew rapidly. Produced almost exclusively in Oaxaca, Mexico by indigenous producers, cochineal became Mexico's second most valued export after silver. Not long after Cortez's arrival in the New World in 1518, cactus cochineal dye started to be shipped back to Spain. Also during this time, the introduction of sheep to Latin America increased the use of cochineal, as it provided the most intense colour and it set more firmly on woolen garments than on clothes made of materials of pre-Hispanic origin such as cotton, agave fibers and yucca fibers.

In the second half of the 16th century, there is abundant evidence that New World cochineal dye was being shipped to Spain and elsewhere. This dye reached Europe through Spanish ports such as Cadiz and Seville. By 1560, available dye exceeded Spain's domestic needs and dye was exported to the rest of Europe, beginning with the Low Countries and with Antwerp as market center. England was importing the American (Spanish) dye by 1558. The dyestuff was consumed throughout Europe and was so highly prized that its price was regularly quoted on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges.

American (Spanish) cochineal dye reached Asia by the 1550s by way of at least four trade routes, which are germane to the dye's potential for use in oriental textiles of high value: 1) from the Levant to Persia, and then to India; 2) from Constantinople and Black Sea ports to Turkey and the Caspian region; 3) directly to India in ships from England; and 4) direct transport from New Spain to Asia via the Philippines. Persia was a recognized market for the Spanish dye from the beginning of the 17th century, based on entries in State Papers for 1617-1621. The workshops of Isfahan are recorded in States Papers of 1625-1629 as having received Spanish dye through Venice and on occasion through Constantinople. Donkin, R.A. refers to State Papers of the period to show that dye traders in Persia resold the cochineal substance in cities of northern India in the early 1600s.

After the Mexican War of Independence in 1810–1821, the Mexican monopoly on cochineal came to an end. Large scale production of cochineal emerged especially in Guatemala and the Canary Islands. The demand for cochineal fell sharply with the appearance on the market of alizarin crimson and many other artificial dyes discovered in Europe in the middle of the 19th century, causing a significant financial shock in Spain as a major industry almost ceased to exist. The delicate manual labor required for the breeding of the insect could not compete with the modern methods of the new industry and even less so with the lowering of production costs. The "tuna blood" dye (from the Mexican name for the Opuntia fruit) stopped being used and trade in cochineal almost totally disappeared in the course of the 20th century. The breeding of the cochineal insect has been done mainly for the purposes of maintaining the tradition rather than to satisfy any sort of demand.

In recent years it has become commercially valuable again, though most consumers are unaware that the 'artificial colouring' refers to a dye that is derived from an insect, at least for the red that is used within the product. One reason for its popularity is that, unlike many commercial synthetic red dyes, it is not toxic or carcinogenic.


Cochineal insects are soft-bodied, flat, oval-shaped scale insects. The females, wingless and about 5 mm (0.2 in) long, cluster on cactus pads. They penetrate the cactus with their beak-like mouthparts and feed on its juices, remaining immobile. After mating, the fertilized female increases in size and gives birth to tiny nymphs. The nymphs secrete a waxy white substance over their bodies for protection from water and excessive sun. This substance makes the cochineal insect appear white or grey from the outside, though the body of the insect and its nymphs produces the red pigment, which makes the insides of the insect look dark purple. Adult males can be distinguished from females by their diminutive size and their wings.

It is in the nymph stage (also called the crawler stage) that the cochineal disperses. The juveniles move to a feeding spot and produce long wax filaments. Later they move to the edge of the cactus pad where the wind catches the wax filaments and carries the cochineals to a new host. These individuals establish feeding sites on the new host and produce a new generation of cochineals. Male nymphs feed on the cactus until they reach sexual maturity; when they mature they cannot feed at all and live only long enough to fertilize the eggs. They are therefore seldom observed.

Host Plant

Dactylopius coccus is native to tropical and subtropical South America and Mexico, where their host cacti grow natively. They have been introduced to Spain, the Canary Islands, Algiers and Australia along with their host cacti. There are 150 species of Opuntia cacti, and while it is possible to cultivate cochineal on almost all of them, the best to use is Opuntia ficus-indica.[9] All of the host plants of cochineal colonies were identified as species of Opuntia including Opuntia amyclaea, O. atropes, O. cantabrigiensis, O. brasilienis, O. ficus-indica, O. fuliginosa, O. jaliscana, O. leucotricha, O. lindheimeri, O. microdasys, O. megacantha, O. pilifera, O. robusta, O. sarca, O. schikendantzii, O. stricta, O. streptacantha, and O. tomentosa. Feeding cochineals can damage the cacti, sometimes killing their host. Cochineals other than D. coccus will feed on many of the same Opuntia species, and it is likely that the wide range of hosts reported for the former species is because of the difficulty in distinguishing it from these other, less common species.

Opuntia cactus plant hosting Dactylopius coccus insects

Zapotec nests on Opuntia indicamil host cacti


Cochineals are farmed in the traditional method by planting infected cactus pads or infecting existing cacti with cochineals and harvesting the insects by hand. The controlled method uses small baskets called Zapotec nests placed on host cacti. The baskets contain clean, fertile females which leave the nests and settle on the cactus to await insemination by the males. In both cases the cochineals have to be protected from predators, cold and rain. The complete cycle lasts 3 months during which the cacti are kept at a constant temperature of 27 °C. Once the cochineals have finished the cycle, the new cochineals are ready to begin the cycle again or to be dried for dye production.

To produce dye from cochineals, the insects are collected when they are approximately ninety days old. Harvesting the insects is labor-intensive as they must be individually knocked, brushed or picked from the cacti and placed into bags. The insects are gathered by small groups of collectors who sell them to local processors or exporters.



A deep crimson dye is extracted from the female cochineal insects. Cochineal is used to produce scarlet, orange and other red tints too. The colouring comes from carminic acid, as in other insect dyes. Cochineal extract's natural carminic-acid content is usually 19–22%. The insects are killed by immersion in hot water (after which they are dried) or by exposure to sunlight, steam, or the heat of an oven. Each method produces a different colour which results in the varied appearance of commercial cochineal. The insects must be dried to about 30 percent of their original body weight before they can be stored without decaying.  It takes from 155 000 to 250 000 insects to make one kilogram of cochineal.

There are two principal forms of cochineal dye: cochineal extract is a colouring made from the raw dried and pulverised bodies of insects (it is used to dye woolen and silk yarns), and carmine is a more purified colouring made from the cochineal. To prepare carmine, the powdered insect bodies are boiled in ammonia or a sodium carbonate solution, the insoluble matter is removed by filtering, and alum is added to the clear salt solution of carminic acid to precipitate the red aluminium salt. Purity of colour is ensured by the absence of iron. For shades of purple, lime is added to the alum.

As of 2005, Peru produced 200 tonnes of cochineal dye per year and the Canary Islands produced 20 tonnes per year. Chile and Mexico have also recently begun to export cochineal. France is believed to be the world's largest importer of cochineal; Japan and Italy also import the insect. Much of these imports are processed and reexported to other developed economies.


Recipe of dyeing wool with cochineal

As it is indicated above i
t takes approximately a quarter of a million Coccus cacti insects immersed in boiling water, removed, cooled, dried and powdered to make one kilo of dye. One kilo of cochineal is added to warm water until it has the consistency of milk. Then 280 g (10 oz) tartaric acid and a heaped cup of dye salts, are stirred in and the mixture left for twelve hours, with occasional stirring, during which time it expands and thickens. The mixture is then added to 35 litres gallons) of warm water, all lumps are removed, and it is heated and simmered for fifteen minutes. Wool that has been previously mordanted with tin should then be added and simmered for thirty to thirty-five minutes, cooled and rinsed until the water runs clear, and hung in a shady place until dry. This process yields a bright red colour which is fast. The dyebath may be re-used until the colour has disappeared.





Kermes oak tree (Quercus coccifera)

Kermococcus vermilis Planchon insect
(formerly Coccus ilicis and Kermes ilicis L. or Kermes vermilio)

a) Historical References

The dye from the true oak kermes insect, kermococcus vermilis, has had a long and widespread history in Asia and Europe. All evidence indicates that its use was confined to expensive textiles and apparel.

In terms of the historical record, kermes dye use may even predate written history, inasmuch as kermes-dyed remains have been identified at a prehistoric archaeological site in Provence, France.

In ancient times, these insects were thought to be of a vegetable nature, and were used in medicine.

Evergreen oaks which might have included the kermes host oak species were known to the Hebrews. The Phoenicians apparently had access to kermes in Palestine and Cilicia (celebrated for its oaks), and F.S. Bodenheimer cites the reference by a Phoenician merchant to "the rouge extracted from worms" and carried into northern Iraq in the 2nd millenium B.C. as the earliest written reference to kermes dye.

Tiglath-pileser I (ca. 1100 B.C.) introduced oak trees to Assyria, presumably as plant host for kermes insects.

Greco-Roman accounts of the kermes insect and its dye are rather garbled in terms of clearly characterizing this specific coccid. One reference which is clear, however, is that of the geographer Pausanius, second century A.D.: "This shrub (the kermes oak) the Ionians, as well as the rest of the Greeks, call kokkos there breeds in the fruit of the kokkos a small creature...and the blood of the creature serves as a dye for wool". Cotte (1918) and Andre (1949) trace the etymology of the name "kokkos" and its connection to the oak of the kermes insect.

More recently, the Arab geographer and historian Al-Ya 'Qubi (A.D. 900) wrote that Assiut in Upper Egypt produced carpets dyed with kermes.

In the Middle Ages and later, it is clear from many accounts that true kermes dye from the Mediterranean was becoming entrenched in European and Near East dyeing practices. The peak in oak kermes dye use was a rather broad one, extending from the 12th century to the 16th century. The phase-out of kermes dye parallels that, more or less, of kirmiz. Parallel decline probably occurred for the same reason: the introduction and rapidly expanding trade in American (Spanish) cactus cochineal dye from Spanish America sources.

b) The Kermes Insect: Entomology and Geography

Kermes dye was obtained from a specific species of coccid insect - Kermococcus vermilis Planchon (formerly Kermes ilicis L.) which is native to the Mediterranean and certain contiguous regions. The insects are round, smaller than a pea, contain coloring matter analogous to carmine, and are used in dyeing. The word crimson is derived from the word kermes which originates from the word "kirmizi" - means "red" in all Turkic languages. This dye-producing coccid breeds and feeds exclusively on the shrub oak which its scientific name is Quercus coccifera. This exclusivity to the parasite-host relationship was established by the zoologist Planchon in 1864.










K. vermilio

Distribution of the Kermococcus vermilis is, of course, that of the host oak species. This oak is found predominantly along the shores of Mediterranean Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, with distribution extending along a fringe into Iraq and southwest Persia (see map above).

In common with other dye-producing members of the Coccoidea, it is the females of Kermococcus vermilis which yield the dye material. The immature, larval female is attached to the branches of Kermes oak tree (Quercus coccifera) until March, when it is at a grain-sized, red-violet colored stage. It begins to grow rapidly from this point, and by the end of April is the size and color of a violet pea. The kermes worm is collected at this point, which jibes with various reports of insect gathering from kermes oaks in April and early May. The violet color of the female kermes insect at this point parallels that of the cochineal of Azerbaijan insect.

Chemistry and Biochemistry of the Kermococcus Insect

When collected and dried, the Kermococcus scale insect appears as a red-brown, smooth seed-like pellet. This probably accounts for early writers identifying the source of kermes as a plant rather than an animal.

The color principle in the Kermococcus insect is almost exclusively kermesic acid. Kermesic acid as the main colorant in Kermococcus vermilis has been known since the early 20th century research of Otto Dimroth in Germany.

Kermesic acid is distinct enough chemically from carminic acid, found in kirmiz - the cochineal of Azerbaijan and other cochineal scales, that a modern laboratory can distinguish between the two dyes. Kermesic acid, lac dye components and other dyes can be examined by high pressure liquid chromatography.

Kermococcus Vermilis Dyestuff in the Decorative Arts

The dye kermes is a mysterious colorant used since antiquity, but it has not been conclusively documented in Oriental rugs. Based on all the evidence, kermes dye (kermesic acid) has been used as a textile dyeing substance since antiquity and its use was particularly high for such purposes as "Venetian Scarlet" in Mediterranean Europe and areas in the major Mediterranean trade channels from the 12th to the 16th century.

Technologically, the dye collection and isolation process was moderately tedious and the amount of dye extracted low for the effort and cost. Of all the Asiatic insect dye substances, kermes was the most costly and labor-intensive, except for possibly the Polish Cochineal. Given the amount of evidence about the likely cost and difficulties of dye production, it is not surprising that the dye was restricted to the costliest of fabrics and textiles. There may well have been efforts to transplant and expand Kermococcus vermilis along plantation lines, similar to the work with the American (Spanish) cactus coccid, but there is no evidence of success.

For utilitarian Oriental rugs and textiles, the dye substance would probably always have been too costly. For the reds in classical carpets, things are a bit more interesting. According to Whiting, M.C., lac from India was the source of the scarlet red in classical Persian carpets, paralleling the use of lac in Mamluk carpets.




Lac is the scarlet resinous secretion of the insect Kerria lacca. This important animal is also known by some junior synonyms such as Laccifer lacca, Carteria lacca and Tachardia lacca. However, the oldest name Kerria lacca is back in current use. Kerria lacca belongs to the lac insect family Kerriidae, one of some 28 families of scale insects and mealy bugs belonging to the superfamily Coccoidea.  The lac insect of SE Asia is Kerria chinensis. Lac insects settle closely on the twigs of certain host trees, suck the plant sap and grow, all the while secreting lac resin from their bodies. Since the insects are closely spaced on the twigs, the resin forms continuous encrustations over the twigs of the host trees. These insects thrive only on certain trees, which are called host trees.

In India the most common host trees are: Dhak (Butea monosperma), Ber (Ziziphus mauritiana), Kusum (Schleichera oleosa)

In Thailand the most common host trees are: Rain tree (Samanea saman), Pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan)

In China the common host trees include: Pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan), Hibiscus species

Dhak (Butea monosperma)

Kusum (Schleichera oleosa)

Ber (Ziziphus mauritiana)

Rain tree (Samanea saman)

Pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan)

Lac encrustations are removed from the twigs of host plants by scraping. The raw lac thus obtained is known as scraped lac or simply sticklac, which is further crushed into small grains, seived, washed and dried. This semi-refined product, called seedlac, is further refined by a system of hot melting, filtration and stretching into thin sheets which are subsequently broken into brittle flakes called shellac. Alternatively the purified lac resin can be in the form of circular discs called button lac.

India is the principal lac producing country of the world, producing approximately 18,000 metric tonnes of unrefined (raw ) lac annually. About 85% of the country's production is exported to various countries. The USA, Germany and Egypt are some of the major lac importing countries of the world.

Export of lac from India is mainly in the form of :
Shellac / button lac
Dewaxed lac
Bleached lac
Aleuritic acid

What is Lac Composed Of?

Lac has been found to be composed of the following constituents:



Lac Resin (a polyester complex of straight-chain hydroxy fatty acids and sesquiterpenic acids) 68 %
Lac Wax (a mixture of higher alcohols, acids and their esters) 6 %
Lac Dye (a mixture of anthroquinoid derivatives) 1-2 %
Others (insect debris, impurities etc.) 25 %

Lac dye in History

Lac dye has been used in Persia since at least 714 B.C. According to Dr. Paul Mushak, an expert in chemical analysis of rug dyes, lac dye “…was the principal red dye used in classical Persian (Iranian) carpets...” Lac was primarily used to dye silk, yielding a range of colors from rose to purple. Lac dye is still produced in the same way as it was in medieval times. S




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