This weekend while my Mom was in town, glamorous and The Baron and I decided to take her to The Huntington Library & Garden in San Marino to wander around the gardens and then have tea at the Rose Garden Tea Room. I gave The Baron a membership to the garden for his birthday and we knew Mom would really enjoy the Japanese garden and the roses. We planned carefully — I made a tearoom reservation several weeks in advance — and arrived with an hour and a half to explore before tea-time. It was a beautiful day and even though the garden was pretty crowded, we still had fun and a yummy tea.
The bonus for me was an event going on in the herb garden — a group of fiber artists were set up spinning and demonstrating the process for dying yarn. I wish I’d had more time to linger and absorb it all, but I did get a chance to see firsthand the process for making deep magenta yarn with cochineal. It’s a pretty amazing thing. As a kid I did summer-camp dying projects with plants, mostly producing limp-colored string used to make “God’s eyes,” where you twist yarn around sticks to make a square-shaped hanging with no discernable purpose. Not a very inspiring dying experience. So I was thrilled to see a beautiful, rich, magenta-red ball of yarn on the table in addition to the pale yellows and blues.
The process for making the rich color is hard to believe without seeing it. The demonstrator showed us a hunk of prickly-pear cactus with what looked like grey dirt on it. She took a tissue and wiped at the dirt, and the result was a bright magenta smear. The dirt is actually a bug, called cochineal, that lives on the prickly pear cactus and is native to Central and South America. The bug feeds on the cactus juice and then can be harvested, mushed up and used as dye. The dye makes its way into everything from paint to fruit juice, and of course yarn and textiles. I wish there was a better online reference for this process . . . the best I could find was here. But trust me, it was really super-cool, and piqued my interest in natural fiber dyes. I think my favorite part of the whole process is that it’s only the female bug that produces the pink color. Rock on ladies.