Cochineal

Cochineal | Cloth with bright colours was the prerogative of elites in a wide range of societies, highly desirable in a generally colourless human world. For the Inca aristocracy of the 15th century red was associated with their mythical origins and a symbol of royalty and nobility. In the same period in Europe, Pope Paul II decreed scarlet to be the colour of Cardinals’ robes in 1464 whereas previously they had been purple. European reds at this time came in weak form from madder, but for a deeper red from a group of scale insects, the most local being kermes from evergreen oak trees. The Incas were at an advantage however, their far stronger dye coming from the insect dactylopius coccus—cochineal—living on an Opuntia-type cactus which had been used by much earlier Andean societies—the Nazca, Moche and Wari—and which was perfect for dyeing animal fi bres like the wool of alpacas. The wheel has since turned full circle because after the collapse of the colonial cochineal business in the face of 19th century chemical dyes, it has re-emerged on a smaller scale from a taste for natural dyes and as a food colourant, with the Arequipa region of Peru producing 80% of world supply. There is evidence of shipments from Lima in the early colonial period, but it was in and around Oaxaca, Mexico that the Spanish crown and merchant houses centred what was to be a very profi table business for them with what they called grana (grain). In Mexico too it had been highly treasured by the Aztec aristocracy with Moctezuma I and II receiving large quantities of the dye in powdered cake form as tribute. In Zapotec languages, the word for red was the same as that for colour as such. The invader Cortez immediately alerted King Charles V of Spain as to its likely value, and from then on cochineal became a Spanish monopoly with the fi rst shipment from Veracruz to Seville in 1526. It was highly sought after in Europe because of its brightness and strength of colour that far exceeded that of kermes. As a consequence it was so profi table as to become Mexico’s 2nd highest value export after silver, with draconian punishments in place for giving away the secret of its origin, and a campaign of misinformation which implied that it came from seed or grain. For the next 300 years there is a whole story of attempted espionage, piracy and great profi t. In Oaxaca, unlike the systematic brutality of Spanish occupation elsewhere, the Crown simply took over the Aztec tribute system with production left to Indian smallholding cactus farms, noparleias, with no forced labour or haciendas. This may in part be because it was so labour intensive. It took 100,000 insects to make one kilo, and the insects had to be carefully brushed off the cactus leaves so as not to damage them. Like all Empires however they imposed a royal bureaucracy on the business, the jueces de grana, with regulations as to how the insect should be killed, and with weighing stations that checked for quality and adulterants. Despite the activities of pirates, spies, the seizure of a fl otilla of ships with cochineal in the cargo by a Dutch naval force in 1628, and microscopic examination of the insect, the monopoly held so that in 1714 an English dyer was complaining, “Cochineal is no where to be found but in Mexico.” The French naturalist Nicholas de Menonville did fi nally smuggle out samples of both insect and cactus, but the attempt to start the business in the then French colony of Haiti failed. What did change the situation was oversupply; the Mexican War of Independence; and the pre-emptive move to establish plantations in Guatemala and the Canary Islands at the beginning of the 19th century; soon followed, as with other natural dyes, by the development of a chemical dye that isolated alizarin. But this was only after 300 years during which something like 300,000 pounds of cochineal were exported every year, overland to New Mexico and with shipments to China and the Philippines as well as Europe, and though Oaxaca Indian farmers did better than others in the rest of the continent, the vast majority of the profi ts went to the Spanish crown and the merchant houses of Cinco Gremios Meyores and Casa de Uztáriz.

1738 | Trowbridge and Melkshaw, Wiltshire, England. Wool weavers riot over on the issue of being paid in truck (a version of the Company store) by the clothier merchants; against unfair pay deductions for what the clothier decided was imperfect work; and a cut in what they were paid. The weavers were organised in clubs with a secretary and a ‘King’. After a failure by the clothiers to negotiate, the most detested of them, Henry Coulthurst, has his mansion, workshops and cottages trashed. At the workshops yarn was ripped up and thrown into the river, his account books stamped on and left unreadable. His mansion was destroyed starting with the removal of tiles from its roof, expressing a desire to demolish his pretensions, and that in hard times the clothiers too should share them. The town council were so alarmed that they told the Town crier to announce that the weavers should have “full wages and no truck.” This implied that they had not in fact been paid the wages as laid down by the Privy Council, a state institution, in 1726. But at the same time the council called in troops. Several weavers were shot dead and in a subsequent trial, three were executed. There was some sympathy for them from local gentry, but the clothiers themselves launched a fi erce propaganda campaign in the local newspaper, blaming everything on the weavers themselves. Their leading propagandist, William Temple wrote: “The cause of the poor is popular and apt to bypass many thinking and judicious persons who have not had much to do with them. The World would have quite a different opinion of the Manufacturing populace if they were acquainted with their Insolence, Idleness, Debauchery and Dishonesty, so well as the clothiers. It was beyond all contradiction that the poor have such High Wages, as furnish them with the Means and instruments of Luxury and Idleness. So that by reducing wages you would not only make the poor more laborious, more diligent, more virtuous, and not at all lessen the consumption of provisions and necesseries. The reduction of wages in the woollen manufacture would be a national blessing, and no real injury to the poor.” He concludes, in a smug voice familiar in today’s world, that English clothiers face competition from the Chinese, where workers are treated in an inhumane manner which he himself as a good Christian would not contemplate.

“I am Bolivian but for many, many years I was a fashion designer in New York which is the fashion capital of the world—not Paris or Milan—because of the volume that it moves. Now I have my own company here in Bolivia, me designing and the seamstresses under the same roof, and I’m proud that the clothes made here go out with a Made-in-Bolivia label. But my coming back was not an emotional decision. I’ll never forget this Financial Times journalist interviewing me along the lines of, ‘What’s a nice girl like this doing in La Paz’. Like, why after New York? Well the nitty gritty of it is competitive pricing. I’m a designer, not someone with an MBA, but I sat down and did the figures when I had an order for 500 garments from Toronto. And then of course even though the seamstresses here have no formal training they do exquisite work, and the joke is that this tradition of good tailoring, it was the British brought it when they were here building railways. So some English tailors, brothers they came, and that’s how it started. So this fits well because I am a technical designer, which is maybe why I was always getting mail addressed to Mr. Canedo. And who is he may I ask? They just think there is no such thing as a woman behind a garment business.

Anyway, when I was back in the country I got a visit from the team of Mr. Morales, our President, wanting me to design the clothes for his inauguration as President. Well obviously they knew my reputation, I mean I don’t want to brag but I’ve dressed a lot of famous people. Maybe also, they knew I’d done a lot of my work with alpaca yarn even though Bolivians themselves, the upper class so to speak, they wouldn’t wear it, for them it was for their maid or their butler to wear alpaca. So when they asked me, well it was an honour for me, the first Indigenous President in 500 years, and I wanted him to look really good though I had very little time to do it because—real Bolivian style—they left it very late. They gave me a free hand, and all they said was that he didn’t want to wear a tie, which is fine with me, and he wanted to be identified with his own culture, which is Aymará; not Quechua, but Aymará. I liked that, because he could easily just have chosen an Armani suit or something like that. Well at the time, the President-elect was very busy travelling but the Vice-President himself, Alvaro came to tell me all this, and then he came to look at the drawings I’d made. That the suit would be made from alpaca was without question, but he agreed with me that the colours should be subtle because our flag is loud enough, red, yellow and green. And it would be embroidered with an Aymará motif. I took it very seriously and so did they, them coming here or making phone calls. With just ten days before the inauguration, I did all the research for those motifs myself because that’s how I am. They call me exacting, but better that than mediocre. Anyway, they’d also asked me not to reveal that it was me who was doing the clothes for him, and of course I didn’t though the press were ringing from all over the world, and here they were insulting, offering me money to reveal that I was the one, and they wanted to bring cameras. Unbelievable, they were climbing the trees outside to try and get a picture. After the inauguration of course I couldn’t lie. But I had serious work to get on with.

For one thing I’m involved with work on all camelid fibres, and involved with international experts on the subject with symposia and so on, as well as using them in my designs. The super-luxury fibre, the thinnest, is the vicuña which is way finer than cashmere, and besides it’s much prettier, it has such an elegant neck whereas the cashmere goat is so ugly. And I’m the first designer in Latin America to use it. I’ve been pushing for its use here against some stupid restrictions. I mean I would never have a camelid killed but the vicuña can be sheared, and this would be good for campesinos who could make a living from this. So now there is such a project in Bolivia and I’m proud to say that at the last symposium in Chile they said that me and my company we’re the only one that could design and manufacture it. This is serious work, it is a sacred cloth. But then you’re not allowed to be serious by the press. I mean I was interviewed recently and asked how I’d advise Mrs. Obama on what to wear for her husband’s inauguration. Me and some other designers were asked, but here, this so-called quality newspaper in Santa Cruz made a drawing from what I’d said and I’m furious. It’s not my drawing, the head is too big, and of course we know poor Mrs. Obama has big hips, but you never show it on the day. And the way they did it. I mean the coat should be the same length as the dress, and how is she going to be carrying a purse outdoors in the snow. She’ll freeze, and besides everyone knows, queens and princesses, they never carry purses because they have people behind to pay. I was furious but you can’t afford to fight with the Santa Cruz press. And the interviewer was pretty stupid. I said I didn’t want her with a scarf because she needs to look chic and elegant, so he asks what about jewellery. Because they are considered to be a bit like in Caracas, they overdo it with everything: skin, skin, skin; jewellery, jewellery, jewellery. So the first thing I said was ‘very, very little jewellery’, especially now, because it would be very ostentatious with the world economic crisis for the first lady to come out like a Christmas tree.”