a bug and a seed

July 31, 2023  •  4 Comments

It was literally Christmas in July when Fred received the box containing ten pounds of Navajo-Churro wool from the Rainbow Fiber Co-op.  Skeins of the indigo and cochineal-dyed wool are eye popping.  But first, some background on the Co-op.  

"Rainbow Fiber Co-Op is a Diné-led agricultural co-operative established to improve the financial sustainability and equitable market outcomes for the remaining flocks of Dibé dits’ozí (Navajo-Churro sheep) on the Navajo Nation. Our mission is to close the gap between rural Diné shepherds and an e-commerce marketplace for their wool."  You can find more information, see their product, and even shop online by looking at their website linked here. https://rainbowfibercoop.org/pages/about-us

Using one of my favorite references on color The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair, I was able to expand on my knowledge of both colors, which in the case of cochineal was that the dye is made from a bug.  

Rainbow Fiber Coop indigo and cochinealRainbow Fiber Coop indigo and cochineal

It never ceases to amaze me how things are discovered and put to use in human lives.  According to St. Clair, the insect from which cochineal is made, was not actually identified as an insect until the 17th century, when its confirmation was made under a microscope.  Dactylopius coccus, specifically the female, is no larger than the size of a pinhead.  Dactylopius dines voraciously on the prickly pear cactus, where they can be found in "snowy white clusters on the sunny side of the prickly pear cactus leaf...If you were to pluck one off and squeeze hard enough to crush it, your guilty fingers would be stained bright crimson."  It is one of the most brilliant and flexible of the natural dyes.  St. Clair adds that "it was used as a dye in Central and South America from at least the second century B. C. and became intrinsic to the Aztec and Inca Empires."  In the hands of a skilled dye master, including Zefren Anderson based in Shiprock, who dyed the wool shown here, the color shines in all its glory.  It is called Navajo-Churro Zefren's Red Cochineal.  The wound balls are the Co-op's dark gray, which I found to be quite reflective of the light in which it was photographed.  Perhaps that is because the Navajo-Churro sheep wander through the many colors of their environments?

Rainbow Fiber Coop cochineal and charcoal greyRainbow Fiber Coop cochineal and charcoal grey

Rainbow Fiber Coop cochinealRainbow Fiber Coop cochineal

Shifting now to indigo or the seed mentioned in today's blog title.  Indigofera tinctoria or true indigo, is a member of the pea/bean family - Fabaceae. St. Clair, again in The Secret Lives of Color, indicates that although its origins were thought to be in India, the Middle East and Africa, it grows in many areas world-wide and its discovery and use for dying could have been made in numerous places.  Apparently, it is notoriously difficult to render and create the dye, and thus was given great value.  "Males of the Tuareg tribe in Northern Africa are given tagelmusts, or headscarves, at a special ceremony that marks their transition from boy to man.  The most prestigious in the community wear the glossiest indigo tagelmusts, whose gloriously resonant hue is developed through multiple rounds of dying and beating.  Because it has always been so highly prized, indigo has, from as far back as records and educated guesswork allow, been a bedrock of global trade."  The gloss or patina in the indigo from Rainbow Fiber Coop is quite apparent in the images included here.

Rainbow Fiber Coop indigo, cochineal, and charcoal greyRainbow Fiber Coop indigo, cochineal, and charcoal grey

Rainbow Fiber Coop indigoRainbow Fiber Coop indigo

Rainbow Fiber Cooper indigo, charcoal grey, and cochinealRainbow Fiber Cooper indigo, charcoal grey, and cochineal

Fred has not yet used the cochineal or indigo, but the dark grey field from the co-op was used in Rug 391.

Rug 390Rug 390

Thanks to Connie Taylor, Zefren Anderson, Kelli Dunaj, Nikyle Begay, and all the artisans, herders, spinners and dyers who are involved in the Rainbow Fiber Co-op and its mission, and of course the Dibé dits’ozí (Navajo-Churro sheep).

TTT, Ann A., Barbara F. R., Jean & Sam, Marilyn G., Steve, and Marilyn R. commented on last week's blog and I thank you for your words.

until next Monday,


a passion for the image©



Steve Immel(non-registered)
This is a wonderful story, Daryl, and is illustrated superbly. I had never thought of yarn as being "glossy" but it absolutely is especially the indigo which is so lustrous. I found this story captivating. The tales of the pinhead sized bug and the prized indigo are particularly intriguing. That indigo was a sought-after trade good conjures visions of caravans on the Silk Road. Have you and Fred visited the Diné Fiber Co-op? That seems like a story ready to, be recorded and told.

Really good stuff!
Terry Thompson(non-registered)
Those colors are so rich they almost take my breath away. Very informative story. Thanks Daryl.
Fascinating AND beautiful
Connie Taylor(non-registered)
It is an honor to be on your N-C list in the company of my brilliant friends. Fred has been a steadfast champion of the breed and of hand dyers. Of course the record of Navajo-Churro beauty was captured and shared by Daryl Black! We all “Walk in Beauty” thanks to shepherds, dyers, weavers and photographers who capture images of all things.
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