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Saguaro Land: A bug that's big in the textile world

By Mark Brodie
Published: Thursday, August 24, 2023 - 11:16am
Updated: Monday, February 19, 2024 - 9:13am

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Saguaro Land is a series from The Show looking at the Sonoran Desert — the lushest, hottest desert in the world that happens to be our home.

In our newest installment, we’re finding color from a somewhat unusual source. If you have paddle cactus in your yard, like prickly pear, you may have noticed a white, almost web-like substance on the surface.

But what you can’t notice, at least just by looking, is that that web conceals a type of bug that’s played a critical role in the textile world for a long, long time. Cochineal has been a source of red dye for thousands of years and still is used today.

Prickly pear cactus paddles and various textiles dyed with cochineal in studio.
Morgan Kubasko/KJZZ
Prickly pear cactus paddles and various textiles dyed with cochineal in studio.

To get a sense of the insect’s history and role in our ecosystem, The Show sat down with Erika Lynne Hanson, an associate professor of Textiles and Socially Engaged Practices at Arizona State University —  who brought some show-and-tell along, as well.

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