Book Report: A Perfect Shade of Red

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Even with all this knitting, I am still reading a lot. This one will not be the last in my color series for a while, because I think there’s a yellow book in the queue at the ranch. But on to this one. A Perfect Shade of Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire, by Amy Butler Greenfield (2005), was recommended in the Master Naturalist session I took on cochineal. I’m glad I picked it up and read it, even though I’ve already read two other books on the color red. The history part was a lot of fun.

The book, along with the back of the stole I’m working on.

This book concentrates on the ups and downs of using that little Mexican insect, cochineal, to dye things red, starting from the very beginning and continuing to current times. One thing I learned is that, unlike the wild cochineal that grows out at the ranch, the kind that has been developed in Oaxaca to produce the most dye is a finicky thing. No wonder Spain held on to its secrets for so long and monopolized its import (when those pesky English pirates weren’t stealing it). They just couldn’t get it to grow well other than its native territory for hundreds of years.

I wonder if they used cochineal to dye the leather for my journal?

Without the exact right climate with not too much rain, not too much wind, and not too much cold, they keel over pretty fast. The other books I’ve read didn’t go into as much detail about how many places tried to grow cochineal. It failed spectacularly all over the world, and was particularly unsuited to being grown by slaves like sugar cane, corn, or cotton. Oh well.

Random red objects for you to enjoy.

I did learn that eventually, patient people finally got it to grow in the Canary Islands and Guatemala, of all places. They even surpassed Mexico toward the end of the popularity of cochineal dye.

Another thing the other books didn’t tell me was that thanks to Red Dye No. 2 being identified as so poisonous, cochineal began coloring foods in modern times again, but it’s not popular with vegans and there ARE people allergic to it, too. Huh.

The book kept insinuating that red clothing can be gaudy. I don’t know where they get that idea. This is my holiday shirt for this year.

Even if you’re less than fascinated by dyeing things red with little insects, this book is a fun read, because you get an interesting perspective on European history from it. Much of the book makes England seen like a pretty nasty place, but the descriptions of Hapsburgs and their jaws made me rather sad for European royalty. What an inbred mess. All the intrigue between kings, queens, pirates, merchants, chemists, and others is a lot of fun.

It appears I have another race book and a novel ahead of me, though there IS a memoir I may sneak in. Thanks for bearing with me on these book reports.

Brown Recluses, Crows, and Cochineal: Stuff I Learned about This Week

I’ve enjoyed the Texas Master Naturalist Annual Meeting, for the most part. There were a couple of dud presentations (I won’t say which ones those were), but I managed to learn a lot. I really missed interacting with others before and after sessions and being able to interact.

But I did learn a bunch. I’m really glad I went to the brown recluse spider talk, because now I know how few people get bitten and that females don’t even walk around. If you see one out, it’s a male.


They have six eyes, paired as in the photo. Easy to tell from other spiders, though I doubt I’ll get that close.

Unrelated to these guys, I found out the baby spiders that parachute across the fields are the jumping spiders. They are my favorites. They are all so pretty and friendly. Sara and I talked to one for a while yesterday. Yes, we’re weird ranch gals.

I learned about corvids, which include ravens, crows, magpies, and jays, among others. The surprise there is how similar their brains are to ours, just more densely packed. Really amazing birds.

More on recluses. I didn’t get bird images.

Another interesting talk was on fungi, but I realized I need images in my sessions. I am not an auditory learner, I guess. The speaker had very few slides, and I got lost. Luckily, she recommended a book I’ll go buy. That makes, I think, four I must have thanks to the conference!

Finally, I got a kick out of the presentation by a very sweet and very Texan Master Naturalist on cochineal. I could tell he’d learned way more about the fashion industry than he had intended to. But it was a lot of fun sharing his amazement about the ups and downs of these tiny insects, some of which happen to be right outside my door!

I’m gonna have to smoosh some up, use lemon juice as a mordant, and dye something red! I’ll read the books and report more later.

Well, I have an adventure to go to, so that’s it for now. Have fun on your Sunday, too!