Cochineal Bugs, Cross Stitch, and Books

Weird photo. If you can’t quite make it out, you’re looking at bugs on prickly pear cactus, in a bucket. The white stuff is the cottony shroud that the bugs–rice-size scale insects called cochineal–produce to hide their babies from predators. Bill, who had gone out armed with his mattock to make war on the invasive prickly pear, brought it to me the other day, from one of our Meadow Knoll fields. The bugs you’re looking at were once more precious than gold, for they were used by Mayans and Aztecs to produce a vibrant crimson dye that was–quite literally–to die for.

You can read the fabled (but true) history of that valuable bug-produced pigment in the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. There are some quite remarkable photos on that site. Here’s another site, with photos taken on a visit to a modern cochineal farm. If you’re interested in dyeing with cochineal, you can now buy the dried bugs on the internet. (Isn’t technology amazing?)

Looking at bugs isn’t my only pleasure these days, of course. Evenings, I listen to books while I work on my current cross stitch project, from Charles Wysocki’s painting “Quilts for Sale.” You can see what this will look like when it’s finished here. 

The publishing schedule for the current novel is now complete. Someone Always Nearby, my biographical novel about the friendship of Georgia O’Keeffe and Maria Chabot, will be published in November, 2023. Coming at the same time, in a separate publication, a Reader’s Companion to the novel. I decided to do this because the novel presents an unfamiliar and perhaps controversial view of O’Keeffe and I want readers to see the many sources from which I drew the story. The novel is finished and I’m working on the Companion now. I’ll be doing a series of blog posts on the subject next spring.

And for those who are waiting for another China Bayles mystery: Forget Me Never is in the works, but shelved for a time while I wrap up the final work on Someone. No publishing date for Forget just yet–maybe late 2023.

Llano County book-banning update. If you’ve been reading this blog over the past year,  you may remember my post about the unfortunate book-banning efforts in neighboring Llano County (“Libraries and Politics: A Dangerous Mix”).  Leila Green Little is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that’s been filed. She was recently interviewed by NPR; the interview does a good job of setting out the facts. Kudos to Leila and her brave neighbors for stepping out to protect our libraries and the fundamental right to read–and write–that is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The next hearing in this important case comes at the end of the month. Stay tuned.

Reading note: Ray Bradbury once said, there’s more than one way to burn a book, and the world is full of people running around with matches.–Leila Green Little, in “A group of angry library patrons in Texas has gone to court over book removals,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio, Oct. 3, 2022.

A reminder: I welcome and appreciate all your notes. Uncivil and untruthful comments will be deleted. There’s enough of that on Twitter.


35 comments on “Cochineal Bugs, Cross Stitch, and Books

  1. Susan, I’ve been a reader and follower of yours for years and always come across a new recipe and now am impressed with your cross stitching! Fantabulous! We learn something new each day.

  2. So very excited to hear that another China Bayles mystery is in the works. I have been working my way through the series (not necessarily in order) and am currently reading A Plain Vanilla Murder. As an herb gardener, I find this series a wonderful way to relax when I’m not digging in the soil or playing with my herbs in the kitchen. I’m waiting to have built in bookcases added to my living room. The first books on it will be this series. I thoroughly enjoy the stories and also learn so many interesting facts about the different herbs, not to mention the recipes. Thank you so much for creating this wonderful book series, Susan.

  3. Those that want to turn back the clock, have always lived the way (inside their heads) they are living now, but now they are doing it out in the open. My brother and I had to leave facebook as our aunts, uncles, and cousins began to show their collective racism (and more just as you are seeing and hearing it happen. We must stand strong by actually loving them and working to always doing ‘the right thing’.

  4. Well, I never say never, Sherie, but Bill and I agree that there likely won’t be any more Robin Paiges. #12 came out in 2006,and it would be a challenge to get back into that research material. It would be much easier now, with the internet–most of those books were written before material became available online. But it’s a mindset, and we’re not there now. Good books, though. we’re proud of that body of work.

  5. It is a tome,isn’t it? 700+ letters, each of them with a little surprise. And there’s more in the O’Keeffe archives, where Maria’s papers are held.

  6. Oh,good, Nancy. Always glad to hear that somebody is pushing the reading a little farther and deeper. And rabbit holes sometimes hold buried treasure.

  7. Well, it’s not just for the extreme religious groups anymore…there are
    book-banning efforts going on right here in Connecticut and the protests that inevitably follow. I never thought I’d see this kind of thing in the Northeast, but here we are. Women’s rights being taken away, voting rights amended to make it more difficult for so many, and now gay rights, minimum wage, and affirmative action potentially on the chopping block by a stacked Supreme Court.
    Book-banning, threats of civil war, election deniers, massive spread of disinformation, crazy conspiracy theories, people being randomly and viciously attacked. And that’s not even the global stuff! I shudder to think what’s next. WHAT IS HAPPENING?!

  8. All I knew about cochineal bugs was that they were used to make red dye – not even if the dye was rare. Enjoyed this.

  9. Had no idea cochineal could be found in the yard! I’ve used it in the 80s to dye handspun yarn with, but had to order it.

    I am so greatful to you and Bill! I read EVERYTHING from you guys.
    And will chime in on adding to the ‘write another of these, please’ pressure (sort of jokingly, but Oh How Great It Would Be), does Robin Paige have any more Victorian mysteries on the burner?

  10. I am so looking forward to your coming book on Maria Chabot & Georgia O’Keeffe. I’ve borrowed the tome of their correspondence between 1941-1949 from a friend to get a sense of what their relationship was like. Woo-boy, is that an unexpected journey to be taken on. And I bet it’s just the tip of the iceberg to their personalities. I can’t wait to learn more from your book! You always bring the past to life for us!

  11. All those entries sent me down several rabbit holes of discoveries. Had no idea the Spanish who went to Mexico hid the origins of the color red and guarded its secrets.

  12. Thank you for the lovely update. Looking so forward to the release of Someone Always Nearby. Wishing you a beautiful fall!

  13. Well, Linda, in those days I was only 50, 60, 70 years old. I’m happy to be in my 80s now and still working–just not as fast. And there are Dahlias readers who ask the same question. 🙂 It’s nice to be wanted, though . . .

  14. The bugs are interesting and your needlepoint is pretty. But I have to ask, why is China Bayles constantly being pushed back? First it was those Dahlias and now it’s Georgia O’Keefe! After you finish that companion book would you please write another China book (in addition to Forget Me Never)? I miss the days when we could pretty much count on a new China Bayles book every year.

  15. Enjoying every bit of this post! Many thanks for all of the interesting links and updates on your works in progress. The Charles Wysocki cross stitch is coming along beautifully!

  16. Yes, yes, yes! It takes a special kind of courage to take a difficult stand in a small town.

  17. Lea, my eyes are two decades older than yours. 🙂 They do need a boost, though. I love my magnifying lamp (floor stand). Makes the work so much easier and more fun.

  18. Leslie, I grid it myself–don’t much like the gridded fabric. Just takes an extra evening to do it–I use a hard pencil lead. On these full-coverage projects, when the stitches cover the grid in an area and I can’t see it, I’ll often put in a thread grid on top of the area I’m working on. You can see some of that on this piece. Easy to pull out when you’re done, because it’s on top. Gridding with fishing line doesn’t work for me. The stitches cover it and it’s hard to pull out.

  19. The dyed-knitted scarf is such a nice project for kids–something they’ll remember all their lives.

  20. A difficult situation there, where a few people are trying to limit the reading choices of the many.

  21. I love learning about natural dyes and cochineal is fascinating. Have you ever read The Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield? It’s a fascinating way to look at history through the lens of a color!

  22. Very interesting bugs….and I do love the cross stitch, I have taken it up again too, although I was a bit concerned about these 64 year old eyes of mine… that being said, If I take of my regular glasses and put on my husbands readers, I’m good to go…. I have be waiting on another one of your lovely books and have spent the time listening to Charles Todd novels, the Bess Crawford series. Take care and am looking for more good reads from you


  24. Thanks for the update re the Llano County public library; truly I had thought all residents of Llano County were more intelligent than those few currently running things; at least there are courageous and intelligent residents like Leila Green Little.

  25. Thank you for your sharing of your life and progress on books and cross-stitch. May I ask if that is a special fabric that is marked, or do you mark lines yourself?

  26. You always tell us the most interesting things. I never knew about the cochineal bug! I am so excited to read your Georgia O’Keeffe book. I have seen many exhibitions of hers because my Mom and I love(d) her art. And I love the title of your next China book. Your cross-stitch is gorgeous.

  27. I’ve read quite a bit about cochineal in the past 2-3 years so to see your photo is truly fascinating! Looking forward to the next books as I back up and reread old favorites. ❤️

  28. I was interested to hear about the cochineal bugs and see the cover they make for their young. I thought one could only get cochineal from Brazil even yet.
    I got some of the bugs many years ago ( I don’t remember the source) for dying. I also got woad plants to dye blue but those plants died in our St. Louis habitat. The children a A Growing Place Montessori School and I dyed wool yarn with walnuts, cranberry, and many native sources of various yellows and my mother-in-law knitted a scarf which the children could wear from the yarn.

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