Lac, like Cochineal, is a red dye used for many hundreds of years. Recently I had success dyeing with it and have discovered the deep, burgundy red of Lac.
Lac comes from the scale insect Laccifer lacca which lives in fig trees. Its name most likely comes from the Sanskrit word ‘laksa’ which is the term for 100,000. In Hindi the word ‘lakh’ or ‘lac’ has this meaning today. As this would suggest these insects are very numerous.
Lac began to be imported into Europe in the Middle Ages from India, around 1220. It quickly became the most important red dye for much of the Renaissance. It was so widely used that the word ‘lac’ came to refer to all red-based pigments.
The bugs produce resin which is called sticklac but the colour comes from the insects not the resin. The resin-laden branches are removed from the tree and both resin and bugs are crushed, sieved and washed to release the red dye.
The colour from Lac dye is softer and warmer than Cochineal and is more purple or burgundy. Through altering the PH values different colours can be produced, although they are not necessarily stable. A pinch of iron shifts it to purple.
Today the people who use Lac as a dye are few but the purified resin is very widely used under the name Shellac. It produces the glossy surface on violins, woodwork and furniture.
It is one of the most widely used natural materials for coating and glazing. Those shiny apples in the shops look that way because of a coating of Shellac. It is used to coat citrus fruit, pears, peaches, avocados and many other fruits. It goes by the name E904 or confectioner’s glaze.
Shellac is also used in cosmetics – in hairspray, nail varnish and mascara. And because it doesn’t dissolve easily it is used to coat pills so they don’t dissolve until they reach the gut. Other uses include the production of false teeth and the glue used to restore dinosaur bones.
The author of Extraordinary Insects, Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, says there are several species of Lac bugs and the most productive variety is Kerria Lacca.
From the end of the 1800s until the 1940s Shellac was the main ingredient in gramophone records. Record production was at such a high level in the 1900s that the American authorities started to worry that there might be a shortage. Not for music-loving reasons but because it had an important military role for to use in detonators and as a waterproof sealant for ammunition.
The bug sucks down the plant sap and from its other end comes an orange resin-like liquid that hardens on contact with the air. It forms shiny orange rooftops that protect the insects and later the eggs.
Most Shellac production happens in India and an estimated 3 to 4 million small scale farmers earn their living by keeping Lac bugs as livestock. The rural areas where this happens helps keep the land rich in terms of diversity because pesticides would put an end to the Lac bugs’ lives.
The first times I used it I didn’t heat the extract for long enough and just got a murky pink. Since reading about the insects I now understand that its waterproof nature means it needs to be heated gently for an hour before you add the mordanted fibre. I get my extract from Wild Colours in the UK.
It is a good dye to combine with other others. The skeins on the right are dyed first with Lac and then with Buckthorn berries. As with so many natural dyes I love thinking of people from the 13th century onwards in Europe dressed in these fabulous colours.