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A metaphor for conservation, invertebrate dyestuff is ironically dying

Kartika Puri tells of this unfortunate contrast.

Let us study an odd marriage of words: dress and dead insects. 

Not many know of this feet-in-the-mud side of fashion and how it may help register ecological change. I learnt of it when I read Hamlet (1613) this month. In Scene 4 of Act 3, Gertrude, the principal's mother, confesses sin. She tells Hamlet that her soul is like a dirty textile; spotted with crimes: 

Thou turn'st my eyes into my very soul, 

And there I see such black and grained spots 

 As will not leave their tinct. (100-102)

"Grained spots" (101) appears tautological, i.e., there is needless repetition. The denominal verb made from the noun "grain" also suggests round specks. Perhaps, William Shakespeare is phrasing something like 'spotted spots' to emphasise the cloth's pattern? But this quality of size and shape does not match the predicate in line 102. "Leaving tinct" (102) is a chromic phenomenon, and "grained" is meaningful if implying a property of colour. It will be a category mistake to think that a spot's rotundity holds resistance to losing brilliance, becoming discoloured, and growing pale. Etymology tells that, in the early modern period (c. 1500-1700), the word had a specialised use in textile manufacturing, where many Western European languages called a dyestuff "grain". (ii)

The dye is a rich red, a crimson. When it binds with a garment's folds, the hue is "first among fabrics which rival the colours of flowers." (iii) This colourant is the afterlife of a thousand scale insects. Dyers extract it from the dried, pregnant bodies of the genus Kermes, order Hemiptera. These females produce a pigmented carminic acid to deter predators.

Kermes were an Eastern import. They came to Shakespeare's England from the Meditteranean Basin. Alive, the insects are roundish, about the shape and size of a pea. They cling immobile to the evergreen oaks (Quercus coccifera), whose sap they feed on. So attached they appear like the seed or excrescence of the host tree, and for that reason, were taken to be not another organism but its grain. This fact gave the dyestuff its common English name. 

Invertebrate dyes are colourfast in silk and wool. Elizabethan dyers performed skilful chemistry. Both hausfraus and the professional members of craft guilds occasionally added a mordant--typically a salt of aluminium--to the grain. The dye attached to the mordant molecules, which attached themselves to the fibre molecules, and made it stay for an even more extended period. (iv) This particular temporality that a naturally dyed piece of cloth inhabits explains its unusual metaphorical use in Hamlet. Gertrude broods her cloth-like soul will take the crimson of sin and hold it fast. No amount of washing will ever remove any of its colour characteristics. I call this use unusual because while textile and clothing imagery exists in literature, the writers typically pick on the transience of fashion. The assumption is that fashion is born of decay. Dress's importance deteriorates fast: things go out of style, which increases their aesthetic value. This short-lived nature becomes fit to write other concepts that wither over time (human love, life).

The dyes laboriously extracted from trees and insects, however, are examples of indelible pigments. The resistance of cloth to change in any of its colour features opens possibilities to metaphorise lasting duration. Hamlet's resistance permeates the idea of 'continuing to exist' or 'having an effect for a long time' and becomes a repeated motif for constructing monuments in the Western corpus. Vindice in Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy (1607), for example, uses fastness properties to boast of the lasting power of his schemes: "'tis in grain, I warrant it holds colour" (4.2.222-23). In 4.429e of Plato's Republic (375 BC), Socrates directly relates textile manufacturing to conservation. He and Glaucon are studying brave soldiers: "A kind of conservation," says Socrates, "is what I mean by their bravery." He explains the meaning by a similitude:

Dyers when they wish to dye give the cloth preparatory treatment so that it will take the hue in the best way, and after the treatment, then and then only, dip it in the dye. And things that are dyed by this process become fast-colored and washing either with or without lyes cannot take away the sheen of their hues. 

He is saying that a brave human forever conserves what the law and education say about fearful things. So he goes, "the cloth is education, and the laws are the colours; and if the ground is properly laid, neither the soap of pleasure nor the lye of pain or fear will ever wash them out." (v)

Despite their efficacy as metaphors, the invertebrate dyes have, in real life, become ones that leave too soon, are restless, unreliable, fugitive. Another red dyestuff the Elizabethans imported from the East was lac, Kerria chinensis from the family Kerriidae. Small, round and scaled, these insects are found in India and parts of Bangladesh, Laos, Vietnam, and China. They are a parasite of Dhak (Butea monosperma), Ber (Ziziphus mauritiana), Van Chola (Flemingia semialata), Kusum (Schleichera oleosa). Assam was lac's top national producer before 1947. The state produced nearly 20,00,000 kg p.a.. The Karbi community, which dwells in the Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills districts, would rear the insect on the region's naturally growing host trees twice a year. (vi) The insect secretes a resinous pigment. The secretion forms a cocoon around the tender shoots, making lac inseparable from the tree. As with kermes, the whole substance looks like some form of outgrowth of the host plant. The dyers cut and harvest the coated branches as sticklac. They carry out an aqueous extraction from it and come by a red-coloured water soluble dye. 

In 1998, statisticians recorded Assam's production as a lowly 40,000 kg p.a. The overall national decrease since the 1950s is graphed so:




The fall occurred during the promotion of capital-intensive farming at the time of the Green Revolution. Its proponents focused on maximising yield. They neglected other agroecological principles. Eventually, lac's host plants like Ber were replaced by high-responsive varieties (H.R.V.s), pushed by the U.S.A., but not fit for the region's physiography. Upon the use of larger quantities of chemical inputs, H.R.V.s promised a harvest index more favourable to man. However, these fertilisers, pesticides, and defoliants altered the natural microflora, putting insects like lac at risk. 

A cycle of agrarian indebtedness worsened the farmers' reliance on the chemicalised, water-intensive production routines. A village-level petty retailer was the point of sale for the coveted chemical inputs.(viii) Unable to secure institutional loans, smallholder farmers even today depend on them for credit, while these shopkeepers borrow from upstream suppliers in the city. Parasitic lenders use the repayment obligations to push for the purchase of more agrochemicals. As the plants became subject to higher-input management, it led to a heavy loss of lac insects.

This real-life loss makes every symbolic use of the dye in literature, whether apologetic or gleeful, its elegy.

Main Image: Tim Walker, The Dress-Lamp Tree, England, 2002


(i) Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Folger Shakespeare Library, New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012.

(ii) "grain (n.)" Online Etymology Dictionary, Accessed 12 May 2021.

(iii) Pliny the Elder, "The Natural History." The Project Gutenberg. Accessed 12 July 2021. 

(iv) Rosetti, Gioanventura. The Plictho of Gioanventura Rosetti: Instructions in the Art of the Dyers which Teaches the Dyeing of Woolen Cloths, Linens, Cottons, and Silk by the Great Art as Well as by the Common. The M.I.T. Press, 1969. 

(v) Plato. The Republic. Translated by Allan Bloom. Basic Books, 1991.  

(vi) Garkoti, S C and Nepolion Borah. "Indigenous lac culture and local livelihood: a case study of Karbi community of Assam, North-Eastern India." Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, vol. 19, no. 1, 2020. 

(vii) "Network Project on Conservation of Lac Insect Genetic Resources." Indian Institute of Natural Resins & Gums, Accessed 15 July 2021. 

(viii) Aga, Aniket. "The marketing of corporate agrichemicals in Western India: theorising graded informality." The Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 46, issue 7, pp. 1458-1476, 2019. 

About the author

I write, and occasionally wear pants. Instagram: @_kartikapuri



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