Working in a kitchen as a trained fashion designer makes you see things differently. It was a hygiene accessory, the beard-net, that was my favourite unrealized must-have of last year. Baffling that this has not hit runways, with more beard oil than grape oil on grocery shelves. I was also itching to get my hands on the chainmail butchers aprons, with knife holsters around the belt, for reasons unknown to me at the time. Now I can see I was clearly trying to find where fashion and food met, or how I could introduce them to each other and enjoy the spectacle that would likely result.
Although I loved textiles and form, the fashion industry in New York was not for me, and I was drawn to the innovative and tactile nature of food in Brooklyn. I worked for Morris Kitchen, making syrups with seasonal fruits, spices and lots of sugar that transformed cocktails, sodas, dressings, and marinades.
Meanwhile, I continued my Shibori practice, an ancient resist dyeing technique, known to a most uncultured populace as tie-dye. After tinkering all winter with indigo, my blue haze was happily lifted by the sunny spice rack I consulted daily in the kitchen.
Saffron, turmeric and chamomile all create the vibrant oranges and yellows I didn’t know was craving. Turmeric fascinated me particularly. It is a rhizome, an underground plant with roots and shoots related to ginger, which was the base our best-selling syrup. Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties that have been inflamed themselves by the health food sector, which I guarantee you will have ‘benefited’ from by the end of 2015. Turmeric also makes a brilliant golden yellow dye.
Batching syrup by day and tending to dye vats by night, I came to see creating textiles and cooking were more similar than the worlds apart they seemed. The dyeing process loosely follows a recipe, uses kitchen utensils in ways that shan’t be mentioned here, and fills the air with a delicious aroma.
Dyeing with spices and flora have their limits however, many fading with use, washing and sunlight. Beetroot and red cabbage also have no bonding qualities and deliciously turned into soups. If I wanted to create anything of use, I needed to expand my natural horizons.
Unexpectedly I found my answer in highly processed food. Pink drinks and candy packaging are typically littered with numbers rather than digestible ingredient names, but cochineal is a bizarre exception. The insect females of Dactylopius Coccus colonize the prickly pear cactus native to Mexico, Central and South America. They reproduce in rabbit-like fashion, are harvested and ground (if you’re lucky – my coffee grinder is not, having been delivered whole dried bugs) and produces a powerful range of fuchsias, reds and purples that is used in drinks, food and drugs. Although there is controversy surrounding cochineal (rare allergic reactions; vegans, of course), Cochineal has excellent light and wash-fastness in fabric.
I now sew tablecloths and napkins, enjoying the vast planes of uninterrupted design, that in making clothing body parts would otherwise dictate. Dyeing linen is particularly suited to kitchen use – derived from the fiber of the flax plant, it’s extremely absorbent and produces vibrant colours. Known for softness, durability and strength, it also has antifungal and antibacterial properties.
They say never to garnish dishes with something that isn’t edible, and I’m beginning to feel the same about how to dress the table.
Words & images by Karina Seljak
A pinewood box set of turmeric and indigo table linens and tea towel is available for purchase at www.morriskitchen.com; shipping USA wide. See cochineal kimonos and other home wares on Karina’s website www.karinaseljak.com.