Book Review: Dyes from Kitchen Produce

Dyes from Kitchen Produce: Easy projects to make at home

By  Setsuko Ishii , photographs by Makoto Shimomura

The Images Publishing Group (January 16, 2011)

Review by Senior Contributor, Lauren Michel

Senior Contributor Lauren Michel has been writing for Worn Through since 2009. She has previously taught university level courses on fashion and dress, often emphasizing global dress and textile history as well as hand crafts and surface design. As an independent scholar Michel’s research topics have included: color in dress and personal expression, among others.

Setsuko Ishii’s Dyes from Kitchen Produce: Easy projects to make at home is a simple and pleasant read.  As Ishii says on page 4, “My first priority in dyeing is simplicity,” and for a book on using natural dyes in your home kitchen, this book is surprisingly simple. Ishii opens the book with her description of what she calls “The Kitchen Dyeing Lifestyle.”  Her dye recipes are things like black tea, onion skins, cinnamon, turmeric, blueberries, and red wine.

In four chapters, totaling a compact 87 pages, she organizes various dye materials by seasonal availability:  spring, summer, autumn and winter.  In winter , for example, she has a recipe for dyeing with mandarin orange peels, saying “In Japan, winter would not be winter without mandarin oranges, the country’s most popular fruit.”  In spring, Ishii suggests readers clear their kitchen cupboards of stale tea, replace it with fresh spring teas, and use the old teas for dyeing.  In summer, she has recipes for rose petals and blueberries, and in autumn, black grapes and chestnuts become available dyestuffs.

Black grape recipe (pg 38/39)

The equipment called for in Ishii’s recipes are not specialized, costly, or hard to obtain.  Essentially, her recipes can be made using a pan, a measuring spoon, gloves, chopsticks, mesh bags, and a scale. The focus of the book is really twofold:  Dyeing in the kitchen with plant-based dyes and using scraps of fabric and yarn, often using “long-forgotten fabrics and yarns take on a new lease of life.” (pg 4)

Ishii suggests kitchen leftovers as dyestuffs, for example, using things past their use-by-date, using food scraps like skins and peelings, or saving the water after boiling black soybeans or sweet chestnuts.  Carrying this notion of putting what are usually scraps to use, Ishii’s book is filled with projects made using small remnants of fabric or repurposed clothing.  “Those items you can’t bring yourself to throw away—beautiful lace or embroidery, fabrics with unusual textures or designs—you can recycle and make into beautiful handmade accessories.”  (pg 5)

The first project in the book is an easy introduction to the kitchen dyeing lifestyle:  dyeing using a mug of black tea and your microwave oven, and making tiny heart-shaped sachets from vintage linen scraps. Most of Ishii’s recipes include mordants.  The four she uses in the book are alum, iron acetate, copper, and acetic acid, and she covers dyeing both plant fiber and protein fiber textiles in her recipes.

This book is more than a collection of dye recipes, however, as each recipe is demonstrated with a different handmade craft readers can make, following Ishii’s instructions.  Examples of some of the projects in the book include: a small raffia basket; silk organdy rose corsages; a beaded silk stole with beaded fringe; a spectacle case; crocheted granny square potholders, coasters, and pillows; a pouch, bag and hat made from a repurposed Aran sweater; and a simple knitted scarf.  Patterns and detailed instructions for each project are included.  Don’t know how to knit or crochet?  No problem, instructions with clear diagrams are part of the pattern.

B/W workbook section instructions (pg 66/67)

The layout of Dyes from Kitchen Produce is quite appealing, for its conciseness and tranquil color palette.  Soothing to the eyes, it is a relaxing read.  The original edition was in Japanese, and for the most part the translation is well done, especially for a book with specialized technical vocabulary. Dyes from Kitchen Produce is written in a very calm, sweet, and gentle tone, yet occasionally the translation comes across awkwardly.  For example, the unwrapping of a blue tshirt over-dyed with turmeric.  “How will the pattern turn out?  The moments before you remove the rubber bands are tense with anticipation.” (p 26)  I will admit to having at times felt similarly while doing tie-dye of my own, but there is something amusing about seeing those sentiments on the page worded as they were.

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.

The simplicity of Dyes from Kitchen Produce brought the following questions to my mind:  Why go out and buy special dyes and equipment?  Why go out and buy special fabric to dye?  Why leave the house at all?  Work with what you have on hand, and make something delightfully simple.

Orange Peel recipe (pg 46/47)

One problem I found in the book was the recipe for dyeing with mandarin oranges.  The recipe shows one of several end results to be a pale green (obtained by using copper mordant).  Yet, as any dyer who has worked with copper can attest, that particular color, as pictured in the book, can be just as easily achieved by using the copper mordant by itself, without drying mandarin orange peels for ten days and then simmering them on the stove.  Knowing from classroom experience that the light green that copper mordant can produce is often very, very popular with students, and knowing that students often tend to flip through dyeing books “shopping” for colors, I would have left that photo and that part of the recipe out of the book.  However, when I tested the recipe myself, using unmordanted linen, I was able to achieve a pale yellow, just as the book predicted I would, so the recipe is not wholly unsuccessful by any means.

I recommend this book for those who wish to explore natural dyes for the first time, in a relatively safe and easy way.  Teachers may like to use this book as part of surface design or fiber and textile arts coursework, especially in classrooms with limited resources. For those ready for more advanced work with natural dyes, I recommend the two titles below, which follow on the heels of Dyes from Kitchen Produce quite nicely:

Crook, Jackie with Geraldine Christy (2007).  Natural Dyeing.  Lark Books:  New York.

Dean, Jenny (1994).  The Craft of Natural Dyeing: Glowing Colours from the Plant World.  Search Press:  Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK.

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  • Vanessa June 27, 2011 10.52 am

    Have just bought this book after reading this review. I was humming and hawing, thanks for helping me make up my mind. Looking forward to trying out the ‘recipes’ V

  • Aukje Boonstra April 18, 2015 05.49 am

    Lovely book. How much is it and where do I get it?


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