ORIGINALLY FROM a farming family in Pennsylvania, Stella Ranae Von Schmid has been in our city three years and fits in nicely.
Von Schmid has been passionate about collecting vintage for years and made an artistic jump to eco dyeing, which uses natural materials to dye fabrics and create one of a kind work.
She’s also the newest co-owner of Gallery 209, the oldest co-op on River Street.
We caught up with Von Schmid last week.
1. What brought you to Savannah?
We’ve been in Savannah three years, and the story is we were tired of shoveling all that white stuff. He has cold weather asthma, and I have some underlying conditions that the cold is just not good for either of us.
I was asking all my friends, “Hey, where can we go where it’s going to be warm?” People said, “You sound like a total Savannah couple, you need to come to Savannah.” And I knew people who were down here; my dear friend Samson Smithsonian was practically raised at my house in Pennsylvania.
We listed the house, and it sold in nine days. We sold everything; I was a vintage clothing dealer up there, I did vintage clothing and upcycling and then I started transitioning towards what I was doing. I sold the majority of our stuff and just came down here. He took me to the airport and just said, “Go find us a place to live.”
I come from a farming family; it was in my blood. My father will be 88 in May and he still farms chestnuts.
2. What was the transition from buying vintage to eco dyeing?
Vintage and hand-me-downs come from that type of family—we were poor, we weren’t that well to do, and I got hand-me-downs all the time. I was a Catholic schoolgirl, so i had my uniform and my play clothes and I didn’t really have much else. But I had an old auntie that loved all the wild stuff and would send me boxes and boxes of this freaky stuff. I got my mom to help me cut it and alter it, and that started the progression of staying in that vein.
I had other jobs, but I always did this. I was making sure this stuff didn’t end up in the garbage, mostly. I was preparing it for myself, wearing it myself, giving it to my friends, making other things with it.
But then someone up in Pennsylvania asked me to restore an old wedding gown. I’d get pieces just to challenge me. The whole thing is, the older the clothing is, things are made differently. It’s not like you could take nylon thread and start working on a turn-of-the-century garment.
I was trying to dye things with Rit dye and it wasn’t working. That was the big question: why can’t I replicate that to fix things with color and thread? That’s how I found out about natural dyes. I went in the yard and started throwing things in a pot, seeing what kind of colors they would make.
I don’t even know what possessed me to start adding things to it, like flowers and other things in bundles and boiling them off. I had no idea this was called eco dyeing and eco printing—I thought I discovered this all by myself.
Now I reach out to people all over the world that are doing this. Maybe I’ll never meet these people, but we each share this wonderful commonality of being eco-conscious.
3. What’s your process?
I like to forage, and I only take what's in season—it's very rare for me to carry anything over. The dye pots are usually done first. Sometimes I let them sit, or I do solar dying in the summer—it heats it up and I don't have to do anything.
Then I get the ingredients. It’s mostly flowers and leaves. Hardwood trees produce the best dye, they have the most tannins. You have to know what are good printers on the fabric. Protein fabrics versus anything else gets completely different treatments.
I try to use the least amount of chemicals. I don’t even like that word, because I use household alum, and to me that’s not considered a chemical in that respect. I try to keep it as close to natural as possible.
I don’t have a pattern or anything like that in mind, just what comes organically. I place the plant matter on the material and roll it up super tight, and then it gets bundled.
The other thing, too, is you have to know the science in order to make the art. It’s a dual thing. I think you have to be pretty smart to know that you’re a naturalist, you’re not picking poison ivy, and when this vat is done, how do you dispose of it properly? How much do I use? What is the least damaging to the environment or the fabric?
4. Why is it so important to know the science?
I guess the best way you can say that is best practices, to make sure you’re leaving the least amount of carbon footprint. And since you’re not using all these crazy chemicals, the plant matter can go in my compost. My whole thing is basically zero waste, and I think I’m pretty much there at this point. Everything is usually reused or recycled or composted. I always find way to re-up all these things.
Also, things that are stains versus dyes. You can dye up with avocado skins and plant matter, but that’s not a dye, that’s a stain. That’s awesome to do, but don’t go do this and try and sell this stuff. That makes people like me look bad.
It’s slow art, because of that whole meditative multistep process. It’s definitely not done in a day. You have to get things ready. People ask all the time for custom orders and I cannot control nature, I can’t get you that color. It may not work. For me, that’s too much pressure.
5. You’re also the new co-owner of Gallery 209. How did that come about?
I had applied, and they reached out to me and said, “Would you come for an interview?” They had all the board members there, and this was all new to me to be a board member. Not that it was intimidating, I can talk in front of anybody, but it was just so surreal and exciting.
It’s hard for all of us now, with how things are, and now they have to really ramp things up and switch to online, but that’s okay. I think it’s going to be a very exciting time for me. I was selling to family and friends up until last year, and last year was my year. I would do some juried shows and I’d also like outside of Savannah for some other opportunities.They’re coming.