Natural Dyeing: from plant to fabric

By Guest Contributors Elissa Meyers and Mira Adornetto

After pulling out green cotton fabric from a naturally fermenting indigo vat, our workshop group watches excitedly as the green transitions into a dark indigo blue. This incredible process, which occurs as the indigo dye oxidizes has been used for thousands of years in numerous places and cultures. Throughout human history, color has been applied to fibers on every continent, starting as far back as 2,600 BCE. Plants, shellfish, and insects: wildflowers, trees, mollusks and bugs, have been used to dye fibers.

Since the industrial revolution dyeing went from natural colorants like plants and insects to synthesized petroleum based dyes, which are fairly damaging to the environment. The argument that modern “low-impact” dyes are less harmful to the environment than natural dyes has become a highly debated topic in the textile industry. Millions of tons of synthetic dye are still being dumped annually into waterways leaving textiles as one of the top ten worst polluted industries.  Natural dyes, however, offer an alternative.

marigoldssteepingNatural dyeing usually includes the use of a metallic salt, known as a “mordant,” from the French word “mordre” meaning “to bite.”  Mordants include alum, iron, tin, chrome, copper, and also tannic acid. Tannins are readily available in the environment: they’re in black tea, as well as in oak trees and many other plants.  Alum (sometimes used in food and cosmetics, though less often these days) is the most prevalent metal in the earth’s crust, followed by iron. These mordants can be used and disposed of safely. Although some of the other metals, tin and chrome for example, can produce more intense colors, they have a larger safety risk and environmental impact. These metals tend to give natural dyes a bad reputation as they are toxic to the environment. In fact, at BLUEREDYELLOW, we don’t even consider using them in our work.

Our society’s awareness of global environmental issues has increased substantially since the 60s. In today’s DIY culture more people want to use accessible and sustainable materials. People now are more concerned with where manufactured goods come from and what to use them for. When synthetic dyes hit the textile industry during the Industrial Revolution, natural dyes became nearly obsolete. However, craftspeople like William Morris, (known for his textile patterns) continued to work using the older, more craft-based, processes including natural dyeing. With today’s advancements in science and technology, we have a better understanding of the world around us.  Yet there is still so much to learn in the world of natural dyes. Philadelphia was once a powerhouse of the textile industry. Currently, it is a region with an active and abundant arts community, with an emphasis on craftsmanship.

Aside from the arts, Philadelphia is abundant with urban gardens and is a region where a long list of dye plants can be grown and found. Some of these include mugwort, goldenrod, sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, mint, dock, and sorrel. There are several tannin bearing plants including black walnut and sumac. It is also possible to grow historical dye plants such as the Japanese variety of indigo dye (vibrant blue) as well as madder root (alizarin red). It is incredible how many options there are to produce color in this area and we hope the craft will continue to be explored in a local, as well as global, way.

About the Authors
Elissa Meyers and Mira Adornetto founded BLUEREDYELLOW, a design and natural dye house producing comfortable, chemical free textiles.  BLUEREDYELLOW was founded with support from The Corzo Center for the Creative Economy. Currently, they work with businesses offering an alternative dye service and do piece dyeing as well as dyeing by the yard.  Elissa and Mira also lead natural dyeing workshops around the Philadelphia area.  They will be leading a two-day workshop at the Schuylkill Center on July 17 and 18.



Interview with Deenah Loeb: Art in the Open

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Editor’s note: Deenah Loeb is a Schuylkill Center trustee who also serves as the Executive Director of the City Parks Association and was on the founding creative team for Art in the Open, a citywide event in which artists create their work outdoors on the Schuylkill Banks for three days in May. This summer, nine artists from Art in the Open 2014 will present their work in the Schuylkill Center gallery and on the trails this summer in the show Open SpacesDirector of Environmental Art Christina Catanese recently sat down with Loeb to get her insights about Art in the Open, and its extension to the Schuylkill Center context. Open Spaces features work by Nancy Agati, Harry Bower, Ellen Brooks, Josh Harris, Aaron Lish, Pazia Mannella, Sandy Sorlien, Susan Wilson, and Wendy Wolf.

Christina Catanese: When and how did Art in the Open (AiO) get its start?  How did the idea come about?
Deenah Loeb: The original idea came from local artist Ed Bronstein, who wanted to create a plein air festival in Philadelphia.  He reached out to Mary Salvante [EN: Schuylkill Center Environmental Art program founder], who brought me into the process.  We began to think beyond only painters’ engagement to a program that created an outdoor studio space for artists working in all mediums.  It was also important that the program be integrally linked with the environment– it was an interesting opportunity for artists to work with the river within the public realm, as a source of inspiration, recognizing the power of the urban river and urban context, and enhancing public access to the river. Continue reading


Has it really been 15 years?

By Mary Salvante

Editor’s note: 2015 marks the Schuylkill Center’s 50th anniversary along with the 15th anniversary of the art program. As part of our ongoing celebration of this milestone, we invited Mary Salvante, the founder of the art program, to write a reflection on the past 15 years. 

Where does the time go? Seems like just recently I was visiting the Center for the first time.  My first impression then was the notion that it would be a perfect location for an art program, and more specifically, an installation at the front entrance.

In 1999, the Schuylkill Center had just completed its first 10-year master plan and included in it was the recommendation that the Center diversify its programming to bring in new audiences. With that goal in mind, I approached the director at the time, Tracy Kay, and proposed an art program as one strategy for attracting new visitors. We began slowly with exhibitions in the front gallery while putting together grant applications for funding of larger initiatives such as the artists in residence program and outdoor temporary art exhibitions.

From the beginning I felt it important that the art program be mission-driven and relate to the education mission of the Center. The premise was that the art program would address the same issues being taught in science curriculum as an extension of the classroom, while the outdoor exhibitions provided an opportunity for personal introspection. It was the artist in residence program though where the intersecting of art and education was the most apparent, since it required an instructional component for students from area schools. Continue reading

Nature in the City Photography Contest Winners

This winter we had a blast with the Nature in the City photo contest.  Dozens of pictures were submitted, from Philadelphia’s skyline, framed by dried coneflowers in a field, and the glory of those late-seasons now storms.  It was quite a challenge to choose the winners.  Thank you to everyone who submitted a photo.


Hard & Soft, Richele C. Dillard


Taken in the East Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, Richele Dillard’s photograph captures the intimate level at which winter can interact with the world around us. Not even these fuzzy, spent wildflower heads could escape the clutches of winter’s icy grip, remaining frozen in time until warmer temperatures could release them. The plump drip of melted water exposes the flower once more and gives hope that new life and growth will emerge soon.  Richele notes,  I find “ice melting around spent flower heads to be both beautiful & challenging.”

Emily Soloby

Emily Soloby

Emily wrote of this photo, “Sometimes, deep in South Philly, the only place to find nature is to look up.”  Even in seemingly the most constructed environments, there is always nature to be  found, and even the most commonplace sighting of birds on a power line and street trees presents an opportunity to connect with nature.  The composition of this photo is impeccable – from the symmetry of the geometric playground, powerlines, and streets; to the richness of color and the balance between the reds of the sweater, car, and awning; to the sense of having captured an everyday moment made extraordinary.

Kathleen Elizabeth Stull


Taken at the Reading Viaduct Project, this photograph remarkably captures the intersection of city and nature.  The bright white of the graffiti is beautifully complements the gold of the grass.  The organic shapes of the grass are in turn, contrasted by the sharp lines of both bricks and graffiti behind them.  We were particularly drawn to how the photograph shows nature emerging within the city.



Terranean drama

By LandLab Resident Artist Jake Beckman

DSCN0333Spring is just around the corner and with its arrival comes the fragrant, earthy smells of thawing soil.  As my residency investigating the myriad aspects of soil formation at the Schuylkill Center enters its final phases, I ‘m finding myself reflecting on the terranean dramas that will begin unfolding in earnest as the temperatures rise.

The rock cliffs on the southern border of the property will shed their icy tentacles, exposing to sun and rain new fissures pried apart during the winter months.  After a long winter of freezing and thawing, boulders will have transitioned one tiny step closer to becoming rocks, rocks to becoming pebbles, pebbles to sand, and so on as the mechanical and chemical processes of weathering slowly and gradually make the minerals of solid rock accessible to plant and animal alike.  The mechanical weathering of the relatively soft mica schist so prevalent in the area will be particularly in evidence as its glittery particles catch the light in the rivulets of spring snowmelt.

DSCN0328Likewise, spring is a time for the beginning of a much different drama- one that involves the long-awaited fruiting of vast underground networks of fungal organisms.  These decomposers have been hard at work throughout the year digesting all manner of otherwise hard-to-digest soil components (cellulose, lignin, even rock!).  In one of nature’s amazing instances of cooperation, the fungi and nearby plant roots exchange their metabolic by-products in specialized structures call mycorrhizae.  This exchange provides fungi with sugars they need to continue growing and enter the next phase of their life-cycle: fruiting.  If we’re observant and in the right place at the right time, we can often witness this step in the cycle through the emergence of mushrooms, toadstools, bracket fungi, and the like.  Spring is the beginning of this phase for these organisms and is such an exciting time to bear witness to life re-emerging into view!

If you’ve never given much thought to soil (or even if you have and love all of its complexity!), please join us at the Schuylkill Center for a fun evening of soil related speakers, vendors, wine and dessert.  I’ll be speaking more about my residency project and the various sources of inspiration (artistic and otherwise) that have influenced my process.  Others speakers will flesh out the science of soil, fungal interaction and the role soil plays in food production.  It would be great to see you there.  In the meantime, go give a big welcome to spring and hug some dirt!

What does a photo of nature in the city look like?

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

As submissions come rolling in for our  “Nature in the City Photography Contest” this month, we wanted to share a few examples of what nature in the city means to our community.  From images of the traffic through the trees to wildlife in an urban forest, the images show all sorts of things.

Want to share some of your own?  Send us up to three photos!  All the details are here.

Hilary Fuelleborn, 2014 photo contest

2015 photo contest looks at nature in the city

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

This year we’re thinking about what the idea of “nature in the city” means.  We’ll be exploring what it means to find nature in urban environments, in human environments.  It could be a strip of weeds teeming with insect life, an urban geology nature walk, or a nature center located in the city; the concept of nature in the city means many things to many people.

In honor of this cold season, when snow drifts down on our city, bringing out beauty among trees and buildings alike, it’s time for our 2015 photography contest.

This winter take out your phones and cameras and show us what you think of nature in the city.

Update, March 3, 2015: In honor of the continuing cold winter weather, we’re extending the deadline until Friday, March 13.


The rules are simple:

  • The photo must have been taken this year
  • The photo must be taken in the Philadelphia area
  • The photo must be outdoors or feature the outdoors
  • The photo must be your own creation and its publication may not violate the rights of any third party
  • Photos must be submitted by 5pm on February 27.
  • Each person can submit up to 3 photos
  • Please tell us about your photos! You are welcome to include a statement of up to 30 words explaining your photos and how they relate to “nature in the city.”

Please note:

  • No explicit or offensive photos. The Schuylkill Center reserves the right to determine whether a photo is explicit or offensive.
  • By submitting a photo, you grant the Schuylkill Center non-exclusive rights to reproduce your image. You maintain copyright and you will be credited.
  • Winners will be chosen by a panel of Schuylkill Center staff.  Winners will receive a handmade stoneware 50th anniversary mug.

How to Submit a Photo:

  • Email your photo to me at anna@schuylkillcenter.org with the subject line “Photo Contest 2015”
  • Tweet your photo to @SchuylkillCtr, #natureinthecity
  • Post your photo on the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education Facebook page

We look forward to finding out what nature in the city means to you – submit a photo now!


Wetlands and WetLand in the city

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Often, when I fly into Philadelphia International Airport, I imagine what a bird’s eye view of the area must have looked like back before Philadelphia became the bustling metropolis it is today.  If I squint just the right way, I can almost see how the flat expanse of skyscrapers and rowhomes transforms to green, how South Philly and even the airport itself melt into the freshwater tidal wetlands that were once in their place (the last remnant of which is still visible at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge). Continue reading

Leah Stein Dance Company – Of Grass and Gravel
Saturday, July 18th, 2009

Fifteen Years of Environmental Art at the Schuylkill Center

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

In 2000, Mary Salvante had an idea that the Schuylkill Center could be the perfect place to showcase environmental art. Nearly 15 years later, I’ve been reflecting on the past decade-and-a-half of environmental art at the Schuylkill Center: 20 outdoor exhibitions, 11 artist residencies, and dozens of shows in our gallery. Over the years, artists have grappled with issues and wonders in our ecosystem and shared their responses in diverse media. This post shows just a smattering of highlights of the art program going back to our very first gallery show and first artist-in-residence.

This January, we are kicking off the Schuylkill Center’s 50th anniversary celebration and celebrating fifteen years of environmental art at the Schuylkill Center with our fourth Annual Richard L. James Lecture by artist Mary Mattingly. Along with an interdisciplinary panel, Mattingly will reflect on the role of environmental art in a changing environment. With ecological challenges growing in complexity and scope, 2015 presents the perfect opportunity to consider the relationship of art and environment, and what it might look like in the next 15 years, 50 years, and beyond.

LandLab Residency (2014-2015), Artists: Jake Beckman; Leslie Birch; WE THE WEEDS (a collaboration of artist Kaitlin Pomerantz and botanist Zya Levy); Marguerita Hagan, B.H. Mills, and Maggie Mills

LandLab is a unique artist residency program that integrates art, ecological restoration, and education. A joint project of the Schuylkill Center and the Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA), LandLab residencies will make innovative installations that prevent or remediate environmental damage while raising public awareness about ecology. LandLab artist Jake Beckman created this mind-map to depict his early conceptualizing of his work on the cycles of soil formation and decay in the forest. Continue reading

Leslie making StormSnake

#StormSnakes Update – Wriggling Through Change

By LandLab Resident Artist Leslie Birch

Water flowRight now I’ve been experiencing some interesting emotional connection to my LandLab project. This may seem odd, as my project is probably the most tech oriented of the bunch! I can only describe it as this feeling of letting go of attached ideas and really just observing and listening, both to nature and the people that know it well. That is different for me, because most of the time my projects are conceived ahead of time so they can be “pitched” to the people that may green-light them. The process for LandLab is very different because the Schuylkill Center is trusting from past work that I have the ability to produce something interesting. They are looking for ideas, but they are not holding you to them. In fact if anything, they are excited by process and evolution, and the show in the gallery really speaks to that idea. The staff at the Center has been really great in encouraging my work, and allowing it to unfold. It is no different from allowing seasons to change, and I’m really experiencing that in my whole body. That’s it for the fuzzy stuff — let’s get back to the science!

You may remember that I wanted to get a glimpse of Port Royale Ave. and the Center’s property in the rain. It has been difficult to do this because this fall the rain storms have been coming at night, which would not be the best time for video. However, there was a morning when it was raining, and I rushed out of the house to record. Check out the video.

Steve in the woodsAlthough this was not a heavy storm, at least I saw the puddling on Port Royal Ave., and I can imagine in a larger storm what the situation might be. In fact, seeing how difficult it is to actually record a storm makes the idea of a stream monitor even more valuable. So, I made a visit to Stroud to check out their monitoring equipment, as well as Steve’s workspace.  The property has nets for insects, buckets for leaves and other organic matter, and monitors for the stream — it’s a Disney World for scientists.

Steve's officeThe tech space is full of controllers, sensors, cables, cases, batteries and canisters of water. It was encouraging that I was able to identify some of the parts in the bins, and Steve and I probably could have spent even more hours than we did just talking shop.


After seeing what was needed, Steve helped me to order some parts. So, now I have a datalogger and an ultrasonic rangefinder at my house. The datalogger is the main board in the circuit which will give instructions and allow for data to be collected. The ultrasonic sensor will measure the water depth throughout the day. So far this is a cost-effective set-up and there may be some room for another sensor. Right now I’m favoring conductivity, which looks at metals in the water. However, the sensor has to be able to withstand freezing temperatures, and Steve is currently testing a new one to see if it will be accurate. So, we will see which sensor wins. Steve has been testing equipment like this for years and is an expert on sensors and conditions.

One of the frustrating things about the field is that a good part may be discontinued, which leads to more testing of new products. Also, just because the paperwork says a part will operate in a certain way under certain conditions does not always mean this is true. So, the process is never-ending.

Leslie and Brenna sewing StormSnakeThe next step in the process was to work on building a snake from burlap, and luckily I found someone interested in assisting me — Brenna Leary. Brenna recently graduated with a degree in environmental education and also has a love of plants. So, we’ve been having a lot of fun bouncing ideas back and forth. We spent an afternoon at the Center stuffing a casing of burlap with stones, wood chips, and coir. Then, we stitched the fabric shut and created the features of a tail, head and tongue with some tucks and scraps. It was a lot of fun and the resulting piece reminds me of the corn husk dolls I used to make as a child in Girl Scouts. They were featureless, but they had a beauty none-the-less, and so it is the same with the snake.Leslie making StormSnake

I started this post with this idea of change, and it may be apparent with electrical parts, but it is even more so with art. I first imagined my burlap StormSnakes to be painted with environmentally safe paint. However, someone reminded me that even natural things can react badly when put in touch with chemicals in stormwater run-off. So, you never know what kind of brew you are going to get running into the stream. I know there are all sorts of compromises we make daily, however, I didn’t want any risk in this, no matter how small. So, one day I was having lunch with another artist friend and we got into talking about the cool plant holders made of felt and other natural ways people deal with urban plantings. I suddenly remembered those crazy Chia Pets with the bad commercials. They were ceramic objects with a seed goop smeared onto them which would eventually sprout into odd topiaries. What an interesting idea to make snakes that had growing material on them. So, I talked to Melissa at the Center about the possibility of incorporating seeds or plugs onto my stuffed burlap snacks. She definitely had some recommendations and was excited since plants are her expertise. So, I hope to now perform a test in the greenhouse to see what emerges. Can I do stripes? Would I work with different plants and textures? I don’t know and I like that answer.