Sustainable sewing, part one: magic or myth?

Is sewing green? Photo by Alena Koval on Pexels.com

This post has been sat in drafts since I launched grinlowsews.com last summer. I’d been meaning to write about sustainability for a while, but never managed to bring myself to actually start typing. And then, when I finally got down to it, I wound up with a post so long and meandering I couldn’t return to it without getting the shivers.

So, to manage the unwieldy beast it has become, I’m going to make a short series of posts on this subject, with the hope of opening up a conversation about our sewing habits – where the drive towards greater sustainability can sometimes turn out to be anything but.

Sustainability is a tricky and emotive subject and, when it comes to the sewing community, there is the risk of focusing on what divides us (who sews what) rather than what brings us together (who sews).

In the hope of doing the latter, I’m going to kick off this series with a confessional…

Waste not want not

Is sewing better than buying ready-to-wear? I know many of us really want to believe it is, but I’m not sure we should be patting ourselves on the back quite so hard.

Let’s talk about wastage. If you sew, you are no doubt familiar with the Closet Core Pouf. It has become synonymous with the ideal of wasteless sewing. If you have a load of scraps you don’t know what to do with (and you’re not interested in a £5 voucher from H&M), then you can make a pouf and stuff it with your sewing waste: out of sight, out of mind.

Except, if you don’t stop sewing, your scrap pile won’t stop growing, your pouf will explode and it will be on your mind a lot.

Hyperbole? I’m afraid not. Let me share something with you.

The horror, the horror: a few years of scraps from my exploding enormo-pouf in bin bags

Once upon a time, I had what I called The Enormo Pouf, which housed all the absolutely 100% unuseable scraps from my sewing – fragments, slivers, bits of thread. This was the Closet Core pattern accidentally printed at 1.5 scale. It was so big it could no longer be lifted. Being so large, it was a favourite spot for diving (small humans will do that to the things you craft) and, being so full, it inevitably burst after one particularly enthusiastic impact.

The pouf, being so unmanageable, did not survive. And so, emergency situation that it was, its contents were transplanted into bin bags – three, to be exact. The amount, once unpacked and loosely bagged, was obscene. The hoarder in me wanted to stack the bin bags in the cellar and forget about them, to make new poufs and hide away the evidence. But seeing its innards in all their gory realness made me stop and think. How many poufs is too many poufs?

This was the perfect time to face up to a few years of over-consumption in the fabric department. Yes, I sew for work and many of these scraps were not from personal projects, but still… ugh. The Closet Core pouf had masked, even to myself, the reality of the waste my sewing produces.

I have to live with the indelible image of that fabric bomb. And it’s changed the way I sew, or how I think about sewing.

So we tied up the bags and took them to the recycling plant. It made me feel sick, because I know that I don’t know: I know that I have no idea what will happen to those scraps, and if they will indeed be recycled. Sometimes it’s good to face up to your own mess. I have to live with the indelible image of that fabric bomb. And it’s changed the way I sew, or how I think about sewing.

Following ‘the incident’ I began using up scraps more determinedly than ever before, and I thought twice before making something just because I could. I don’t want to stop making, but I can change the way I get my kicks. I’ve written here about the ten principles I am now trying to observe to keep me sewing in a more mindful manner.

Is sewing sustainable?

As fun as it is finding places to squirrel away all this wastage, it makes me wonder: if I, as an individual, produce this much sewing waste (and, let’s face it, the world needs only so many zipper purse scrap-busters), then how much are we producing in unison?

The answer is, most likely, too much. Garment for garment, it is probably more waste than a factory would produce, where cutting is optimised and technicians are adept at producing garments without error. How many times have you made something first time in the hope it will be a ‘wearable’ toile, only to find it’s only fit for the pouf?

There is no point comparing chalk and cheese. Comparing the home sewist to the fast fashion factory is unduly reductive. Perhaps it is better to compare home sewing to the factory production of ethical slow fashion, where garments are bought at higher prices, wages are fair, and production methods steered towards greater sustainability. Where do we stand when we compare ourselves to these producers? Maybe that should be the question we are asking ourselves, if we truly want to steer our practice towards greater sustainability.

These are difficult questions, and they are difficult to face up to – I am finding it difficult. We want to do better, we want to do the right thing, but it’s much more complex than simply saying we no longer buy fast fashion.

What I do know is that, on the whole, people who sew are a thoughtful, creative, passionate bunch who really do care – the sewing community on Instagram demonstrates time and time again the degree to which this is the case on matters of both environmental and social justice, both locally and globally. While many of us got into sewing because we couldn’t find shop-bought clothes that fit, or because we were interested in dressmaking as a creative pursuit, many also sew because of concerns about sustainability and production ethics. People who sew are trying – they ask questions about where clothing came from and they understand implicitly what is involved in the production of any given garment, which makes them think twice. Always.

Nobody needs to be preached at, and that is certainly not my agenda here. I’m not perfect and my enormo-pouf stands testimony to the fact. This article is a note to self: I could do more.

I subsequently made a few smaller, more manageable poufs, which were then distributed around the house: one for memades destined to be refashioned for the kids; another contains small remnants that cannot be used for garments but could be used for doll’s clothes, home projects, small gifts, etc; and one more for old sheets and fabrics to be used for toiles.

And the itty bitty scraps? For now they are bagged and taken to the recycling plant (if anyone wants to stuff a tailor’s ham, please get in touch). I see what leaves the house and I have to sit with that. It might seem counter-intuitive but, because I’m consciously trying to reduce what I have to bag up and dispose of, it is a step towards better practice on my part. As hideous as it feels at times, that can only be a good thing.

So, what are your thoughts on sewing sustainably? Are we fooling ourselves or do we need to give ourselves a break? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you!

12 thoughts on “Sustainable sewing, part one: magic or myth?

  1. I have not thought much about sewing (and other hobbies) creating waste. I just like to create as I find so much joy in it! However, if there are pieces or items large enough for another purpose, perhaps offering it to others for free would be one way to mindfully re-purpose. You make good points though, and I will try to minimize waste – and to re-purpose what can be – going forward.

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    1. Don’t stop creating Betty! Creativity is so good for you! Re-purposing and finding homes where we can is a really good plan, but not to the point where it drives you away from exploring and enjoying your creative interests. Xx

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  2. Thank you Ruth, for talking about this important topic. As someone who sews a lot, for me it’s not just about the clothes that I make or the waste that I create. Sewing is my relaxation, my creative outlet, something that brings me joy. Those things are unmeasurable.

    I get so much from sewing that I don’t want to stop or slow down, and though I know that I have many good reasons to sew, it doesn’t stop me from being racked with guilt about my negative (selfish) impact on the environment. I have room in my flat for exactly one pouf, and it’s already bursting at the seams.

    My hope is to create clothes that I will love and cherish, that I will mend and love for many more years than their RTW equivalents. I also know that you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, and I’ll make plenty of things that don’t work out.

    I look forward to the next part of this blog series. Maybe you’ll provide some answers, but I don’t think there’s a simple solution. At some point, I’ll feel like I can slow down. Until then, I will do my best pattern tetris, I will try to buy more “sustainable” fabrics, and I’ll make as many scrap busting projects that I can bear. And I will try to focus on what sewing brings me because if I don’t even appreciate that, what am I sewing for?

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    1. Thank you Theresa. It’s all those things to me too – and to so many of us. Creativity is hugely important to humans, so to find a creative outlet that is also so blummin useful really is gold! I’m afraid I don’t have any answers, just lots more questions… And yes, focus on the joy and take pleasure in what you achieve. It really is a marvel!

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  3. Though topic! I feel guilty everytime I look at my sewing related bin, and the paper bin too! should we talk about the amount of paper used to print patterns?
    But sewing makes me happy and I’m loving learning new things, so my objective this year is trying to be more mindful. I wrote a blogpost on my sustainable sewing goals for this year in January and we’ll see how’s the balance at the end of the year. Do you have a composting facility nearby? I asked to my composting facility and learned that small scraps of natural fibers are compostable (100% cotton, wool, hemp, jute, silk, linen, and cashmere, and also viscose/rayon/tencel). This actually reduced a lot the part that needs to be recycled (all polyester thread or pieces with it), and makes me feel a little bit better.

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    1. Ah yes, the paper… That doesn’t bother me quite so much as I avoid PDF on the whole (the taping, argh!) and also if I do PDF or cut out a big 4 pattern, the waste paper has a straightforward recycling route out of the house. I guess it’s the mission involved in getting rid of sewing waste that leads to this kind of heightened awareness! And that is such a good point about the natural fabrics, that hadn’t occurred to me at all – we compost for our garden so I will ask my husband whether this is something that would work (although I do tend to sew with poly thread so still no dice there). Thank you for the tip-off!

      I’m totally with you on the joy factor, though, and being more mindful – however that best works for us. I will check out your Jan post, sounds right up my street. 🙂

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  4. Scrap generation is an interesting topic which we never used to think about too much but of course we are responsible for. I’ve been sewing only zero waste patterns for the past 15 months and just did a look-back at the scrap bag (https://lizhaywood.com.au/scrapbag-confessions/). I’m still creating scraps but they’re more like offcuts – rectangular shaped and usable, and far less of them.
    It’s really hard to go absolutely zero waste in a sewing room, just like it is with a household, but it’s something we can hopefully just keep moving towards, preferably with creativity.
    Thanks for the post and the good comments 🙂

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    1. Thank you Liz, lovely to meet you on here 🙂 I’m looking forward to ploughing through your blog! You are right that these ideas open up much more scope for creativity, not less -which is sometimes how it feels when we realise the thing we love can produce so much waste. I loved the suggestion made above by Francesca to compost natural fibers, which hadn’t occurred to me before. There are so many ways this could be approached which together could lead to fantastic outcomes without stealing all that joy… Looking forward to finding out more!

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  5. Nice job starting off this discussion Ruth. It is something I think about every time I sew since I have a couple (well 3) bin bags full of scraps under my sewing table . I too have earmarked them for poufs but I think there is only so many poufs I can have so what do I do with the rest? This sustainability game is a tricky one since things can often be not as sustainable as we think, especially in the garment/fabric industry.

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