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.
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.
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!