Sustainable sewing, part three: ways forward

This Zadie jumpsuit hack dress was made using an ancient cotton full of moth holes. It is one of my favourite and most worn summer pieces

In this, the final instalment of this mini series on sustainable sewing, I want to focus on a few positive steps we can take to safeguard our creative practice while nudging ourselves towards greater sustainability.

If you haven’t already done so, please drop by parts one or two of this series before reading this – otherwise you might get the impression I’m setting myself up as some sort of sustainability know-it-all. I couldn’t if I tried: part one was a great big mea culpa, and the list below is a kind of personal commitment-device-meets-aide-memoire to gently encourage a sewing practice more mindful of sustainability.

If it helps anyone else in the process then that’s great, but I’m not here to tell anyone else what to do or how they should do it. I also won’t be beating myself with a stick when I fall short; I’m not about to stop sewing, and I will still be sewing new things – but the way I think about it and plan my makes is beginning to shift, something I wrote about in more detail here.

In response to my previous posts, several readers said the issue of sustainability is on their mind and, frequently, makes them feel wretched. In these strange days where social media rules elections as much as it does consumerism, nuance is lost. Yet many factors come into play when we clothe ourselves – the impact of sewing on the environment is not a simple binary of good versus bad.

Part two was written in the spirit of reset: let’s call time on debating who sews what, who is or isn’t sustainable, and galvanise. Let’s recognise the power we have, as a community of people who sew, to make a difference. Let’s steer the conversation away from some of the more reductive viewpoints, one of the worst of which is, I think, the idea that sewing clothing is somehow intrinsically better than consuming ready to wear, and let’s embrace the fact that small changes make a big difference in composite. Nobody needs to be beating themselves up over this.

So, confessing, ranting, and soul-searching aside, here is a small sampler of steps towards making the hobby of sewing more sustainable – both in terms of the environment and maintaining our creative passion. Some are commonplace and commonsense actions that need little introduction, some are my own personal strategies for prolonging that sewing pleasure without unnecessary ‘new’, and I’ve also included some of the brilliant practical suggestions given to me since I first posted this series on here and Instagram.

I’m not suggesting you must take every or even any step – you may consider these steps too little and too late or too much and too far. They are just a few pointers I’m finding useful right now. Like I said here, no names, no pack drill. Let’s not lose sight of the joy and passion that creativity through sewing delivers.

1. Use what you have

Stashbusting is a great habit to get into, particularly if, like me, you sew a lot. It can also be a surprisingly satisfying process.

Sometimes it can be hard to let go of the potential wrapped up in an unused fabric. It’s easy to get a bit precious over those special pieces. The skirt below was made with the leftovers from a Zadie jumpsuit I’d made last year. I had about a metre left with a long traily piece attached. I ummed and ahhed about what to do with it because I didn’t want to make something that wouldn’t be worn and, love it as I do, I didn’t want another Ogden Cami (a stashbuster extraordinaire). In the end it was as if this vintage wrap skirt pattern and that remnant were made for each other. The wastage was splendidly low. Now my stash is a wee bit smaller, and I have two garments I love.

Vintage wrap skirt gleaned from a strangely-shaped remnant

Sometimes, however, we hang on to pieces of fabric we don’t really dig that much, and they linger unused. My view is that using that fabric just because you already own it is a false economy as much as it is falsely sustainable – if you make it up and never wear it is that any better than it languishing in your stash? Two options spring to mind here. One, is using it for toiles (see point 7) or, perhaps better if it’s a decent fabric, trying to sell or destash it (see point 10).

For smaller pieces, if you can make something useful or worthy of giving as a gift, then that is a great way to whittle down the offcuts. Whatever the fabric size, it’s always worth keeping track of what’s in our stash and remnant pile so that we can check there before we buy more. Then when we do hit our favourite fabric sellers for new beauties, we know we are buying something that will genuinely make its mark in our clothing collection.

2. Go off on a tangent

If you like to keep your hands busy, why not explore some related sewing activities such as quilting or needlework? In general, both produce far less waste than dressmaking, and while they are slow (a bonus in itself for some), they are hugely satisfying activities. Quilting is a really great way of using up scraps and quilts make wonderful gifts.

Slow sewing pursuits help reduce the churn of new things and also give us time to consider what’s next and plan for new makes rather than rush in too quickly with the first idea (that’s a fun way to sew sometimes, but sometimes it pays to ponder).

3. Pursue provenance

This is a tough one, and fabrics where genuine provenance is provided are often more expensive. Still it’s something worth pursuing whenever you have the time – just asking retailers where a fabric comes from and how it was produced and distributed will, I hope, encourage the supply chain to wise up to being more open and transparent.

4. Alter, remake, refashion

This is, hands down, my favourite sewing pastime. I regularly trawl my wardrobe to revisit old makes that aren’t getting worn. I try them on and work out what the issue is – sometimes it’s glaringly obvious, sometimes it involves a bit of detective work. Occasionally garments just need a small tweak here or there to get to a sweet spot, more often there will be a series of alterations or even complete refashions – rabbit holes that take weeks to navigate. All that unpicking, redesigning and resewing makes plenty of work for idle hands, and keeps the magnitude of ‘new’ in check. It’s also the reason I haven’t yet got into embroidery or quilting (see point 2): there’s always something to work on.

If there really is no light at the end of the remaking tunnel for a garment, I will look to see if it is donate-able and, if not, think about whether it can be turned into something else. Pretty much every garment I’ve ever screwed up has ended up as something for one of my kids – and this saves me a fortune in kids clothes while also going some way towards salving the conscience.

A simple boxy top – part of a refashion that also resulted in a button down shirt. Read about it here

5. Get to know your inventory

This is possibly one of the best things you can do if you want to spend more time making things you will actually wear. Spending time looking at the clothes you have, trying them on, sorting through and figuring out what works and what doesn’t, is a great way of honing your ‘sewdar’ and ensuring you make less unwanted garments in future. I talk more about this here. See also points 4 and 9.

6. Buy second hand

Charity shops can be hit and miss for fabric, but second hand and vintage fabric can be found online fairly easily (if sometimes at a higher price point). Buying from somewhere like eBay does, of course, come with a little bit of risk, in that photographs are not always as clear, and sellers not always as honest as they should be, but it provides another avenue for fabric that has not been newly produced for our use. The same goes for buttons, zips, and any other notions that need a new stash to call home.

7. Use up old sheets and bedding for toiles

Toile-ing is a funny one. I used to feel like a toile was a wasteful enterprise – make something in a fabric you know you will not use and what good is it but for rags afterwards? Instead I always opted for the ‘wearable’ toile – which in my head I didn’t admit to being a toile, it was just the garment, and I was just winging it. Of course this inevitably and tragically resulted in many an errant bust dart and ill-fitting side seam. I like to alter garments (see point 4), and would happily unpick and tweak as I went along, but sometimes there was nothing for it but to dispose of these efforts.

Now, if I am not entirely confident in a pattern, I will toile first, using either old fabric I don’t care for, or old bed sheets. Because I make a lot of tried and tested patterns, toiles are not that frequently required, and where I have needed to make one, the fabric can be reused again for smaller toiles for other garments. Eventually when it is no longer useable at all, it can become rags. But given most of this started out as bedsheets, the life of the fabric has been extended considerably, and it has prevented newly manufactured fabric being wasted.

Sometimes, if we have to toile repeatedly to get something to fit, the amount of waste produced can be unsettling. While I mentioned here fabric optimisation in factory production, I neglected to mention the unfathomable levels of waste when these garments get to retail. Yes, some products are well marketed and fly off the shelves (remember the Zara It Dress – the hugely popular fast fashion precursor of the Sewing Bee‘s buffet dress), but many more do not sell so well – perhaps the fit isn’t quite right, the colour or print a bit off, or the fabric a bit scratchy.

While some ‘seconds’ have labels removed and are resold elsewhere, a horrifying amount is, quite simply, destroyed. A few years ago it came to light than in 2017 Burberry destroyed nearly $37m of its own merchandise – all in the name of preserving the brand’s exclusivity. While Burberry has since pledged to clean up its act, sadly this is not an isolated case – the destruction and shipment overseas for incineration of perfectly good garments continues to be authorised by both high street and high end stores where over-production is deemed an acceptable part of the business model.

A self-drafted dress for my little girl out of fabric languishing in my stash, and the accompanying toile made from an old bed sheet

8. Don’t fall for greenwash

It’s too easy to see ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ buzzwords and feel vindicated about a purchase. While OEKO-TEX accredited fabrics can (though not always) be expensive, ‘deadstock’ appears to be something of a magical unicorn: often inexpensive while mopping up manufacturing leftovers that would otherwise be discarded. The idea we are salvaging product destined for landfill is seductive, but in reality not all deadstock has flatlined. Much of it is purposefully produced as ‘overstock’ to be sold off separately.

The idea that buying deadstock does not influence subsequent production levels is flawed. While in some instances this will be the case, in others, by continuing to buy the fabric, the producer is assured that the amped-up level of production can continue.

And then there’s organic. Whether you buy RTW or you sew your own, it’s time to admit that, while it has its merits, organic cotton is not the angel poo of fabric production. As the Cotton Diaries’ founder and director Marzia Lanfranchi explains here, sustainable cotton production is, like everything in discussions about sustainability, anything but straightforward.

9. Get familiar with your WPG

WPG?? I mean Wear Per Garment of course! A dress in an ugly old curtain from the charity shop that is worn once for an Insta-selfie is not as sustainable, in the grand scheme of things, as the dress from a shop-bought fabric you’ve fallen in love with and will wear to bits. Or if that curtain is made from polyester but it takes on a foul odour every time it’s worn and has to be washed over and over again, is that better or worse than the viscose top that doesn’t need to be washed quite so much and, when it is, doesn’t shed microbeads into the water?

Sometimes, when we make, we rate our sewing by the neatness of our seams and topstitching, or the beauty of the finished garment. But back on planet getting-dressed-each-morning, it is getting to know what we wear the most that tells us which garments are truly our most successful.

10. Practical tips from readers

Finally, here are some straightforward practical actions suggested by readers to improve fabric optimisation and the recycling of waste materials:

  • Firstly, Francesca of the blog Francesca’s Fold pointed out that 100 per cent natural fibres like linen and cotton can be put into food composting. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me before given that my husband puts lint from the dryer in our garden compost bin. Sure, this doesn’t address fabric production, but it does mean if you are sewing exclusively with natural materials, your wastage in terms of landfill could be very low indeed.
  • Tricia @morrissews suggested giving zero waste patterns a try. It turns out zero waste (probably should be called minimal waste, to be fair) patterns have come along way since the oblong with a slash for a neck hole and a tie around the waist. Check out Liz Haywood‘s blog for more info on this subject.
  • Find community projects and groups (women’s shelters, childcare settings) and also design and technology departments in schools, which might be interested in scraps for textile projects or teaching purposes (thanks to @thatissewshelly @jane_stani @emmas_atelier for this one).
  • Get into rag rugging – @ukpoppyberry suggested either finding people who rag rug for fun or a living and donate. Or you could make your own – but only if you actually want a rag rug! Otherwise it’ll just become yet another thing in the charity shop.
  • Tuğba @i.of.the.needle leaves scraps in her front garden for passers by to collect ‘because I know little me would have been very excited by that!’. I love that this idea works!
  • Finally, it is possible to sell remnants. For decent sized pieces, @emmas_atelier mentioned @fabricabracwgtn, but for those not based in NZ, try and hunt out an equivalent, or even set one up. You can also sell remnants on eBay, particularly anything appropriate for quilting – and this works for really small offcuts as well as larger pieces.

Weigh it up but don’t bury yourself

Finally, all these considerations interact with one another to create a different picture for every single thing we make and wear. It’s good to be aware of how we are doing, in terms of sustainability, and not sticking our heads in the sand. But it’s also important to avoid getting so bogged down in all of this we give up altogether.

Sewing is a great way to experience the benefits of creativity while also clothing ourselves and those around us. That’s pretty cool! To throw away this marvellous meeting of utility and aesthetics simply because it isn’t wholly sustainable would be a huge shame. As I asked here, what is wholly sustainable? Not much when it comes to humans.

We will be clothing ourselves, and our families, one way or another, so it may as well be the way that brings us creative satisfaction and wellbeing.

So, do you have tips on how to make sewing more sustainable? Please share in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you.

4 thoughts on “Sustainable sewing, part three: ways forward

  1. I’m really liking this series of blogposts Ruth, and thanks for the mention!
    I started tracking my fabric stash one year ago, and it’s very satisfying to tick off yardage from the list, but it is also very helpful in checking how much I have of a certain fabric without pulling out everything. I’m planning a blogpost with some data analysis 🙂

    Like

    1. Thank you Francesca! Looking forward to reading that post – I love a bit of data analysis! A few years back I ran a similar inventory and put slips of paper in with each piece of fabric, but over time they got jumbled and kind of lost their purpose. I think maybe I need to go digital next time! Looking forward to finding out how you go about it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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