Sewing Eco-Guilt? Killer!

May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears

Have you noticed? Somewhere along the way, the environment stopped being about the largesse of recycling your empty wine bottles at the weekend and started becoming… Well. Really urgent.

All around us are images of micro beads floating in pacific oceans, sea birds drowning in plastic, and turtles caught up in nets. Young activists lead the way – god, don’t you love our future generations? – and I feel compelled to follow.

Sewing has a pretty good track record in terms of sustainability. As a community we:

  • turn our backs on fast fashion
  • regularly recycle fabric, patterns and clothes
  • use our craft to protest
  • pass down generational skills
  • rescue forgotten sewing machines

We can feel good about ourselves, but we could feel better. Shall we agree on that?

I pondered what we’re doing today that we might look back on and regret. A few thoughts came to mind:

Recommended fabric requirements for sewing patterns. It’s not uncommon to have as much as a metre extra yardage left over once I’ve cut out all my pattern pieces. My guess is that pattern producers err on the side of caution when recommending fabric requirements – one way of avoiding angry emails. But can’t we just be a little bit more realistic and stop wasting fabric? I know we can use those scraps for something else, but how often do we?

Tiled PDFs Some of them have acres of empty paper between pattern pieces that just ends up going from printer, straight into the recycling bin. Sob! (I still think tiled PDFs are a bit crazy, that we’re currently stumped by lack of technology. I’m sure future generations will look back at us and be like, ‘What? You printed off 40 sheets of paper and then painstakingly taped them together and cut them out? You call that a hobby? What were you, insane?)

Packaging Yes, we all love the pretty tissue paper, the postcard, the butcher’s string, the Jiffy bag, the plastic bag… Do we need all these? Do we? I know some sewing suppliers are already considering what they put into their parcels. Beyond, you know, fabric.

Red Letterbox

Types Of Fabric A reader recently informed me that polyester … it ain’t gonna decompose in that landfill any time soon. Could this be another good reason to wear natural fibres?

International Orders I’m just leaving those two words there for us to consider next time we get seduced by online fabric. Hey, I’ve been there. Guilty as charged – and paid the import tax to prove it.

Equipment Should we leave that iron on between pressing seams? Actually, it depends! Way back in 2011, a sewing friend who works in energy wastage posed this question to her scientist friends, and the below answer came back:

Our estimate, based on the data we’ve seen, is that turning it on only when needed is probably slightly more efficient, but it probably won’t make a huge amount of difference. Running a typical iron for an hour costs about 7p, so the amount you’d save by turning it off for some of that time is probably only about 1p. So if it makes life easier to just leave it on, it’s probably reasonable to do that, and look for other ways to save more significant amounts of energy!

Ironing water

So, these are the few thoughts that bubbled to the surface of my rotting synapses. The above include makers and suppliers, and this isn’t meant to be about pointing fingers – it’s about working together. We all might learn something new today.

Do you have anything to add? Sewing is fun, it’s joyous, it’s satisfying. Let’s keep feeling good about ourselves and the things we make!

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49 Responses to Sewing Eco-Guilt? Killer!

  1. Mertxe says:

    I am so glad to read this! For me, only natural fibers, please! My last make is a bikini, and I had touse nylon, but it was recycled fabric.

    • didyoumakethat says:

      Yes, I’ve heard about recycled nylon and recycled polyester!

    • tracy says:

      Same, I’m on the natural fibers train! It’s nice that it’ll decompose eventually (and feels better too).

      I’d also like to recommend a book called Zero Waste Fashion Design, by Timo Rissanen and Holly MicQuillan. It shows how different designers create patterns to use up every scrap of fabric.

  2. Manju says:

    Love this post Karen. Lots of food for thought.

  3. Trouble is, all our fabrics leave a negative environmental impact. Wool is perhaps the least damaging, but even the farts from the sheep aren’t without effect! Cotton is heavy on water and pesticides, viscose uses lots of water and chemicals. I think linen isn’t TOO bad…

    • Katie M says:

      How about bamboo? I’ve been using some bamboo knits lately and they are so lovely to work with.

      • It’s the processing apparently that’s the bugger…lots of chemicals again I think. Nothing is good, some are worse than others…

      • colleen says:

        I read somewhere that making bamboo fabric is extremely wasteful in terms of water and chemicals…..I know, I love the way it feels and it seems like it SHOULD be okay.

  4. Jacana says:

    Natural fibres – I agree they are replenishable unlike the petrochemicals used to make man-made fibres. BUT there are some not so eco-friendly processes using nasty chemicals, that cotton in particular goes through before it becomes a beautiful piece of fabric. Also some questionable employment practices imposed on those who grow, pick and process the cotton. So there isn’t one answer, and we do need to take time to consider first before purchasing that beautiful new length of fabric. That said, I do think that as a group home sewers do try to do their bit for the environment.

  5. Erika says:

    Regarding the recommended fabric requirements: I recently started printing out the copyshop file at 25%, which usually fits on a regular A4 piece of paper, to try different fabric layouts and check how much fabric I’d need before I ordered. It leads to mistakes sometimes (once I had a jersey in a directional print and no way to cut out a neckband without making the shirt way too short), but tbh that also feeds my creative thinking.

    When it comes to international shipping I try not to be too hard on myself. I live in a small country. Many German cities are further apart from each other than my city is from the closest cities in Germany. So I won’t bother not ordering from there. I would not as quickly order overseas though.

  6. Allison says:

    Yes I try to think about my sewing choices. Took in clothes myself when I lost weight. Not purchasing fabric because I already have too much. (Sorry retailers). Unfortunately the process of making and dyeing cloth also has an environmental impact. And if we don’t buy then what happens to the people employed by these industries?

  7. Kate says:

    What a pity we can’t grow hemp because of drug laws. It is the most sustainable fabric. I will only use natural fabrics but I haven’t found an eco friendly knicker elastic yet!

  8. Emily Handler says:

    I think you’ve skirted (no pun intended, but glad to have made one anyway) the most touchy issue: what about THE STASH?

    • Kathy Hickmott says:

      Ah….. the stash – had this conversation last week in “Rolls and Rems” Holloway. I have never met a sewer/knitter/crafter who does not have a stash. Mine extends to several vac-bags in our brick built shed. Apart from the environmental costs how much actual money is tied up there? Ann Rowley (winner of the first GBSB) said in an interview she DID NOT HAVE A STASH. My ambition/aspiration is to get to that point too. I reckon it will be liberating when that day comes.

      • didyoumakethat says:

        Completely unrelated but … oh, I’ve not been to Rolls’n’Rems in YEARS. Must make a trip there. Promise not to add to my stash! I think…

      • Helen Jones says:

        I don’t have a stash! I can’t feel virtuous though, the only reason I don’t is because I have a too-big stash of supplies for my other hobby (card making) and I vowed not to make the same mistake again. I rekindled my love of sewing 2 years ago & have stuck to my vow.

      • Meg Holdstock says:

        I regard my stash as an insurance policy – it’s always there in emergencies… 🙂

  9. runsewread says:

    I appreciate this thoughtful list. Synthetic fiber jumps off the page. I’ve never been totally comfortable with synthetics, even as more and more of them are creeping into my closet.

  10. Billie says:

    I am trying to source more of my fabric from the thrift store (which doesn’t add to the production if new fabric). Also, I sometimes find garments in large sizes there that I can alter to fit me.

    When I buy new fabric, I tryyyyy to only buy natural fabric – that is, fabric that doesn’t take 200+ years to decompose.

    Finally, I think it’s important to think about how we dispose of fabrics – too many garments and scraps of fabric still end up in landfill! Even tiny fabric scraps can be recycled. Check with ypur local thrift store to see if you can donate scraps, and what happens to those scraps. Many now have a fabric recycling program, and even tiny serger scraps can be reused in things like dog bedding, matrass filling, etcetera.

    • Arianne says:

      H&M have a fabric recycling program! You can take textiles of any size or condition and they’ll make sure it gets used somehow. Just have to be careful not to be tempted to buy more things when they give you a £5 off voucher in return…

  11. I appreciate these thoughts. I volunteer at a charity shop that sells donated fabric, and lots of other craft related items, and purchase much of my fabric there. Some are polys, but much is good quality natural fibers. Sadly I think many of the items are donated after a person has passed or moved into a nursing home. No matter, it is one source to consider, the fabric would be thrown out otherwise. Also, I gather my scraps and chop them up with my rotary cutter and use these to stuff pillows. Just some ideas.

  12. rosedaigle says:

    I love this post so much! I am, myself, guilty of acrylic yarn (“but it’s vegan!”), and the what-am-I-going-to-do-with-the-leftovers syndrome. As for international orders… Hahaha, yes, you can buy your supplies directly from China (some say Japanese fabrics are the best in terms of quality, but many are made in China, so I googled the matter).
    I remember a (now retired) teacher who once said that humans always make things easy before making them difficult again. Take an example: the sewing machine was invented, making things easier, but then large gowns with hoop skirts were invented, taking more time and materials. Haute couture, entirely made by hand was also invented. The same thing is happening now: technology makes our life easy, we can check litterally anything in a few clicks. However, at the same time, we have new challenges. We’ll figure it out.

  13. Kathy says:

    Another one related to the ‘recommended fabric requirements’ is that a lot of online fabric shops only sell in whole metres. I’ve got now I won’t order from these retailers. It’s especially annoying if you are making something that requires, say, 1.2 metres and you have to buy 2.0 metres. Guaranteed wastage before you’ve even begun. I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic bricks and mortar fabric shop a 30 minute drive away (although then we’re getting into driving miles!), that sells in 10cm increments. However, that’s not an option for a lot of people.

    • didyoumakethat says:

      Good point!

      • Suzanne says:

        That was going to be my point too! I hate having to buy 70 or 80 cms extra because the retailer only sells in metres. When my grand-daughter was smaller I could sometimes make something with the leftovers but she’s 3 now and I need at least a metre to make a dress for her. I’ve now got a list of retailers that sell in small increments and will only buy from them. Having said that I’m currently on a buying embargo until I reduce the size of my stash!!

    • Suzanne says:

      This was going to be my point: it’s so annoying having to buy an extra 70-80cms. When my grand-daughter was younger I could sometimes make her something with the leftover fabric but now I need at least a metre to make her a dress and so sometimes need to buy 2 metres and we’re back to the same problem again! I now have a list of online retailers who sell in small increments and just buy from them. Having said that, I’m currently on a buying embargo until I reduce the size of my stash….

  14. kssews says:

    It is a great conversation and I think the best we can do is to do our best. Each individual knows their circumstances. e.g.,
    -MANY people can’t sew from eco friendly/organic/natural fibers. Spending $20/yd for fabric when you need 3 yards is out of reach for most.
    -stashing (to an extent) because it isn’t feasible for you to drive XX miles/km to the nearest shop.
    -Recycling fabric and notions (anytime I purge, I take as many zippers, buttons and buckles as I can from the “toss” pile.

    I quit buying tiled PDF patterns awhile ago. If you don’t have a copyshop option, I don’t want to bother. And I’ve never been taken with so-called “beautiful” packaging. It’s a sewing pattern. It’s going to go in my file cabinet with the other sewing patterns. :-p

  15. This is a good list, Karen, lots to think about. I’ve found that the most irritating thing is being left with left-overs – the fabric requirements are very generous with some pattern companies. I made a cardigan last year and ended up with a t-shirt as well out of the fabric – so that must have been nearly a metre extra. This would be fine, except I wouldn’t have chosen the fabric for a t-shirt and it is quite a thin jersey and unfortunately it shows every bump and lump, not flattering! I think it may get worn only under other layers. Oh and of course, those retailers who only sell in half metres. Although I have found that many will supply the exact measurement (e.g. 1.2 metres) if you ring them up (worth a try?), but I have even found bricks and mortar shops unwilling to sell except in half metre increments (annoying). I have found that I’ve got better with estimating quantities and don’t tend to have so much left over. Even better, my latest work-around – when I found I had slightly more fabric than I thought, I made a long-sleeved variation rather than a short-sleeved option.
    In July, I went along to an Extinction Rebellion protest and they were running really interesting talks on different environmental topics. I thought that it was good to see that there was more to the protest than annoying road users (most of my colleagues use public transport, walk or cycle, but it really did affect those using the buses). Anyway, they had a very interesting talk from the Soil Association about clothing. I was shocked as until very recently environmentalism in fashion has been very niche. Perhaps I should write that up as a blog post, if anyone is interested?

  16. Sarah G says:

    No to Black Friday type sales which encourage us all to over consume and buy stuff we don’t really want. I will continue to make considered purchases from abroad because I worry about workers in the third world loosing their livelihood, for them producing fabrics might be the only way they can feed their families. I’m totally with you on the subject of pattern companies over recommending the quantity of fabric, it’s so annoying and wasteful. Great blog post

  17. Brignicnico says:

    Every time that polyester, acrylic or nylon are washed, they release microfibres into the water system. Apparently when you wash a fleece, it can lose 2 million microfibres – artificial fibres should be avoided if possible. Here’s a link on ways you can cut microfibre pollution.

    Apparently Tencel is better for the environment that some other fabrics as it is made from wood in a closed loop system, that means that 99% of the solvents, and 90% of the water used in its production is recycled and re used.

  18. Lelsie says:

    Great post—thanks for giving us lots to think about!

  19. Gayle says:

    Wonderful post. It’s great to get everyone thinking about what they can do better. I try to source vintage natural fiber yardage from Etsy. I find it’s often better quality that currently produced fabric and better prices too. Btw, even fabric from the 80’s is considered vintage.😉

  20. Great post.. I agree this has been on lots of people’s mind recently. As A long time environment conscious (having lived through southern italy waste disposal collapse catastrophe -still ongoing btw!) I’ve been pondering this myself loads. Personally, the heart of the matter is in “how much”. A fabric stash I could not reasonably sew in a lifetime is not necessary nor purposeful, hinders my creativity and will eventually end up wasted. So shopping my stash and purchasing more mindfully has been the first change I’ve made. Also looked into scraps recycling/reuse options when scrapbusting projects don’t cut it anymore. H&M is a famous one, but also many local authorities will recycle textiles (shred to fluff and used to stuff soft furnishing mainly), so it’s a good idea to have a look at what options are around you and if there are none find who you need to pester or please to make it happen 🙂

    • sew2pro says:

      My local council takes in scraps through a private company but when I phoned them about my 5 kilos of cabbage, they said they throw it away 🙁 The only reason I saved the scraps is in case schools wanted to use it as collage but that’s a bit too creative these days.

      • Yes, I know it can be quite hard. Even where I am I am not convinced at the moment of how they really handle it, but it’s good to do research. At the moment though, speaking of scraps, I really like the idea of making a pouffe! Filling it with fabric gives it just the right weight and consistency 😉

  21. Mags says:

    So much to think about here – great post!

  22. Pip says:

    What about single use items around sewing? I’ve never been one to use ironing water or starch but that plus the plastic bobbins small thread reels come on and other sewing acoutrements all have their own carbon footprint. I’ve been part of the sewing community online for a long time, but even now I’m surprised by some people’s ability to churn out me-made items, faster than I’d be able to buy them in a shop – though the conditions of the factory worker are negated in this way, it still takes a toll on the environment through fast paced consumerism. It’s a fascinating topic that really touches every aspect of your life when you start thinking about it. Thanks for joining in the conversation here Karen!

  23. We should recycle the cardboard boxes everything comes in it store our sewing room items and fabric instead of buying all those plastic bins and tubs. Use that extra fabric to cover them and recycle two ways.

  24. Susan Yates says:

    Great to read your post,and so many others thinking about the environment. My recent great find has been thrift store patterns. Totally random of course, but fun to look through for hidden gems.

  25. I already avoid man made fibres as natural fibres are much more pleasant when you experience hot flushes. I am constantly frustrated when I look a lovely summer dress patterns on line and the recommended fabrics are all man made or a mix, why would you want to wear sticky man made fabrics on a hot summers day.

    I’m trying to use up what I have both ready made and stash. I read a fab article in Selvedge magazine about the environmental impact of fast fashion so now I tried to avoid buying anything unless I think I will wear it at least 30 times.

  26. Kate says:

    How about even the amount that we sew? And how much fabric we buy? Are we sewing something because we really want it in our wardrobe, or purely for the joy of sewing (or because we’ve seen it on a blog or social media) Not saying that there aren’t abundant positive reasons to sew, but I do think that consumption is a big issue. To me it’s no different from fashion in that sense.

  27. sew2pro says:

    Thank you for the great post. This is something I think about every day, every lunchbreak even! And you answered a question that’s been on my mind re iron electricity usage. I do confess I have more than I need but often buy even more, for variety and because I enjoy a sewing challenge. I did ok today when I went to Rolls and Rems (in Lewisham) when I decided what was on offer wasn’t as well suited to my next project as the stuff I already had in stash.

    I wish I could share your optimism. In my modestly affluent suburb of London (with fab public transport), there are no Gretas amongst the children of my friends that I can see. It’s driving lessons for the 17th birthday and flights for numerous mini-breaks. I work for a charity yet most of my younger colleagues buy everything – porridge, water, coffee, fruit (FRUIT!) and salads – already prepared for them in plastic pots. My fellow runners who claims to love nature rush to sign up for big city races, where their hour or two of frankly mediocre effort is rewarded with ‘free’ plastic t-shirts, poly-ribbon token medals, not to mention thousands of water bottles or tyvek blankets to mollycoddle them if the day is a little cold. Till someone tells me we can put a parasol in front of the sun, or drive to the tops of volcanos and tip our rubbish in, I’ll reserve my right to feel total despair. Mind you, I felt like this before, about the political situation in this country in the late 80s/early 90s but that turned out alright, didn’t it … Oh,wait……

  28. Nina Holm Jensen says:

    Interesting points, thanks for sharing.
    Just a tiny thing I do. NI wear a lot of skirts and dresses, both homemade and rtw. Often the elastic gets limp before the fabric is worn out. Replacing the elastic should be an easy fix, but it really depends on the construction. I’ve started to consider this in my homemade skirts and dresses, so I’ll be able to replace the elastic later on. Repairability – is that a word?

  29. Sewniptuck says:

    I made myself a pair of lovely polyester work trousers. I wear them 3-4 days per week and wash them weekly. I just know there is no way I could wear this uniform so often and for the exactly one year i’ve had this job if they were natural fibre. Firstly the natural would likely bag out and most definitely would have lost a lot of colour sharpness by now. So for my money these represent a considered investment in the environment.
    Does everyone who sews only natural fibres also only use cotton thread?

  30. gill says:

    This post and the comments are a really interesting read. Sadly, I think the people who are willing to make real and voluntary changes to wage a war on pollution and climate change are in the minority. So, if I was in charge of the world I would seriously consider bringing in rationing – to include clothing, homewares, air miles, petrol and even food. It wouldn’t be popular and it would be tough, but maybe its time to get tough? We all have far too much stuff and its all too easy – and encouraged – to buy more.
    Anyway, I’m never going to be in charge of the world, so no-one needs to worry!

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