Zero Waste Sewing and Design: A Conundrum

Today I want to talk about zero waste sewing, because I think we sewing, designing, garment people typically have good intentions. I don’t know a sewist/sewer/seamstress out there who doesn’t want to minimize their impact on the earth by sewing. And yet, sewing as a craft can and does produce a lot of waste.

When I embarked on creating SOLSTICE, which I’ve already informed you is a line of reclaimed denim jeans and denim products I’m launching later this month, I wanted to make it zero waste. I wanted every bit of fabric and/or scrap of thread utilized into something useful, or nearly every scrap. I knew when I set out on this project that I was asking for a headache-inducing level of tiny scraps. Bring it on! I said.

Now I have several boxes full of small denim pieces, mostly too small to sew into other garments. As the self-pressure to use these scraps as part of my designs grows, so does my creativity, but I want to dial back to exploring the very concept of zero waste sewing and design.

I constantly see products marketed as “zero waste” for the zero waste community, many of which tout being made with zero waste principles. Oddly, few companies will explain how their design process is zero waste. When you cut into fabric at a curve, you ultimately create waste. Curves are required for shaping clothing onto bodies. Rarely is a garment cut out entirely square or rectangular.

There are larger brands that are able to design patterns that strategically utilize the curves of one garment into another garment when being cut on sheet of fabric. Upcycling jeans? Doesn’t work like that.

Recut jeans hanging on hangers to resew.

It’s all about your scraps

Many people have asked me over the years, how I practice zero waste sewing and I’m pretty honest that I save every scrap. It’s not glamorous. It’s not as simple and clean as sweeping fabric scraps into the trash and being done with it. I try to minimize the ugliness by storing them in cute baskets, but honestly, at the end of the day, they are scraps I have to find a use for. And when you sew as much as I do, the scraps add up. Not just the denim scraps either (which I store separate from personal scraps) but the scraps just from making my own clothing. I’ve woven them into baskets, which is nice, I’ve stuffed small things with them, but I’m ultimately left with a lot of tiny scraps.

Insert SOLSTICE into my life. At times my workspace is covered in a recent downpour of blue threads from cutting into 100% cotton denim. I’ve religiously saved every scrap of denim or thread from unpicking and sewing. These scraps are just too small to sew with, but they can be used for other products.

Mason jar full of denim scraps.

I’m sure by now you’re wondering, but why? Don’t you get a free pass when you start a business to be a little wasteful?

My honest answer? No.

Businesses more than anyone else, in my opinion, have a responsibility to invest in sustainable practices on behalf of the consumer. This is America 2019. Capitalism, whether we claim to love it or hate it, is both our economy and the social system by which we explore our values. Oftentimes our decisions to live sustainably come down to the consumer. Don’t buy plastic. Don’t use straws. Only drink water out of a metal water bottle. While we should be conscious of where we place our values, I fundamentally believe that businesses should take some of the guesswork out of consuming for consumers. My jeans are zero waste jeans. No fuss, no muss.

Zero Waste Sewing

This brings us back to the scraps. Below I’ve made a quick inspirational list for you as to how I practice zero waste sewing.

Zero waste metal and wood tools.

Save Every Scrap

Every single one. Creativity is born out of what we deem as undesirable.

Get Tools and Notions Used

New sewing stuff comes wrapped in a lot of plastic packaging. The ironic thing, I find a lot of things like notions and tools used and still in good quality. People start sewing with intentions to continue it as a hobby, and fail. Old ladies die and leave hoards of sewing stuff to the thrift stores (I’m probably going to do that one day, my fate is sealed). Not everything needs to be bought new.

Invest in metal or wood tools

Could we talk about zero waste sewing without bringing up wood and metal? I’ve had plastic handled scissors actually break in my hand. After that, I decided to move to metal tools when I want to buy something new.

All metal scissors like these, are what I use, currently on sale too. I also really appreciate the stork scissors for trimming threads. I mean, these little scissors can get in there and are popular for a reason.

Use Natural Fabrics

I find it difficult to justify an overage of synthetic fabrics when practicing zero waste sewing. Synthetic fabrics are cheap, for sure, but when we buy them we support the oil and plastic industries, both of which aren’t great for the environment or international politics. And cutting into synthetic fabrics add microplastic fibers to the environment. Sometimes I’ll buy synthetic from thrift shops, or I’ll upcycle things like curtains to sew garments. But when buying new fabrics it helps to buy things like wool, cotton, linen, etc.

And organic is always better. I love The Organic Fabric Company for organic fabrics. They typically feature fabrics with low impact dyes too. Can I just also say how much I’ve been eyeing this light red double gauze? For a blouse?

Sew Fewer Garments, But Sew Better Garments

Instead of sewing tons of clothes, what if we took the time to sew fewer, more complex garments? A lot of people are utilizing this slow sewing mantra on their quest to make better quality clothing while wasting fewer resources. Sewing is the kind of thing where it’s easy to get carried away, buying all the material, busting out five of the same shirt. But what if we put our time and resources into better craftsmanship and advancing our skills?

When in doubt Upcycle

I will say it until my voice hurts: Upcycle, upcycle, upcycle. Making something of value from something you deem worthless is always better than buying new resources.

Is sewing eco-friendly? While learning to sew can definitely save you lots of money and give you some post apocalyptic life skills, sewing can actually produce a lot of waste. Because sewing isn't always better for the environment, here's a list of ways to start a zero waste sewing practice. Zero waste sewing can be surprisingly easy and satisfying, and is entirely possible.

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