Interested in sustainable sewing?

Hello Sewcialists! I’m Kate from the Time to Sew blog (or IG: @timetosew) and I am so happy to be sharing with you my enthusiasm for sustainability and sewing. My sewing story began 5 years ago. Barely being able to use a machine I signed up for a week long “made to measure” course, desperate to make a pair of trousers that fit. It was of course a disaster and I have only made 1 pair since! Happily my sewing has improved though after a lot of practice and classes to help me along. Right now my primary love is making jersey garments that are easy wear, easy care, because my baby loves to put his banana and yoghurt covered fingers on my clothes. But I also love jackets and coats with beautiful finishings.

Orange coat 2
Sew Over It Chloe coat has seen two winters so far

Over time my determination to be able to make decent clothes that I love to wear has come at a pretty significant environmental cost. A lot of fabric has been wasted on clothes that were badly made, big pieces leftover because I bought extra “just in case”, scraps that I threw away. Then I got carried away with the endless inspiration that comes with the Instagram sewing community, and I started buying and making too much. I would not like to bet that I used less fabric than the equivalent I would have bought in RTW.

In 2016 I became a mum. I suspect many mothers will recognize the feeling that everything changed (and yet nothing at all). It took a few months to reclaim “me” and when I did, the excitement led to me making 27 garments for myself in 5 months (no kidding) as well as a becoming obsessed with making baby clothes.

The wake up call came when my mister pointed out I couldn’t even remember what fabrics I had bought and yet the parcels kept arriving. The hypocrisy of what I was doing with sewing vs who I thought I was suddenly dawned on me. I grew up on a hobby farm next to a town that had a National Park. My mother was into all sorts of crafts including weaving and spinning. She hated waste and insisted on recycling. How could I have fallen so far into “fast sewing” when I learned from my mother to constantly badger people about recycling and food waste? She did better than slow sewing, she even made her own textiles.

Silk scarf
Mum made this scarf in 60/2 silk on an 8 shaft floor loom. The design is frost crystals in twill.

So in 2017 I decided to learn about sustainable fashion and eco textiles. The last activity of a short course I did was to define how we were going to take forward our newfound knowledge. Mine was to raise the sustainability profile in the sewing world, so here I am. On my blog I write about fabric and waste issues that impact sewists; and my efforts to lead a sustainable sewing life.

What is sustainable sewing?

At a simplistic level, “sustainability” is the ability to maintain at a certain rate or level (source: google). As a sewist I believe you can define it along these lines in whatever way you choose, as long as it has meaning to you. For me, having a sustainable sewing life primarily falls into two categories. Firstly, sewing thoughtfully to create a functional wardrobe and supplement my RTW. Secondly, sewing with eco fabrics where possible.

Thoughtful sewing

After years of buying RTW and then getting carried away with nice looking patterns, by now I know what clothes suit me. Deep down I think I have known for quite awhile; just refused to accept it. Hopefully I’m not the only one with that problem. I know I am too petite for maxi dresses and my shoulders are disproportionately big to wear anything with a mildly puffed sleeve. But it is hard not to get distracted when there is always a new pattern release or I see my favourite instagrammers making and photographing new beautiful things.

Cassandra 2
Valentine & Stitch Cassandra dress in organic stretch cotton velvet. The pattern was released in December with a velvet sample and I finally caved into velvet temptation.

Sewing when I need something is more challenging; I need another new <insert garment of choice> like I need a hole in the head. Luckily I do not have aspirations for a full me made wardrobe, else I would explode out of my current closet. This is because I think throwing out perfectly good RTW would just be wasteful (and I have a lot of it still).

Replacing a RTW wardrobe with a me-made wardrobe is not sustainable.

My approach is to try and mull on an idea for awhile before jumping into fabric buying and making. By then sometimes the season has changed and I put aside the plan until next year, at which point my tastes may also have changed.

Finally, as a hobbyist I wish to spend my time making things that I will enjoy. This does not include black office wear or underwear. I intend to replace this sort of thing with RTW from sustainable fashion labels.

Sewing with more eco friendly fabrics.

Does organic cotton immediately pop into your mind when I say eco fabric? Cotton is the most commonly produced fibre in the world so I would not be surprised (more about organic fabrics here). Linen and bamboo are other popular plant based fibres that are often badged as eco. On the synthetic side recycled polyester is also becoming more common, and recycled nylon. But…

Every fibre and fabric comes with its own advantages and disadvantages, whether it is badged as eco or not.

Green linen dress
A favourite trans seasonal dress in khaki Merchant & Mills linen

The best thing to do would be to buy nothing, but this is not realistic. I could thrift more but my leisure time is in the evenings when I can much more easily read the internet than go to a bricks and mortar store to sift through stuff. Personally I have also found it challenging to source attractive eco fabrics at reasonable prices (excluding organic cottons and jerseys for kids). I once ordered an eco-fabric swatch book and bought nothing. Whilst I appreciated that much of the fabric was handmade under fair conditions, if it did not look like something I would want to wear then it is no good to me. I suspect part of the supply issue is also that fabric shops often sell-on overstock from high street brands because that is what is primarily available and in fashion. 

How big is your sewing footprint?

Because I sew a lot, I do wonder whether my sewing footprint is in fact larger than my former RTW shopping one. Maybe you have thought about this too if you like fabric shopping and you occasionally feel overwhelmed by the size of your stash?

Some other questions I have asked myself recently – how many me-made clothes or toiles have I discarded? How much fabric / clothing have I repurposed? Do I actually wear everything I make or was it simply because I wanted to make something or use something up? How many projects are in my sewing queue and when can I realistically finish them? Are my projects classic shapes that I know I will wear or are they the latest trendy pattern release? And finally,

Has my fabric shopping habit replaced a RTW habit?

At the moment I have 3x big storage boxes of fabrics and I have heard of many people having more than that (and also many who have less!).

Footprints
If only my footprint was the same size as my little boy’s footprint

What’s next?

If you are anything like me, at some stage you might have bought all the fabric and now it just sits there because of lack of time or change of plans. To motivate us to turn our neglected fabrics into beautiful clothing we will love and wear, my friend Pilar and I will be running a sustainability themed hashtag on Instagram starting in March. All the details will be published on my blog in the next couple of weeks and we hope that you will join us!

Update: #makeyourstash is live from March to May! See all the details on my blog here

Here are some other useful links if you are interested in sustainable textiles: Kate Fletcher (sustainable fashion academic), Peppermint (lifestyle mag with an eco angle), True Cost (documentary), Planet T shirt (series of videos by Planet Money tracking the lifecycle of a t shirt).

Finally, I do sometimes wonder what proportion of sewists think about their sewing footprint. What about you? Do you sew more than you would have bought RTW? Do you wear everything you sew?

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38 thoughts on “Interested in sustainable sewing?

  1. I’ve been thinking more about my ecological footprint over the last year… but I’m not quite sure where to start! I sew prolifically for myself and others, and it either all gets worn or was a creative experiment that I’ve enjoyed and learned from. I was planning on being more responsible by recycling/donating my scraps, but now I read more and more about how donated clothes and fabric scraps “recycled” at H&M and other places just end up burned or in the dump! I’m not sure what to do!

    1. Hi Gillian, thanks for the comment – I actually wrote a piece recently on what happens to clothing after you donate to charity. You can read it here: http://timetosew.uk/afterlife-donated-recycled-clothes/ if you like. Personally I have constant conflict between my desire to sew stuff, vs trying to live a more eco friendly life. I think as long as we are mindful about the sewing we do and it gets use and wear, then it is ok!

      1. Hi Sue! so sorry I missed your comment earlier, I am finally catching up on my day off. I think its great that you have a thrift store which has donated fabrics and that you donate and buy from there. I think we are also all guilty of buying fabrics and patterns because we have the idea that they *might* look nice on us this time round (and not from other people!) I wouldn’t beat yourself up about that. But if Makenine can help you plan better than that is already a win.

        Eco fabric – I just wrote about this today actually (http://timetosew.uk) and how its not the be all and end all. I will get round to writing a full series on fibres etc.

        Onto the recycling and H&M. From my reading, all clothing take back schemes are similar in the sense that the returned clothes are all collected by the same big company textile recycling collectors and have the same fate, no matter whether you donate to H&M, Zara, your recycling bank or and even charity (the stuff they can’t resell). See my blog for a post on this too. The sad fact is that 73% of textiles are landfilled or incinerated because its not all resusable, and the technology isn’t there to turn old clothing to new clothing on a mass scale.

        Finally, I am an advocate of sewing and personally I love to sew as well. What I don’t advocate is jumping on every pattern and fabric bandwagon and have too many ill fitting clothes and an exploding wardrobe as a result! Good luck with your journey.

        Kate x

  2. Oh Kate, what a beautiful post. You know I share many of these feelings, and it’s great to read them so well articulated. I do believe that my me-made footprint is smaller than a RTW one would be, but fully recognise that there is always more we could do. I like to use up all my scraps for small projects – underwear, accessories, things for my kids – and repurpose garments where possible. This isn’t a full solution, but the first step is being aware and changing habits, right?! Thanks for this, I really enjoyed it. (P.S. Your mum sounds amazing!)

    1. Ah Helen, thank you for being one of my biggest sewing life fans. I totally agree that it is about being aware and mindful of what / why you are sewing and thinking about how much you actually need vs want – in my case I am desperately trying to have less of a fabric shopping habit! Small changes like buying less, using what you have, and maximising what you have is better than doing nothing at all. XX

  3. I think ANY hobby you take up is going to have an impact on the environment – ie golfing uses so many chemicals on its lawns, it’s not only unhealthy for the participants, its a nightmare on the environment; traveling means flying around, kilns electricity – etc. Considering a hobby is really about spending time DOING something, entertaining ourselves, feeling good about making etc. it is a pollutant and a self indulgence. We could be using this time in far more sustainable practices such as volunteer work.

    Sewing your own clothing in the world of making, however is a actually pretty good. It means you are avoiding fast fashion, and you’re making something that you’ll actually wear (or someone will) as opposed to hang on the wall, or sit in binders on a shelf (ie. stamp collecting).

    I think there are ways we can be more mindful – buying fabrics that are from overstock is actually good – it’s almost as good as second hand. Bamboo on the other hand is a “fake eco” fabric because the production and shipment of it all over the world is horrible on the environment – just to name a couple of examples where consumers might have their wires crossed in terms of what is an lighter eco footprint.

    The most important contribution we can all make is mindfulness. Awareness it the beginning of change and you’re contributing to that through your blog and personal choices which deserves a congratulations! Thank you for writing an inspiring and provocative post.

    1. Hi Kathleen, nice to hear from you. You are so right that every hobby which is good for our mental health tends to be at odds with the environment. I am no eco-warrior, I spend too much time on planes for that and it probably cancels out anything else I do like sewing or cycling everywhere or being super anti-plastic. Sewing is good I think if you don’t indulge in speed sewing or fast sewing, as I have had a tendency to do (and as you have read). Ultimately the aim for me was to have less of a footprint than in my RTW life, but without thinking about where my fabrics etc. come from I don’t believe it is much smaller right now.

      I am about to start a little series on the goods and bads of various fabrics and fibres so bamboo will be on my list – can’t comment on that at the moment as I haven’t done enough reading to have an opinion. I wrote about recycled polyester on my blog as there was a bit of fanfare about that and I do think that has some element of greenwashing.

      Thanks for reading, and I am glad that it triggered some thought on this topic!

  4. I decided long ago sewing clothing was not my forte. I can do it, but I don’t actually like it. That said, I LOVE hand sewing, so I make fiber art and toys and soft sculptures mainly out of mixed media found objects and thrifted fabrics. I buy almost no new fabric with calico or embroidery cotton for the embroidery classes I teach being the exception. Cotton is not eco-friendly really what with the amount of water and pesticide used to grow it, but it is my favorite fabric to wear and sew with (along with wool). I’ve come to a compromise with my RTW vs. thrifted wardrobe: I buy new underwear and socks and five of the same black tank tops and pullovers about every 5 years. Everything else is from second hand shops. I never have to think about what I’m going to wear, I dress in layers, and the odd jumper or tunic is where I add color to my outfit. Bottom line: I think part of the equation here is is not where people get their clothes, but whether or not they actually wear them and then whether or not they wear them until they are actually unwearable. There’s a big difference between wearing clothes so you’re not naked and engaging in fashion, which is more of a consumer mindset. It’s the consumer mindset that’s usually more detrimental to the environment because it crosses all categories of products from clothing to food to home to kid stuff to cars…..it’s endless.

  5. Oh Allison, I am SO pleased to hear your comments – yes, yes and yes it is consumer behaviour that needs to change. In the textiles space it is consumer behaviour that drives the need for band aid solutions such as new eco friendly fibres and the industry that is now sustainable fashion. Until the basis of economic growth stops being rooted in more production and more consumption I don’t think we have a truly sustainable solution.

    Also I have had loads of occasions where I don’t like sewing, happy that I am not the only person that says that. Often I have started something and when its not looking great I set it aside, but then feel guilty at the waste so I finish it anyway and force myself to wear it. I try to wear most of my stuff until it wears out but then sometimes there is a change in personal style which throws that out the window. Glad that you manage to find thrifted things that you love to wear!

    I have been working on a set of stitcheries for 2 years now for a quilt for my little mister. Now that you mention embroidery I really must get onto that…

  6. I love everything you have written here Kate. It’s exactly what I want to get across in my own blog but written far more compellingly! I agree with everything you have said and am so excited by the idea of a sustainable sewing project coming in March – that’s something that I would love to get involved with! I think you have written this in a really accessible way I’m sure it will get lots of people thinking about sustainability in their sewing.

    1. Hi Vicky, thanks for your comment and really happy you enjoyed the post! Yes keep an eye out on IG and the blog in a couple of weeks when all will be revealed, and it would be great to have you join us. In the meantime, happy sewing of course xx

  7. It’s definitely something I think about, though probably not as often as I should. It mostly comes out as feeling guilty about throwing out my scraps, since I really don’t have any local textile recycling options. Especially given what Gillian said about H&M! I agree that it’s hard to find eco friendly fabrics that I actually want to work with, especially when I want a print. So I’m taking the approach this year of using fabrics I already have as much as is possible, aside from legitimate wardrobe holes that I don’t have appropriate fabric for. I also had several projects over the last few years that didn’t work out as well as I would have hoped, since becoming a mom myself completely changed my body and I’ve had to learn how to dress it all over again. So one thing I’m hoping to work in this year is refashioning the projects that were semi-fails. Using resources I already have has got to have a lower impact than buying new supplies, right?

    1. Hi Becky, I have the same guilt throwing out scraps. Unfortunately at this point the technology to turn old fabric into equivalently nice new fabric is limited (e.g. with polyester) so from what I understand textiles tend to be downcycled. Furniture stuffing etc. rather than another piece of cotton for example. Outside of my office wardrobe, my personal style has changed since being a mum also (I blogged about this actually: http://timetosew.uk/sewing-trends-personal-style-sustainability/) and I found a lot of my old clothes no longer relevant. I kept some but sad to say that many went to the charity or textile recycling, knowing full well that charities only sell around 20-30% of donations. I like your approach though and looks like we are thinking along similar lines. Really hope you will join our hashtag challenge once we finalise the details – should be right up your alley! Best wishes, Kate.

    1. Hello, I will check out your post – I am happy to see more people thinking about this topic. Fast fashion is one thing, but fast sewing is another thing!

  8. I really enjoyed your take on sustainability. I have tried through the years to be a recycler of all sorts of things. Last year I saved every piece of scrap from all my sewing projects, boxed them up, and put them in my attic. This year I was determined to use every last scrap! Well, I am putting a dent in them, anyway! I started my first quilt project ever this month, and I am working it slowly! Just organizing my scraps has giving me great satisfaction as I know the quilt will eventually be something beautiful when I am done.

    I have overhauled my sewing thinking too. I no longer buy fabric “just because I can” or “because it’s on sale”; I buy it with purpose. I start with a person in mind and find out what he or she needs in the way of clothing, and go from there. Then I purchase only what I will use. I have since given away years’ worth of hoarded fabric to friends and neighbors who sew and could use what I had in abundance. Now I have a clean, uncluttered sewing room that gives me joy when I enter to begin a project. I get to SEE what pretty fabric I have on hand to make lovely gifts, as well as items for myself. I PLAN these things in advance and write out the projects on a calendar. It feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders and a new beginning has occurred for me on my sewing journey. I hope it is sustainable in the truest sense of the word.

    1. Hi Danita! Thanks for reading and your comment. Speaking of quilting, isn’t it funny how the origin of quilting was to use leftovers (a bit like throwing everything into fried rice?!) and now there are new designer quilt fabrics where you can buy beautiful designs and colours that all match. Just goes to show how times have changed. Pleased to hear that you are making yours from scraps!

      That is a nice approach you have to sewing thinking. It must have been totally liberating to give away the hoarded fabric. I gave away a lot at a sewing meet up but still have a stash, I figured that 4 years that piece of cotton probably wasn’t going to turn into anything by my hands… in my mind there is a constant struggle between indulging my sewing hobby which is good for my mental health vs what clothes I need (basically nothing besides socks). I think the key is probably just to be mindful about it and be aware of what I am buying, when, and why.

  9. I donate my unused fabric to charity shops. From what they tell me they are snapped up quickly. :o) I learned last year to take the plunge and refashion un-worn items! I love it! I use fabric scraps to embellish them! It makes you feel empowered! I’m disabled and no longer can shop the stores. I have faithfully used up a lot of fabric that sat on shelves for 15 – 30 years! I am very pleased! I do order fabric online more than I need. Patterns are my weakness.
    Thank You for a great post!

    1. Hi Elizabeth, thank you for reading and happy you enjoyed it. That is great to hear that you got into refashioning. I am a lot better at making from scratch but need to improve on this area. I have started by “remaking” one of my first ever dresses so it fits better. It is so easy to buy fabric online these days. I have been to some charity shops but have not really seen fabric for sale besides old curtains I don’t like. If anyone else is in London (UK) and has suggestions for me I’ll gladly go for a visit!

  10. Thanks for the thought-provoking post! I started sewing my own garments last fall. Right away I realized in order to learn how to sew, there was going to be a lot of waste… things that didn’t fit, weren’t my style, badly sewn, wrong fabric. I try to think before buying fabric and patterns and balance the challenge of mastering a new hobby, but Instagram! I found the 2018makenine challenge helpful in focusing me to make goals, to defining what I actually will wear, and to not get too derailed by all those lovely party dresses I see on blogs when all I ever really wear are pants.

    1. Hi Susan! I hear you, for me Instagram was one of the driving forces of my fast sewing, but it is so great that there is a supportive and open community there – got to strike a balance somehow. Well done on recognising that all you ever wear are pants – definitely no point sewing all the pretty party dresses if that is the case!

  11. All of this sort of stuff is in my mind when I’m sewing or planning to sew. At this stage, I have kept all of my fabric scraps because I can’t bear the idea of throwing them out and I’m planning to use them as stuffing for a knitted quilt I’m making. I’m glad you mentioned the importance of knowing what clothing works for your shape, because that’s something I really want to focus on this year and I hadn’t even thought of how that could play into sustainability. My aim is to create a wardrobe of clothes that are easy to wear with each other – I have too many clothes that I made because I really wanted them and they don’t match other items easily! So yes, now I think of it, I do have a few garments that hang, unworn, in my wardrobe… and that is a waste.

    I’m excited to see what you have planned for your Instagram tag in March!

    1. Hi there! Glad that the scraps and waste topics are in your mind as well. I’ve kept all of my woven cotton scraps in the hope that I’ll be able to use them. Small jersey pieces I’ve made too many baby bibs to count. I tried underwear for myself as well but must admit it’s not something I really enjoy sewing! I have a lot of prints because I like sewing with them but reality is I probably wear more solids. Maybe when the weather warms up we’ll both be able to pull out print dresses that don’t need to match with anything else!

      Do keep an eye out on my blog or Instagram in a couple of weeks, really hope you’ll be able to join in with us 😊

  12. I have been on a RTW fast – except for a few items I cannot sew (yet) – since 2015. I was disappointed with the quality and sizing of RTW and found my me-made garments fit better and lasted longer. I don’t shop much anymore and I sew slowly and with thought to ensure I get what I need. Of course, sometimes I miss and a garment might to go to charity. I try to repurpose things I find. The next step for me would be to research eco-friendly fabrics. Love your blog by the way, it’s loaded with information!

    1. Hi Linda! Nice to see you here. There are so many advantages to sewing but I admit I still sometimes do RTW shopping. This is only occasional because it’s so hard to find well fitting well made items … and it all comes at significant cost if you want that! But making a black skirt or trousers for the office does not fill me with joy and happiness.

      This year I’m blogging more about textiles etc and sewing less. I have plans to write about different fabrics from a sustainability perspective (both good and bad) so hopefully that will be interesting to you!

  13. The start of this year I decided to refrain from buying anymore fabric until I used up the majority of my stash as it’s criminal to see fabric just sitting there with no purpose and buying more. My sewing is slow and well thought out of what I need rather than the next fashion sewing trend on Instagram (though this is a hard pull I have to say) but now I am making and replacing my RTW on the basis of what can’t be mended and reused or where there are missing key items that I would shop for in the past – for example i’m on my last pair of decent RTW jeans and last pair of old ones and they don’t fit well due to weight loss so jeans are my sewing focus and the RTW ones will become knock around the house garments. So I am starting to be more mindful and at least that’s a start. Thank you for sharing, you raise some thoughtful points and arguments Kate! Look forward to the challenge coming up.

    1. Hi Sarah! Thanks for reading and the comment. Good luck with tackling the jeans; after many years I found the brands that fit me well – My current RTW pair is doing its 2nd year with me and I hope will last another 3-4 at least. After that I’ll probably revert to looking for a sustainable fashion brand; personally I just don’t love jeans enough to consider making them! I think its great that your sewing is thoughtful and considered. Did you ever make the linen jacket in the end? Funny how there are definitely sewing trends (not just fashion trends!). Do you remember the Seamwork Astoria a few years ago. Then the Grainline Linden sweatshirt one has never gone away… speak soon xx

    1. Thanks Sarah! In the Uk I have just discovered there are “scrap stores “ but I don’t know what they take. In any case I am going to start volunteering at one of the local schools here so will ask them about whether they’d like anything 😊 it’s a really good idea

  14. Ah…much food for thought here. Thank you for sharing.

    First up…before I forget, :)…Your Mum’s woven scarf is absolutely beautiful. I also love your coat…the colour is fantastic!

    I am trying to be more conscientious about my fabric purchases. This year, I joined 2018makenine and it was motivation to look a little more long term about what garments I want to sew for my wardrobe. Prior, I was often buying fabric and patterns that were mistakes waiting to happen. Fortunately, my local thrift store also has a very quick turnover with donated fabric. Any cuts over 1metre that I don’t love go there, or even smaller cuts if I think it might be usable for a craft or quilting project etc. Scraps I donate to H&M but like Gillian commented….what exactly are they doing with it?

    I’ve sewn for a very long time and I rarely sew up a total bomb. That being said, I still sew things that look horrendous on me. I’ve committed myself to completing these garments so I can donate them. Hey…just because the style or colour isn’t right for me doesn’t mean someone else won’t love it.

    I’m so confused about eco fabric that I just haven’t gone there. Yet. It’s a process.

    Sewing is a creative outlet for me and there is not getting around the fact that materials are required. I think…but I’m not sure….that my newer direction in being more mindful in my choices is a step in the right direction. Before, I’d buy almost anything in a thrift store because it was a ‘deal’. It’s not helpful or eco if I just hoard it, right?

  15. I think about my sewing habit often, and try not to sew more clothes then will actually get worn (how many dresses do my daughters actually need?). For myself, I’m sewing less clothes then I would buy because they fit me better so I enjoy wearing them more. My fabric stash has gotten out of control, though, so I’ve committed to not buying any fabric this year. And I started sewing underwear with my knit scraps – something I thought I’d never do. Turns out it’s extremely satisfying! I’m glad you wrote this – after seeing how prolific some sewists are I was wondering if I was all alone in feeling this way.

    1. Hi Laura, apologies for the late response. Yes I suspect most of us have a load of clothes and its very easy to lose sight of what we need in the delightful that equals sewing. Happy that you are even making use of your knit scraps! I tried underwear a couple of times but got fed up with the elastic application so I used them for hair ties instead and carried on making baby bibs with the scraps instead. There are a lot of very prolific sewists – I do wonder how much space they have in their closet, thats for sure! Thank you for reading and the comment. Kate X

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