What's Sustainable Sewing?
The whole idea behind “sustainability” in general and sustainable sewing in specific is that of leaving a minimal impact on the planet. This idea incorporates issues like carbon footprint, waste creation and disposal, and labor practices. Nowadays, producers and designers are always under public scrutiny, and those who operate without eco-integrity face an onslaught of negative press, particularly in social media, given the connectivity made possible by the internet.
When it comes to fashion and sewing, among other things, sustainability means quality and durability as well as the incorporation of more timeless designs that can be worn for years rather than replaced or thrown away as soon as the style or fad changes. A garment represents sustainable sewing when it is well-constructed (ie. made-to-last) out of eco-friendly natural fiber fabrics that will last longer than your standard disposable/cheap fashion.
The fashion industry is the second largest pollutant worldwide!
I was shocked to learn that according to Ecowatch, the fashion industry is the second-largest polluter worldwide, after the oil industry! That's really hard to imagine but appears to be true. We wrote about some of these concerns, in our recent article Why Millennials Should Learn To Sew where we wrote about how 3.8 billion pounds of textile waste is being dumped into the country’s landfills every year.
Additionally, a whopping 25% of the world’s pesticides are used in non-organic cotton cultivation. But the real effects come after you’ve bought and finished using the garment when it gets thrown away: that’s when two-thirds of the damage gets done.
Just think of all the elements involved in the lifespan of a shop-bought garment: raw materials, textile manufacture, garment construction, shipping, and retail, wearing, and then disposal…now multiply this by three or four times because the item or the style was not designed to last and get replaced frequently.
Not only the pesticides, the terrible heavy metal poisoning from toxic dyes, and the non-degradable, discarded items polluting ground and water but just consider the massive amount of natural resources and fuels which are used in the manufacturing, shipping, and marketing of these short-lived items. More than 2000 gallons of water goes into manufacturing just one cotton t-shirt while in some countries women walk 20 miles to fetch just a couple of gallons from a drying well.
Shipping is one of the key culprits
Considering the fact that most raw materials are shipped around the world from countries like India, China, and the US, to developing countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan where the clothing gets manufactured because the labor is cheap. The finished garments are then shipped back to Europe and the US or wherever the clothing is to be sold. The fuel costs and the carbon footprint must be immense. One cargo ship expels the same amount of noxious gas in 1 year as 50 million cars. You need only imagine the kind of damage being done in the long term!
Surely it makes sense to sew items yourself, adding time, effort, quality, and sentimental value to items you’d sooner pass down as heirlooms than discard. Fill your wardrobe with a combination of sturdy basics and custom-made favorites of which you’ll simply never tire and rest assured that you will minimize the impact you are having on our precious environment and resources.
Things to consider when sewing a sustainable garment:
You need to ensure that you’re choosing a sustainable fabric. This depends on…
- The sustainability of the fibre source, i.e.: how water/pesticide/insecticide heavy is the farming practice for this source.
- The sustainability of the textile manufacturing process, including the dying and the shipping process and…
- The working conditions of the people involved in manufacturing it, surely you don’t want to advocate any enterprise which abuses or underpays the people who are doing all the hard work.
The best place to start is first by opting for natural materials, in everything from your choice of thread to your choice of buttons. Natural materials are all those which are not petroleum-based. Another option is of course the use of either recycled or upcycled fabrics…although these may limit your options and be more expensive to source.
You can learn some more about recent Amazing Eco-Friendly Fabric Innovations by checking out our article on the topic.
Sustainable Sewing: Sewing for Posterity
Considering the fact that such a large percentage of environmental damage is related to clothing being so “disposable”, a sensible answer for sustainable sewing or eco-fashion is simply to sew for posterity. Why not sew items you will treasure, keep and even hand down to other generations. This means items made of natural fibers which are strong and resilient, in styles that will stand the test of time. If you do grow bored with them, simply store them someplace safe to either pass down or unearth a few seasons hence.
I know from experience that unpacking the storage closet can be a lot of fun and what’s boring now can be extra exciting after a time. Absence, after all, only makes the heart grow fonder. Better yet, when you sew sustainable items for friends and family you are helping them to support the environment too!
Our grandparents would also reuse a garment – my mother ‘turned’ cuffs and collars on Dad’s shirts as the edges wore; an old, hole-y blanket became the batting of the quilt that used up the scraps of fabric from other garments. When there was no ‘life’ left in an item, buttons & zippers were removed for re-use. I am trying to practice my sewing in this manner – I sew smaller pieces of batting together to make the size needed, scraps become filling for stuffies, the fleece PJ top that makes me sweat at night is now batting for small crafts like coin purses or glasses cases.
It all just takes a little forethought and planning.
Indeed! your way is the future.
Thank you very much Mayra for today’s post about sustainable sewing. this is what I have been doin with my wool parkas and coats (it gets COLD here in Canadian winters!!) I re-use 100% wool blankets, shawls and scarves and reuse quality linings such as lightweight draperies and make artistic, one-of-a kind, fashion coats that last for years. (My first parka I made in 1984 is still very wearable!) I was using the words recycle-upcycle, but now I have even better terminology with your post on Sustainable Sewing. thank you very much. Janet Stark
Dear Mayra, I think this article oversimplifies the issue of sustainability when it comes to sewing and fashion. Whilst natural materials have the inherent advantage of being biodegradable, there’s no consideration of the volume of materials that exist and the way that we dispose of them. I strongly disagree with any general assertion that natural is best – there is no single global standard for ranking fibre sustainability (it differs depending on who is doing the research FYI). And finally, recycled fabrics or upcycling don’t have to be options limiting or expensive to source. There are many ways to sew sustainably which are accessible to many income brackets and that’s what we need to promote.
A big question is “How many clothes do you really need?” I have 2-3 black pairs of pants for work that I wear with a company provided top. They would provide the pants, but I am such a weird size. I have 2-3 pairs of jeans, 2-3 pairs of shorts, and a bunch of tops. I wash on delicate and line dry most of the time.
I agree; I have followed some people living in France, and they discuss how French women (ever so stylish) have only a few high quality items in their wardrobe; they don’t overwash them. They use accessories to vary them. This is my question to myself as well? How many clothes do I need?
I wish there were a way to support more fabric manufacturing in the US. As for scraps, my 2 quilt guilds have different options. In one, a lady leads a group which makes dog beds for shelters. We provide our scraps for stuffing. The other collects bags of scraps and sells them somewhere. I’m not sure what is done with them.
Two things. That cheap T-shirt, if looked after, will last as long as a more expensive one eg: years ago I purchased a cheap sleeveless summer dress for my 7 year old daughter for about $2, designed to be worn for a season and thrown. My daughter loved it and wore it daily through the summer holidays. Being so cheap most of her friends wore them as well. I looked after ours, washed it in cold water and dried it out on the washing line using eco friendly laundry detergent. The following year she wore it again though the others had fallen apart and been chucked or donated to charity shops. Fast forward 10 years and this same dress was now being worn over shorts as part of a pair of PJs, still being carefully washed and dried naturally, don’t believe in tumble driers, and while a bit faded still in good condition without holes. They can last as well as more expensive items if cared for as well as more expensive items, washed in good detergent and dried naturally.
I also buy all my fabrics and make my own clothes, partly because I am a large size and partly because I can’t afford to buy ready made clothing I can afford. I only wear cotton because wool is beyond my bank balance and all items are worn into holes. But when I get fed up with a style I take it apart and remodel into something else. This year I am turning some dresses into tabards or surcoats ( mediaeval clothing which I am adding modern touches to and layering over more form fitting cotton knit maxi dresses) which are laced up so can be tightened or made loosed with ease to accommodate my hoped for weight loss but also easily layered depending on the time of year. They should last for another decade though the under dress might not. Those are made out of cheap cotton knit fitted sheets, one sheet gets me a long sleeve maxi dress and for €20 I can get 4 single colour dresses and another 2/3 colour block dresses from the left overs.
You’re the queen!! You are a great role model! Thanks for sharing!!
i sew with hemp often – i wish i could find hemp fabric grown in America – so far – 35 states can legally grow industrial hemp – but so far – it seams no one is manufacturing fabric from it! I buy my hemp from Hemp Traders – the buy it from China.
What a great article. You do an amazing job with your website and blog! I’d like to add that we should all be campaigning for hemp in textiles. It is a low water, low pesticide using plant that grows quickly. The fabric made from it is much like linen, very durable as well as rot proof. The fact that our government lumps it together with marijuana is ill informed,senseless and suspect (I’m sure there is a cotton lobbying group). We should all look into using this truly eco conscious fabric
What about hemp, it is an amazing product with a myriad of uses. Could you research it a d let us know if it is a good alternative for us assists?
my MIL was married in 1947. Not having lots of money, but wanting a rug for her home, she went to her local thrift, bought a bunch of real wool outer (winter) coats (blacks/blues/greys), cut them into ribbons and braided (sewed the braid together) her own rug. Its 2018! and I now have that rug, its a 12 foot circle and still holding up. The colors have softened but its perfect for my use.
I have often wondered what is the best way to dispose of the fabric scrapes of home Sewing and Altetations. I save the dress hems I cut off when altering bridesmaids dresses etc. for possible reuse later but I wish there was a resource or any ideas of what to do with the fabric that gets cut off from other items and from sewing projects. Any thoughts on that issue?
Check with your local children’s or community theatre. They often have limited budgets for costumes, especially children’s summer workshops. They might enjoy having scraps of fancy fabrics like satin, lace, or gauze to add to existing costumes to change them up a bit by adding new collars, cuffs, or even make period decorations or hats.
Depending upon the size of the scraps and the type of fabric, they could be used to line pouches/purses or envelope pillow covers. Possibly even sewn together into a quilt.
Go to your local thrift shop and buy a garmet made with materials you love in a large size. Buy it cheap and rip off all seams, buttons and zippers (keep those), then wash and press. You’re ready to cut your new garment in it. That’s how it was done in the 40’s and 50’s.
I do this all the time for fabric like silk! I also buy old gowns/pageant dress for material to make fancy dresses for my granddaughter.
This is such a timely and important issue that we should all consider seriously even if we don’t sew. Think twice about that $10 Tee shirt now marked down to $5. It’s cheap in one respect, so costly in others. Even if the environmental impact doesn’t shock you (and it should), remember that you’ll end up replacing that cheap shirt 3 or 4 times before a slightly more expensive, but better made one. Then you’ll have spent $30-$40 on an essentially disposable item of clothing. We all need to think about the true cost, not just the price on the label.
Well done for shining a light on this problem.
So true Agnes, I buy my husband’s tees from Timberland. They are organic cotton and do cost more but they last year after year.
my local thrift shop is a great place to go to find upcyclable fabrics and clothing. My girlfriend was looking for a hippie outfit to were to a camper rally. She couldn’t find a reasonably priced vest so she found a jacket at her thrift shop and made her own. It was perfect
Sustainable cotton and wool fabrics are making a comeback in the US; however, the color palette is very limited. Unless you eco-dye (like I do sometimes), your color fabric sources would have to include purchasing sustainable fabrics from overseas. Another national option is Spoonflower, which keeps sustainable fabrics in stock for eco-printing. It reduces the carbon footprint but it’s a bit expensive.
I would love to see you share some sources for the more eco-friendly materials, if you have some. I work in a fabric store, where my allergies are heightened only in the building and leave when I leave, due to the chemicals from the treatments on the fabrics, as well as the dust created by the constant cutting of some of them. I rarely buy any of their fabric, as a lot is produced in China and other overseas places, where consideration of our ecosystem, as well as seemingly little regard for quality (i.e. crooked printing) is rampant.
Shipping fabric across the world in cargo ships would still be a problem if everyone sewed. In my own country the only fibres we would be able to produce if there were no cargo ships would be wool and linen. No more cotton.
Very thought provoking…never considered this before…
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