Zero waste sewing
We all have our reasons to sew: to repair, to create, as a hobby, as a necessity. The most basic sewing requires very minimal materials-needles, thread, and scissors; it’s a skill we can all benefit from learning. Regardless of why we sew, it’s easy to finish a project with a small (or large) heap of unusable material. With a little forethought, it’s possible to eradicate that pile of material and make our sewing more conscious.
Measure twice, cut once
We’ve all heard it. Once it’s cut, it’s done, so be extra sure to cut only when you’re certain to avoid wasting fabric.
Patterns give you a correct method to make something, rather than guessing, totally misjudging things and wasting time & material.. That being said, once a clothes pattern is cut, it won’t be usable for larger sizes. I recommend either not cutting out pattern pieces or cutting them out on the largest size.
If you don’t cut the pieces at all, you can simply fold the large piece of pattern paper down around the edges of each size/piece you have to cut out and trace it. This can be labor intensive, so for a slightly easier version that still allows the pattern to be used for all the sizes it’s printed for, I suggest cutting the pattern at the largest size. Then, for each size you need, you must only fold the individual pieces down slightly at the edges to make a smaller size, rather than struggling with big pattern sheets. It might seem a little strange, but patterns can be passed along once they’re used. Once they’re cut, they become unusable for anyone even as little as a size larger than what it was cut for.
In the past when fabric was much more expensive, garments were always pieced. Piecing is when a shape is broken up into other smaller pieces so that less fabric is necessary. It makes use of fabric that would otherwise go unused. Piecing includes using more, smaller pattern pieces so that they fit more closely on the fabric before being cut and create fewer unusable scraps, or sewing together two pieces of fabric too small for your desired shape in order to get something large enough for what you need and cutting from there. The ladder kind of piecing may not be perfect for the outside of garments, but for non-clothing, small projects, and lining, piecing is a great way to ensure fabric isn’t wasted. If you’re looking for a more thorough explanation, here’s a tutorial.
For novices, wide seam allowances are the norm, but once these are trimmed, the scraps are unusable. As your sewing improves, or if it is already skilled, allow for smaller seam allowances. I’m an imperfect seamstress, but when I have intentionally or unintentionally tiny edges to join, I opt for hand-sewing. Skip the machine for a beautiful edge and more precision on your tiniest edges.
Shopping isn’t a hobby, and consuming much more than you need is a waste of resources; that includes fabric sales, great coupons, and fabric you want to buy now and find a project for later. You don’t have to become a minimalist to be zero waste, but as with everything, bringing resources into your life and leaving them unused effectively wastes those resources, so stop buying and stashing fabric you don’t have an intention for.
Obviously fabric in a finished project is not up for grabs, but there’s plenty of unused fabric that requires no input of new resources that you can buy. Most thrift stores have a fabric section, and you can find all sorts of prints, materials and fabric types. I’ve found vintage fabric in the past, and this is a perfect way to source fabric for smaller projects or for lining other projects. You won’t always know the actual composition of the fabric, however, so I recommend not putting thrift store fabric projects in the dryer.
For the fabric you do buy new, pick carefully. There is no perfect fiber, of course, and qualities like weave, care instructions, elasticity, and the design all go into picking a fabric.
As much as I wish there was a chart of some kind comparing water use, durability, cost, and quality of textiles to help you pick, there isn’t. Even if there was, the ethical rating of any fabric is greatly influenced by where it’s produced, who is involved in production and their treatment, and what happens with waste, like dye or emissions of gases like nitrous oxide (a powerful greenhouse gas). For example, cotton might be a natural & compostable fiber, but it is commonly grown in water-scarce areas despite being a water intensive crop, like in famously drought-ridden California. Polyester, on the other hand, needs very little water to be produced, but its’ production lets off that pesky nitrous oxide. The fabric is a plastic and is estimated to take over 200 years to decompose, and production of the fiber requires over 70 million barrels of oil a year (x). In short, it’s hard to win when picking fabric, so choose with your intended use and take good care of what you make.
Most of us pick fabric pretty consciously, but thread is an afterthought, unless it’s for top stitching. Of course, always use thread you already have if it’s possible instead of buying something new, but I warn you to lend the same attention to thread as you do to fabric; I don’t own any 100% cotton thread, and I think that’s pretty typical. Most thread contains a large amount of polyester. Use up whatever you have (always the most zero waste option) but be conscientious for future thread purchases and a different fiber might be a better choice for the end of life of the project when it must be disposed of, since polyester will remain polyester and stick around longer than a natural fiber.
Save your scraps
At the end of the project, no matter how tiny your seam allowances, no matter how carefully you pieced, there will be fabric scraps. I have an bucket next to my sewing machine for these scraps and threads. I frequently pull from this bucket when I need to sew something small or to piece together a mock up when I’m sewing without a pattern.
Fabric recycling is hard to find at best, and doesn’t result in a great material. Recycled textiles are often combined with virgin material so that the fibers remain long enough to keep together a fabric. If textile recycling is available to you, it is a good fit for synthetics.
The easiest way to reuse tiny bits of fabric is to use it as pillow stuffing. Depending on the size of your scraps, you can cut them up some more before stuffing anything, but here’s a simple tutorial. In my dreams, I’ll save enough fabric to make and stuff small square pockets, sew them together and call it a duvet, à la Ruth Goodman from BBC’s Victorian Farm. I digress.
The very last resort for old material is disposal. This 2010 study from Cornell determined various kinds of cotton to be compostable. Reference.com estimates cotton decomposes in 5-6 months in a compost pile, and while various websites make roughly the same claim about the length of time cotton will break down in a compost, I can’t find a more reputable source like a scientific journal or publication to confirm this or give further information about ideal conditions. All natural fibers, like cotton, jute, hemp, wool, silk and so on are technically compostable, although certain dyes apparently shouldn’t be composted (x); again, reputable and research based details on which/why certain dyes aren’t compost friendly are hard to find. Compost can be a great option if you’re sure your fabric is compostable, but remember that composting, as with any disposal, is an end of the line solution, and finding another use for the fabric is the best option.
Pins & needles
Pins and needles are generally not recyclable. If a pin or needle is bent, you may be able to bend it back, or if the end falls off a pin, you may be able to glue it back on, but broken machine needles are trash and so can become other pins and needles. Dispose of them carefully and don’t put them in the recycling bin unless you’ve found explicit information that your local recycling center takes them.
A good pair of sewing scissors can last forever, but enough use (and misuse) will make them dull. Scissors can be sharpened using foil or sandpaper for a DIY option, or actually sharpened with blade sharpeners. Take your pick based on what you can reasonably access and the state of your sewing scissors.
Best of luck on your next project and I hope you find the patience for some narrow seam allowances and a bucket for fabric scraps. Merry stitching and happy zero wasting!