Sustainable Sewing and Home Textile Waste

Cutting apart of work dress shirts for fabric reuse

Today’s post is all about sustainable sewing and home textile waste. It can be difficult to find the right personal balance of creative fun with potential environmental impacts.  If you’re trying to be a more considered sewist or crafter, here are some ideas and interesting links to help. 

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Fabric Stash Busting

Use What You Have Instead of Buying More

Making use of what you have instead of buying more supplies is a great way to make sewing and crafting more sustainable. Even if a material is not be the most eco-conscious option, you’ve already bought it. The footprint already exists and you can ensure it has a good purpose before completing its life cycle.  

Admittedly, I have an enormous stash of fabrics and other craft materials. I’m making an effort to create with what I have rather than buying new materials, unless I need a specific item for a project. It almost feels like crafting for free, which is awesome!

Organise Your Sewing Supplies for Easy Use

If needed, do a craft stash to sort, plan projects, declutter, and re-organise your materials. Look at ways to sell, swap, or share unwanted materials so that they can be put to good use. Ugly, damaged, or otherwise difficult materials can be handy for test pieces, sewing machine work, and blah but important functions. 

See our craft supply destash and reorganisation post for detailed tips and ideas, including how I prepare and store my own fabric stash for use.

Fabric stash sorted into groups by design for storage

Salvaging Materials for a New Useful Life

New Uses for Old Materials

Crafting is fun and crafting for free makes it feel even better! This is really just another form of making good use of what you already have. In some areas, there are textile recycling programs, but at present, most household textile recycling here in NZ is limited to charitable donation.  
For donations to be viable and not place a waste burden on the charities, items need to be clean and in good/useful condition. Damaged and worn-out goods are considered waste with very few exceptions. We still donate the good stuff, and I’ve started checking all of the rest for potential reuse options. 

Creating a Convenient System for Salvaging Materials

Much like creating a system for home recycling makes it easier improve your recycling habits, creating a salvage system will help. The more convenient the system, the more likely you are to follow through.
I’ve been hit-and-miss with making use of potential salvages in the past. To make it easier, I now have a designated holding spot where I put anything damaged (freshly cleaned and ready for repurposing) until I have the time and head space to look at potential uses.
I also keep a basket for damaged dog toys. They get assessed for Frankenstein-style rejuvenation and/or cutting apart into reusable materials. One of the easiest toy salvages is stuffing, which I put into a bag for washing and reuse.

Challenge and Inspire Your Creativity

Taking the time to really look at scrapped items for use beyond the raw panels of material (easy salvage) has actually been helpful for my creativity. Everything including pockets, hems, collars, buttons, and cuffs gets consideration. This has led to some of my surprise favourites, like the DIY dog bowties recently shared at Dalmatian DIY.  It’s also been an opportunity to make things work when a material is good but the shape, size, or pattern doesn’t quite suit.

Cutting squares for sewing a recycled t-shirt quilt

Reducing and Reusing Fabric Scraps

Reducing Offcuts Through Planning and Pattern Placement

Planning a project before buying any additional materials and experimenting with the layouts prior to cutting fabric can help to reduce off-cut waste. In an ideal world, there would have very little scrap thanks to careful planning and cutting, but in reality, there will usually be some partial use.

Sustainable Sewing Scrap Busting Projects

When large enough, scraps are still useful on their own or pieced together in scrap busting projects. Little items like bows, key fobs, covered buttons, drawstring bags, and such are a natural fit for small pieces of fabrics. They also work well for accents and trim, patches, and appliques. Small pieces can also be joined together for larger patchwork or pieced fabric crafts. Odds and ends can be chopped for stuffing or, if you know that they are completely natural and untreated, may be chopped for compost.

Waste Consciousness for Waste Reduction

For the very small bits, one of the recent changes I’ve made in how I craft is to keep an off-cut box in my sewing space instead of immediately trashing the “useless” trimmings, offcuts, and threads. Little bits are small, but they do add up. Being conscious of this waste is helping me to monitor, understand, and change my methods to further reduce.

Assessing scraps and offcuts as part of reducing waste during sewing

Conscious Sewing Material Selection

Learning to read the fabric bolt labels (composition, origin, etc), looking for certifications such as GOTS and OEKO-TEX, can help make more informed decisions, but there are a lot of factors to consider. It’s important to understanding that the true impact includes:

  • Growing/harvesting (natural) or sourcing (synthetic) raw materials.
  • Preliminary processing of raw materials.
  • Textile manufacture and processing.
  • Different stages of shipping and distribution.
  • Different stages of marketing and retail.
  • Usable life and end-life of the items made with it.

There can be a lot of chemicals involved, environmental issues, fair labour concerns, and a surprising footprint for both natural and synthetic fabrics. If you look at different eco-friendly fabric articles, you’ll find a wide range of differing opinions on what constitutes good.

Inspirational Links and Ideas for Lower Waste Sewing

Dalmatian dog sitting on T-shirt quilt squares

Crafting with Consciousness: Personal Reflections

My personal sewing is definitely not zero-waste (and will probably never be). 

Crafting for me is partly about the fun, not just the function of whatever is being created. But I do try to be somewhat considered about what I use, make, and waste.

When shopping, I still prioritise form, function, and durability. For materials, I usually want a specific performance feature or colour/design. This doesn’t always mesh with natural fabrics and/or natural dyes, and I still buy and use a variety of synthetics and blends. Many of my go-to threads are sew-all polyesters. And don’t even get me started on my use of polar fleece for the dogs. Sigh… I also still have a long way to go towards reducing and/or making full use of scraps, but every bit still helps! 

Although I’m fine with just crafting for personal enjoyment, I feel a lot less indulgent about making “just for fun” items when the material is reused, makes great use of scraps, or give purpose to material that has been kicking around in my stash for ages.

As noted above, trying to create with existing materials and less waste has been a great creativity booster. Thinking about projects, changing construction to make materials work, and using old materials in new ways can be fun. I hope that this post gives you a little inspiration for your own sewing and perhaps a few ideas to try. 

Sustainable Sewing and Home Textile Waste

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