In case you missed it, there is an Instagram photo challenge running at the moment, focusing on sustainability in sewing. I’m really terrible at those, but it did make me realise I haven’t posted any sustainability posts in quite a while.
So I decided to cover a topic that I get asked about all the time, both in the sewing community, amongst my friends and family, but also at work. You might remember I am a sustainability professional in my day job, so my role is to advise designers and product techs how to make a garment as sustainable as possible. Now I wanted to transfer this knowledge to the sewing life, so let’s find out what are the most sustainable fabrics you can choose in your sewing life as well. To manage your expectations, this is not about whether cotton is more sustainable than polyester or if you should go for organic vs recycled. I will be covering all that in a future post.
What is sustainable fabric?
Before we get any further on this topic, let’s define what I mean by sustainable in the context of this post.
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The definition of sustainability is all about ensuring that resources are used in such a way as to preserve them for future generations, by either reducing their consumption or ensuring they are regenerated.
So in my books, sustainable fabric is the one that uses the least resources to produce (or not at all, as they require no new ones), or they are made with improved options that have less environmental impacts than conventional methods.
The hierarchy of sustainable fabric
With the above in mind, I put together a hierarchy of the most sustainable fabric you can choose for your sewing projects. Of course, each individual’s choices depend on their circumstances, but I wanted to make people think that buying organic fabric, for example, is not always the most sustainable option and that we also have to think about using resources that have already been expended instead on encouraging the utilisation of new ones.
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So let’s explore this in more details, along with my top tips for using sustainable fabric in your sewing.
OPTIONS FOR SOURCING SUSTAINABLE FABRIC
I put this at the base of my hierarchy, as this is very rarely the default position when we start a sewing project. Far away from the ‘made do and mend’ mindset, the current consumer society tell us that ‘new is always best’, so let’s start changing that by changing our default starting point.
By reclaimed, I mean fabric that has already had a life (maybe as something other than clothes), but it can be upcycled into a new garment. This can be either a refashion, to the extent where you effectively unpick all the pieces and reuse the fabric as flat pieces. Or it can be using large flat pieces, like sheets, curtains, throws, blankets, etc, which effectively is like using a fabric length. You can also look at reusing fabric scraps, that would otherwise go to waste.
WHY IS THIS SUSTAINABLE: This is the best way to reduce resource consumption for our creative pursuits. You are also not encouraging consumption of new resources by buying new fabric.
TOP TIP: When reclaiming fabric, please make sure you are not cutting up items that can still be used at their designated original purpose (and they will have to be replaced with something new).
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INSPIRATION: You might have seen this challenge on Instagram, under #scarfrefashion. It was a fantastic source of inspiration on how to reuse reclaimed fabrics, from table cloths to scarves to even tea towels.
Some of my favourites:
I will paraphrase the mother of Fashion Revolution, Orsola de Castro, by saying that ‘the [second] most sustainable fabric is the one in your stash’. Far from trying to stash shame anyone, we do tend to acquire much more fabric than we will be able to sew in year and years. When was the last time you ‘shopped your stash’ for your latest project instead of going for the latest shiny new fabric that you saw on Instagram?
WHY IS THIS SUSTAINABLE: The resources to make the fabric in your stash have already been used, so the best, most sustainable thing to do is to use it for its designed destination: turning it into clothes you will love and wear.
TOP TIP: My most important tip is to organise your stash. Make sure you actually know what you have and there are no forgotten pieces hiding at the back of the cupboard. I often find that rediscovering an old piece of fabric is as much fun as buying a new one. Your system doesn’t have to be very technical or use expensive apps, just choose a way that works for you. My favourite method in the link below.
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INSPIRATION: Check out the #makeyourstash on IG.
Well, if you do need to add to your stash, taking from someone else’s stash is the next best thing. You are still using existing resources, but it will feel like it’s ‘new-to-you’ fabric (queue newness rush). I love giving away fabric from my stash, and seeing what my friends make with fabric that I fell out of love with, but that can be loved all over again by someone else. I also get given fabric quite often from work, which is super fun as well, but it’s a slippery slope, that’s how I ended up with an oversized stash. I’m really looking forward to the next fabric swap, so I can pass on the love.
WHY IS THIS SUSTAINABLE: To the same extent as shopping your stash, shopping someone else’s stash is a good way of avoiding resource consumption for producing new fabric.
TOP TIP: Don’t let this be an excuse to stuff fabric into your stash for free and increase the hoard. Operate a ‘one in, one out policy’ and make sure you gift or swap as much fabric pieces as you receive.
INSPIRATION: Check out these super cool Burnside bibs that my sewing BFF Kate from TimetoSew made with fabric I gifted her (the blue one – same as the one I used for my Ann Normandy Maxi dress).
Also, some of my own makes with fabric I got in swaps.
THRIFTED OR FABRIC FROM CHARITY SHOPS
Charity or thrift stores are a really good way of acquiring fabric that is not newly produced. Plus you can grab a bargain perhaps and help a good cause at the same time. I include here social enterprises like Our Social Fabric or other places that work towards saving textiles from landfill and keeping them in use. We really should be making buying second-hand fabric a default option, especially for those that already shop second hand for clothes anyway.
WHY IS THIS SUSTAINABLE: The purpose of fabric is to be turned into products, so by buying it from places that try to keep it away from landfills (or lingering unwanted in a cupboard), you are making a contribution to the environment but also to a good cause.
TOP TIP: Did you know Oxfam have a massive online shop (in the UK)? They often list fabric as well. If you are based in Yorkshire, they have a massive warehouse in Batley where they also have fabric. Also, many large textile recyclers in the UK collect fabric lengths and can sell to the public as well. Check out LMB in London and Bristol Textile Recyclers.
INSPIRATION: Blowing my own trumpet here, but here are some of my projects made with fabric I got in charity shops or from fabric recyclers.
This is a concept that is often mentioned in the fashion industry and brands such as Reformation base theor sustainability credentials on using it. It’s effectively fabric that was ordered for production that was never used and factories sell it to wholesalers, who in turn sell to retailers and then to the public. More info in this article.
WHY IS THIS [MORE] SUSTAINABLE: There are various opinions on whether using deadstock is truly sustainable, especially by brands in the fashion industry. Undoubtedly, using something that would go to waste is a good thing, but I am wary that the fabric resell business is very murky. You will never know where the fabric comes from and if it’s really deadstock or someone is selling it to you as such to bank on the desire for sustainability.
TOP TIP: Try to find shops that sell deadstock that you can trust to come directly from the production or factories. I really like the FC Fabric Studio that is the surplus fabric outlet of Fashion Enter, a social enterprise that produces garments in London and skills people to work in the fashion industry. If you are in London, you can even go and browse in person (based in North London).
EDIT: More sources of deadstock fabric as highlighted by my readers: FabMo in the Bay Area in US.
INSPIRATION: I love this silk from FC Fabric Studio, using deadstock fabric.
If you have been paying attention to what I have been telling you so far, you already know that this should be the last option when looking for sustainable fabric! You really don’t want to be encouraging the industry to produce even more, right? The latest trends – and yes, there are trends in fabric too – only result in single-use garments that you lose interest once the latest print novelty wears off.
WHY IS THIS NOT SUSTAINABLE: Newly milled fabric is a product like any other, it is driven by demand. So the more people buy, the more they will produce, and market to them in order to maintain that demand. The vicious circle of consumerism at its best.
TOP TIP: Unsubscribe from all the fabric shop newsletters! Less ‘inspiration’, less chances of impulse buys.
DO YOU FIND CHOOSING A MORE SUSTAINABLE OPTION EASY OR DO YOU DEFAULT TO NEW FABRICS? TELL ME IN COMMENTS.
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENTS:
Before I sign off, a few things I wanted to make you aware of.
- I am off on holidays for the next few weeks, so there will be no posts on the blog until the end of September. Hope you will miss me! Will be coming back with fresh forces and new posts in October!
- Since the beginning of the year, my posts are no longer appearing in Bloglovin’. I have raised countless support tickets that they have not even dignified with a reply. So if you tend to follow me there, please subscribe directly by email (see below) as I am not sure when the issue will be resolved (if ever).
Looking forward to catching up in October. In the meantime, I might be posting pics of my holiday adventures in California on Instagram.
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