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!).


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?