When Sewcialists first hosted the Sustainable Sewing theme month in 2018, it wasn’t a topic that I’d thought much about. I even contributed a post called “Confessions of an Unsustainable Sewist,” where I admitted that I love poly knits and resource-intensive fabrics like rayon. I resolved at that point to at least make sure that my clothes were well loved, altered, and repaired; then, my wardrobe itself could be sustainable even if my sewing choices weren’t.
However, over the years I’ve fallen in love with one particular technique to be more sustainable as I sew: the Secret Seam!
What is a secret seam? It’s when you piece together scraps with a seam so that you can cut your fabric in the most efficient way. Basically, an extra seam in a strange location that isn’t supposed to be there, but usually goes unnoticed. I’m sure there is a better term for these patched seams, but in my head I cackle with delight every time I add a “secret seam”!
There is nothing new about secret seams—I’m sure we’ve all resorted to them at some point when we miscut the fabric or didn’t buy enough. The difference for me now is that I wear them as a badge of pride, that I made the most of my fabric and used piecing to avoid waste.
I love secret seams for a few reasons:
- I used to buy extra yardage, so that I could cut each pattern piece whole. Now, I can either buy less or have large usable scraps leftover because I’m patching fabric strategically.
- It saves money! Less fabric used and wasted equals more fabric and money left to enjoy!
- It’s a sure sign that your clothes are handmade! For decades, I think sewists tried to avoid looking “Becky Home-Ec-y” (what a terrible phrase!), but now we are taking pride in stepping out of the capitalist fast fashion economy.
Secret seams can also make a big difference for plus-size sewists. For example, if your measurements are too large to cut a pair of leggings out of 60″ knit, pattern companies tell you to buy twice the length. Instead, why not just piece a triangle in your inner leg to give yourself enough width? A secret seam can also help when a swingy hem is just slightly too wide for your fabric.
Embracing the secret seam has helped me to reframe patched fabric as a sustainable badge of honour. I’m proud to be getting the most out of my yardage and using my scraps strategically. It also makes me wonder: What strategies are you using to sew more sustainably? How has it changed your thinking about sewing?
Gillian cofounded the Sewcialists in 2013. She lives in Canada and loves cats, bright colours and sewing! She blogs at Crafting A Rainbow .
My main strategy is to not buy new yardage in general (I do sometimes). Most of what I make now comes from thrifted remnants and linens. This is practical for me because my jam is easy to find in those contexts: cotton flannel, percale, canvas, denim, and whatever you call that material that’s drapier than canvas but almost as heavy that store bought tablecloths& casual curtains are often made of (kettle cloth?). It would be harder if my needs were different, say if I wanted stretchy knits or elegant materials. I’m willing to piece too! Since I’ve unexpectedly developed a fondness for dolman sleeves-which I used to hate till I drafted a base pattern that eliminates the bunchy excesses-I’ve been using the “secret seam” quite a lot.
Also, when I first started to sew almost 50 years ago cloth was generally narrower, mostly available in 20(24?) inch, 36 inch, and 45 inch, rarely wider, and the even older library books I consulted regularly emphasized piecing out skirts and sleeves!
What a brilliant comment about vintage fabric! i knew it used to be narrower but i never thought about how that must have affected the need to piece things together. Thank you!
Great framing of a crafty tip! My main ways to buy less and waste less fabric are to cut everything on a single layer, and recently, to use scraps of lightweight stable fabrics instead of interfacing. Also, buying in person when I can – most online orders don’t allow for 1/8 or even 1/4 yard increments, so I often end up with 4 – 9 excess inches, an awkward amount I’m not sure how to use!
What a good point about buying in person instead of online! When I buy online I get more than enough just in case, and when I buy in person, I think about every 10cm and try to cut it just right!
The part of the interfacing facinates me. What kind of fabric do you use ? Cotton ?
Yes, yes and yes. I buy half a yard over for fabric that needs to be pattern matched and the excess is usually enough to make a kid size camp shirt for the local school “clothing bank”. And piecing the crotch is an old tailor’s trick to fit larger sizes on narrow yardage. A trick I’ve used myself on more than one occasion. Good tips.
OH my goodness, you kind, kind woman! We never have anything as lovely as a handmade shirt in my school clothing bank! I bet you make some kids very happy! <3
Great tips! I like to call those secret seams design details. I’m also making an effort to start mixing my scraps in for facings and such, so I can start making a dent in my pile!
Side note, thanks for calling out “Becky home ecky” as a terrible phrase. I’ve hated it for years, for obvious reasons, and admittedly have a small grudge against Project Runway for introducing it!
I”m trying to remember if Becky Home Ecky was a thing before PR… but popularizing is the worse thing they did! just today at the grocery store I had two nice conversations with women who complimented my coat… why wouldn’t we want people to know our clothes are handmade with love!
That term goes back farther than you’ve been alive!!! My home ec instructor used it in 1958😱
Renita in NC
You just made my day!!!! I love that sense of history and continuity in sewing!
I think you need to trademark that name! I “secret seam” with knitting all the time – and I too consider it a badge of pride that I’ve managed to get the whole garment out of one or 2 fewer balls of yarn than required (and, let’s face it, those yarns are expensive! I can save 50 bucks this way.). With knitting, it tends to involve techniques like using a contrast yarn or changing the vertical dimensions… With sewing, I totally intend to start making this the new normal. No one knows where the seams “should” be, after all. If you were a famous designer, and you did this, everyone would assume that it was part of your creative genius.Because I’m on the short side, and I usually make the garments in the 8-10-12 range (not that this really means anything given that every company sizes differently, but I generally make a middle size), I can buy less than the amount of fabric that’s recommended. I don’t think I’ve ever been short fabric on the project I bought the fabric for initially. When I find the secret seam most useful is when using scraps to make a second garment.
Even as someone who sews the largest size, I can usually get away with less fabric than recommended cause I’m so short! It can definitely be a blessing!
Clever. I feel now you have given me permission to “make it work” in a new way. Like the term “secret seam”.
I’m glad it resonated with you! Now you too can grin every time you put in a secret seam!
Recently I was sewing snaps onto an impossibly bright orange coat that I’d made and the front facings are pieced in 3 pieces. ha!!! I just chuckled because…gotta do what you gotta do!
YES! And you won’t love that coat any less for having some secret seams!
Loved this article! Giving permission to do the secret seam. Way to go!
<3 Thanks Jo!
The secret seam is ingenious! I am obsessed with trying to make use of every last bit of fabric. I cut everything on a single layer, and run the seam allowances into the selvage. I always measure the exact amount of fabric I use when making a pattern, so I don’t over-purchase if I choose to make it again. This approach will give me the confidence to find creative ways to make a pattern work with even less.
Great post! I recently patched the lining of my Wiksten Hoari and shared it with a much older seamstress. She totally understood the make-do attitude and supported it. I love the tip for patching the crotch curve for trousers!!!
Maybe those online fabric stores should be cutting by the decimeter! Thank you for the “secret seam” term. That’s why us sewists are crafty!!
I’ve heard that the reason online stores can’t cut by the decimetre is that the shop websites templates they use can only sell single units, which stores usually chose as a 1/4m or 1/2m… but in Japan they do sell by decimetre units! It’s a mental stretch for me to shop for yardage that costs something like .79/10cm or 1.36/10cm, but it does make for a very precise order!
Gillian, what a great idea !Indeed that way you have more leftover fabric. Whith mine I m still making pants and hats for newborns (in need).
wonderful sewing – as someone who tried to remake from thrifted buys, sneaking in a seam in a way it looks ‘on purpose’ is a great win – my latest was a seam at the back of a dress which seamed along the yoke, and it worked very well… your hem one looks especially good as I am sure it had the added advantage of giving some nice weight on the hem
I just used a secret seam on a blue velour dress I cut out, to make it all fit on the length that I had 😉 Love that technique! If anyone has access to old issues of Threads mag, or is a Threads insider, they had a great article on this topic in the Feb/Mar 2017 issue. I’ve used some of their tricks.
I chuckled when you mentioned using the wedge insert in the crotch seam. I have been using that as a repair for jeans & pants for decades, stitching it over the area like an applique. With practice was not noticeable. Used extra ends from pants I made, excess from hemming store bought or salvaging pieces from pants beyond repair. Having lived in a remote community where even “average size” clothes as well as fabric were difficult to come by got used to being creative to extend the life of clothes. Love all the hidden seam ideas. A garment can be perfectly lovely without being OCD “perfect”.
Perhaps you are familiar with it, but there is a British tv series A Stitch In Time, where the host works with people to recreate outfits from historic artworks authentically. In one of these they mention the same seaming process being common. I think it may have been the one on Henry the 8th. I’ve used it a couple of times discreetly, but you inspire me to expand my thinking and reduce my scraps. Thanks.
Well done for thinking outside of the box or pattern! I run a craft group for people with mental health problems and we try to make things using items that would end up in the bin. This is inspiring as one of our ladies is a fabulous seamstress so will be showing her this. Thank you
Like Theresa in Tucson, I use larger scraps (typically from my daughter at Simony Pony Boutique) and make shirts and pants, mostly in sizes 4 & 5, for donation to a school. Since rarely are the pieces big enough for an entire garment, I colorblock and add seams to “stretch” what I have.
Absolute Wizardry, thrift and flair combined. Needlecraft is such a versatile skill. One could even go further with applique or other decoration to cover a small shortage. Well done for making such a feature of a neat trick in an inspirational way.
Love the concept of the secret seam! One of my craft bugbears is that companies normally tell you to buy way more fabric than needed, and also have wasteful suggested cutting diagrams. This is another way to eke more clothing out of less fabric.
Your secret seams is a game changer for me. A drawerful of too-small clothes are now on the way to being totally rehabilitated. Pieces of sleeves, hems, collars and pockets are now adding that bit of extra width at the sides. Thank you so much for this post!
I like the term secret seam. I have got into watching a lot of historical dress recreations on YouTube recently and historically it’s called ‘piecing’ instead as you piece fabrics together to make what you need (I think). From an era where all fabric was expensive and every scrap was used.
Here’s an article from American Duchess that might amuse some http://blog.americanduchess.com/2018/07/the-7-stages-of-piecing.html
The other historical term I like is calling my scrap pile a ‘cabbage patch’.
You may love 40s womens fashion, and thanks for your article it’s very useful..!!