Sustainable Sewing with Recycled Denim

Denim is pretty high on the list of things to tackle in the sustainable fashion world. Like many places, where I live (The Netherlands) there is a huge appetite for denim, to the point that I’ve heard sometimes wedding invitations state “no jeans” in their dress code! Fortunately there’s a lot of innovation in sustainable denim, including recycling post consumer denim waste into other fabrics – like this one here which I used to make my top.

Side view of Kate wearing a loose denim top over a black turtleneck.  The side view clearly shows that the front of the denim top is a lighter color than the back.

Just to mention a few other things that come to mind when I think about sustainable denim: there’s use of organic cotton; innovations in indigo dyeing; the UK based-Ellen Macarthur Foundation manufacturing guidelines to “Make Jeans Circular“. And in The Netherlands, back in 2018 fast fashion brand C&A produced Cradle to Cradle Certified jeans that were sold for just €29.

How denim is recycled

According to my local industrial weaving mill, for post-consumer waste, bales of jeans are put in a machine that removes all the zips and metal parts. Sometimes the jeans are cut off at the legs to reduce any risk of metal being left. Then the jeans are shredded, carded, mixed with the virgin fibres and respun into yarn for weaving.

If you’ve ever seen sustainable ready to wear jeans, you might have wondered why it’s not made from 100% recycled denim. The reason is this – the shortening of the fibres from the shredding process means that the resulting thread, once respun, is not as strong as virgin cotton. This affects durability. That’s not to say that there won’t ever be 100% recycled denim. There’s technology innovation in chemically recycling textiles (rather than mechanical shredding). And I’ve also heard something about fusing fibres to create the long staple lengths (that we typically associate with premium cotton).

My custom fabric woven with recycled denim

Fabrics with recycled content is pretty hard to buy if you’re not into RTW from sustainable brands, or sustainable collections from large fashion brands. So I was super excited to get my hands on some last year, via a collaboration last year with Enschede Textielstad. This is a Dutch weaving mill 2 hours from my house which specialises in weaving with recycled yarns. If we’re not talking about upcycling/secondhand/using scraps/making secret seams /buying nothing etc., this is probably my most sustainable option. And I’m very aware it’s a luxurious one at that.

Three rolls of denim fabric in three different shades of blue

This particular fabric is jeans weight and contains about 70% recycled denim. The warp (threads that run parallel to the grain line) is wool/viscose and the weft (threads that run across) is a blend of recycled and virgin cotton.

What did I do with the fabric?

As I was working with a mill (not a retail fabric shop) and the fabric was custom, I created sustainable tote bag sewing kits for sale so other sewists could also try the fabric. Besides the fabric, these contained upcycled leather handles from unwanted couches, a zero waste pattern that I created, organic cotton thread, rivets … everything you need to make the bag.

Kate holding a large tote bag made from two different colors of denim and leather accents

…and a little garment sewing

It took me awhile to make a decision on this. The fabric doesn’t lend itself to being close to the skin due to the wool content, should be spot cleaned rather than washed, and for me is worthy of #sewtheprecious. In the end I settled on this layering piece in the light denim to go over turtlenecks in transitional seasons. And I also have a bit of a jeans uniform so I’m all about the denim in this outfit.

Front view of Kate in a loose denim top over a black turtleneck and jeans

My favourite part about the outfit is the two tone colour. Because of the weave type, the warp being white and the weft being coloured, the wrong side is actually the lighter coloured side which I’ve used for the front.

Front view of Kate turning her hem up to show the alternate side of her fabric
Checking out the right and wrong side of my top

Seeing as this was my #sewtheprecious garment I was really careful with my sewing and seam finishings. This was another reason for choosing a technically easy-sew garment, so I wouldn’t agonise over it for hours! FYI the pattern is a modified version of the LB Pullover by Tara at Paper Theory (of Zadie jumpsuit fame).

Happily I’m confident this will get a decent amount of wear, since in this country there is a need for a scarf and/or light jacket at least 90% of the time. A nice sewing win!

Kate @timetosew is a former guest editor of the Sewcialists. An import to the Netherlands via the UK, she thinks sustainable fashion and sewing should be accessible to everybody. Subscribe to her website Time to Sew for sustainability chat, news on upcoming sustainable fabric collections and purchase recycled fabric sewing kits.