Zero waste is a term which has slowly percolated through the sewing community in the last few years, but it’s been around for as long as clothes themselves, with bog coats and authentic Japanese Kimonos possibly being the most common examples. Fabric was once a precious commodity and both utilitarian and luxurious garments were made with minimal waste, using squares and rectangles. Many of the modern zero waste patterns for home sewists utilise this same technique and it works well. However, once people desire more shape and therefore curves, zero waste becomes problematic and requires more creativity and lateral thinking.
I am going to focus on the home sewist rather than commercial garment design as that is the target audience for this post, and examine the concept of creating clothing that is both useful and environmentally sustainable.
Zero waste, as the name implies, is the process of making a garment or item without waste. As home sewists we know how much fabric is wasted in the construction of a garment and the aim is to eliminate this, thereby reducing the amount of fabric sent to landfill (or left languishing in bins in our sewing spaces!). There are two ways of eliminating waste: by utilising an entire piece of fabric in the making of a garment; or using the leftover pieces of fabric to create another, separate, item. This latter concept is not always as easy as it sounds and it will be the subject of a further blog post with exemplars.
One of the things that I notice people struggle with is the lack of an actual pattern. What you get is a design with measurements and something like a roadmap to create the seam lines, which are drawn directly on to the fabric. This is rather alarming when a precious piece of fabric is involved. It is always best to make a toile the first time or use fabric you’re prepared to sacrifice. However, it is nice not to have paper patterns and it means that if you want a different size due to weight changes, or making for others, then it’s a simple matter of adjusting the measurements. I would exhort everyone to give this a try at least once; you might surprise yourself with how enjoyable it is.
Some very simple zero waste garments are made like this example below and this is often the sort of instructions that a sewist will receive. A couple of cuts and a bit of fabric manipulation and you have a garment. (image taken from https://lizhaywood.com.au/considering-zero-waste-fashion/zero-waste-fashion-jacket-sketch/)
I have knitted garments like the one below. It is very easy to do on a knitting machine for example and looks quite striking in a drapey fabric. This would be a very simple way to get started on zero waste without committing much more than a rectangle of fabric and it could be sewn or knitted which is a bonus. There are some thoughts on this design at https://lizhaywood.com.au/the-hug-me-tight-experiment/.
I was lucky enough to do a week long residential workshop with Holly McQuillan, a component of which was making paper models of some of her designs. These designs are available under a Creative Commons license on the Make Use website. This t-shirt design is available at https://makeuse.nz/make/crop-t-shirt/, and has a little more complexity than the simple shapes above. I think turning a paper pattern into a 3D model is an excellent way of understanding the process. This one highlights different necklines, different lengths and different sleeve designs.
Once you have your head round how zero waste works, the book by Rissanen, T., & McQuillan, H. (2016). Zero Waste Fashion Design. London; New York: Fairchild Books, becomes much more usable.
I could make no sense of the patterns prior to doing the course with Holly, but once I was shown, then it became much easier. There is now a Zero Waste Design Online collective that delivers educational resources, including online courses, and is well worth looking at. They can also be followed on Instagram @zwdo_collective for up-to-date information.
Liz Haywood from A Craft of Clothes has written a book called “Zero Waste Sewing” which won the 2020 NYC Big Book Award (craft/hobby category). The book is size inclusive and contains 18 sewing designs which are all zero waste. This book contains a lot more handholding than the Rissanen and McQuillan book. There are complete construction instructions which makes the book rather easier to use. Here are the patterns in the book, taken from The Craft of Clothes website, click right to see the slide show and details.
I always used to think of zero waste as being squares and rectangles, but as I become more interested I realise that curves are very possible, the negative space they create just becomes pockets or other design features. I also used to think that the finished garment was simple, being draped or wrapped and slightly shapeless or having a relaxed fit. But this is absolutely not the case, and my next post will highlight some quite sophisticated designs that do not have any hint of being made from squares or rectangles.
One of the things I am noticing about zero waste is how it can be more size inclusive. Although a design might be limited by the width of the material, an extra seam or two can accommodate larger sizes, which means it can be for everyone. You will see from the image above that many of the patterns are able to be made to any size.
The only negative point (if you can call it that) of zero waste is that it requires an exact amount of fabric and if you are using stashed fabrics, which is my preference, you almost never have that exact amount of fabric required. Pattern Tetris is not a possibility, so you always have to select a piece of fabric that is perhaps bigger than required. This means that there will be leftover fabric, although it is generally a symmetrical shape, which is useful for other garments/makes. As I am not buying fabric I do spend an inordinate amount of time burrowing in my stash looking for the perfect fabric for my makes. I am always surprised that I can usually find something that will work.
If you are wanting to try zero waste without outlaying any money for patterns, here is a list of free zero waste patterns:
Milan AV-JC makes seven patterns available through a Creative Commons license. There are some beauties among them and I am planning at least one of these.
The Make Use NZ site, which is a website dedicated to making zero waste clothing, again using a Creative Commons license. This is well worth exploring and experimenting with the designs. It can be used in conjunction with Rissanen, T and McQuillan, H (2016): Zero Waste Fashion Design (Publ)
Schnitten Patterns have two zero waste patterns and I’m definitely going to give them a try. What seems to be different about these patterns is that you get an actual pattern and one size fits most.
One of the things I need to say is that these designers have provided these patterns free, but they are small businesses with a living to make and if I download a free pattern I do try to buy a pattern from them in appreciation. I don’t enjoy trawling the web looking for free patterns, but there is a purpose if you want to try a new designer or a new style of sewing such as zero waste. I therefore provide these links to free patterns in the hope that you try them and then reciprocate the generosity by buying a pattern or promoting the business through your social media.
Some other designers which you might wish to explore are:
Birgitta Helmersson has several zero waste patterns that are worth exploring.
The Thread Faction which is a new to me designer, but this site has zero waste patterns for children, which could be useful for some readers.
Criswood sews also has a collection of zero waste instructions designed for beginners, including the immensely popular Envelope dress.
Seamwork Magazine has a very nice article about zero waste sewing which is well worth reading.
As mentioned earlier, my next post will look at just a few of my makes, and the patterns I have tried in the hope that I can inspire some Sewcialist readers/followers to give it a go themselves.
Sue lives in beautiful Western Australia where the weather is most conducive to making easy to wear zero waste garments. She is retired (so has lots of time) and blogs at Fadanista.com and is on Instagram @suestoney.
Excellent article. Thank you!
Thank you so much Nancy!
Thanks for such an interesting post, zero waste designs have certainly moved on a lot in terms of style and design. I haven’t tried one yet but with the choice available from the ones you highlight it is only a matter of time. Please forgive me for being picky with one point which is I don’t believe any fabric is actually saved from landfill because unless the garment is never discarded its eventual destination is landfill.
Oh yes, a good point Helen, although if it’s a natural fibre it will go back to the earth. However, a lot of new fabric goes to landfill and when you consider the resources that go into producing fabric, that is a bit worrying.
Great post, Sue! I appreciate the inclusion of so many references and patterns.
Thank you so much Del!
I appreciate the intent of zero waste, but it isn’t for me. I instead use my scraps for as many things as I can, quilts, masks, crafts, then cut any remaining into small pieces and stuff pillows. Our end goals are the same, just different methods. Very interesting concept.
Absolutely! Zero waste or low waste are different names for the same goals: less waste!
I try to use my scraps too, and you’re right, they are different sides of the same coin, but it is nice to make something and not have a single thing left over. I wasn’t really into it either until I tried it, now I just find it all quite fascinating.
How timely this is. And informative. I believe in zero waste for all aspects of my life and feel the movement coming on strong. It feels good to be a minimalist, leave a small footprint and hopefully be part of a big solution. Like others I have my stash which weighs heavily at times. I need ingenious ways to use it up after a zero waste garment project. Cottons are easier – quilts and utilitarian blankets, knits are more of a challenge. Love this blog, lots to think about.
Thank you so much. I’m also introducing it into my life too. No single use plastic containers, take my own container to the butcher, etc, but I do seem to have a lot of waste in my sewing room, which is why this appeals to me so much.
Wonderfully informative post, so much creativity and inspiration. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.
Thank you so much Tina, I am still playing around the edges but it is a fun activity
I am not sure about zero waste patterns designs because the total amount of fabric that is ultimately used is still the same. The difference is whether you’re wearing those bits or not. 2 metres is 2 metres, on the body or off. I think that pattern designers should provide layouts and fabric requirements that reduce the amount that is bought in the first place. I have seen fabric requirements on patterns that indicate the same amount for sizes XS to L. Impossible! Another approach would be print or trace off your pattern, lay it out according to the width of fabric you want to buy, and determine the actual amount you need before you buy. Or what I do is just buy up to 0.5 m less than the stated requirements and squeeze it out using Tetris – it’s a risk but works for me as a petite sewist who is often 6 or more inches shorter than the so-called “standard” model.
That is a very good question Christine and one that has been discussed at length: should we be paying attention to fabric yield and what is the point of the exercise if a zero waste garment uses more that a regular garment (or the same as a regular garment)?
Zero waste stops fabric entering landfill, but as Helen has said in the comments it’s all going end up in landfill eventually whether its as scraps or worn-out garment.
From my own zero waste experiments, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at just how economical zero waste patterns can be. I’ve found they all use less fabric, often significantly less. When we use don’t waste any fabric, we get the full use of what we do have.
For example, the white tie front top in the book Zero Waste Sewing is cut from a mere 112cm x 112cm of fabric for up to a size 16/42″ bust (and will also fit a 46″ bust, just with less ease). In another example, I’m doing a long sleeve blouse at the moment and I think I can do it in 160cm x 112cm. These are significant fabric savings which make zero waste worth pursuing in the interests of using less of our resources in the first place.
Thanks for commenting about that.
I’m a pattern Tetris person too, and I never take note of those fabric requirements. I also shave .5cm off the 1.5cm seam allowances in patterns that I’ve used before and know I don’t need the wider seams. I struggle with the fact that for zero waste you need an exact yardage which I often don’t have, which is why minimal waste is probably a better term.
Thanks Liz and Fadanista for your thoughts on my comment! You may have persuaded me to check some of these patterns out! I like the idea of minimal waste too.
It’s good to try with minimal investment – I hope you share your make!
I think that really zero-waste is a bit of a red herring. As several people have said, clever pattern placement can result in a better item more likely to be used because of the fit. I see that many of the zero waste patterns look best on the tall and slim, often with a smaller bust. These would be unsuitable for a lot of body types.
I’m not decrying ‘zero waste’ as a promotional tool for wiser fabric choices, better pattern design and more awareness of the issue of fast fashion and landfill. I think as Sewers we should be aware of all of this and more. We should be reusing our failed attempts, repurposing our older clothes and generally not buying so much. Fabric, just as much as fast fashion, is a terrible lure….I know it’s effects.
So I hope that ‘zero- waste’ isn’t touted as the answer to all our ills, and that as a sewing community we can promote this and more nuanced approaches. I hope this doesn’t sound like a diatribe against zero waste; I just worry that lots of people will jump on the band wagon and make zero waste clothes that are unsuitable for themselves and their lifestyle, and which will rapidly end up as the newest fad for the landfill. It’s obviously a good topic for discussion though, and lots of interesting comments.
I love this thoughtful comment Trish. I totally agree that we need to be more mindful about clothing and fabric and more careful with what we use and waste. The thing about zero waste, though, is that it can really celebrate a piece of fabric. I am hoping to share a top I made today which used a precious piece of fabric that I had block printed and which I just couldn’t utilise properly with regular patterns. I am lucky enough to be able to work with a designer and she has created a new pattern (being released fairly soon) which addresses some of your concerns – it’s zero or minimal waste, it has an actual pattern so pattern Tetris is possible, and it suits different bodies. Liz Haywood always shows her patterns on a diversity of bodies so you can see how they look. I also hope it doesn’t become a fad (although it’s been around for millenia), but then again, almost anything seems to be the next shiny thing. I am hoping that people will try it if they are interested as it is a different way of thinking about pattern making. Thanks again for such a great comment!
Thanks for your reply. I’m glad I didn’t offend you and will be really interested to see a zero waste pattern that’s more fitted. I’m all about the fabric and sometimes have terrible difficulty in actually cutting into a fabric when I love the design on it. I do try to only sew what I need and need what I sew, but sometimes go awry like everyone. The online sewing community is such a wonderfully supportive one. I’m so glad I found it.
Oh Trish, I would never take offence at an honest critique of something I’ve written, it’s what every author craves!! I also have difficulty cutting into my special fabric, even though I know it’s just fabric – in fact, I go for a walk before I begin cutting! Having said that, I’m the same with a thrifted sheet!
I’m glad you commented too Trish.
Zero waste is in a season of experimentation by patternmakers and manufacturers which is quite exciting – while it’s an old idea it’s different to how we do things at the moment. We can expect to see more sophisticated patterns as patternmakers get experienced with this kind of patterncutting and using technology to make it achievable. I see zw as one avenue of making fashion and sewing more sustainable, and as Sue mentions it has bonus benefits.
And you are spot-on: the bottom line really is that we need to consume less and wisely.
Thank you so much for this article and the pattern recommendations to help us get started. The comments section has been equally as enlightening. I love how much I learn at The Sewcialists!
Thank you so much, I agree, the comments have been fabulous and it’s been so good to get the differing points of view!
Thank you for the links! I’d never considered zero waste sewing before (although I very rarely throw out a scrap- there’s always toy stuffing or patchwork or scraps for mending) because the patterns I’d seen were boxy or a weird shape or had unnecessary added-on bits (dodgy corsages etc) for the sake of no waste.
Those Milan AV-JC patterns look great though (I find the fabric layout sketches oddly compelling) and I can see how I might adapt them to make them more bra-friendly (why do zero waste pattern designers assume that nobody wears a bra?).
Thank you so much for this comment. I’m not sure why it’s only just appeared in my feed, but I really appreciate it. I agree about the Milan AV-JC patterns, but also agree about being bra friendly 😂!
Something else I was going to say: I wonder if there’s a middle ground between conventional and zero waste sewing patterns, where some of the ZW techniques are used to ensure more efficient use of fabric. I’ve generated massive and oddly shaped scraps in the past as a result of following the layout instructions on the pattern, and while they’ve come in useful recently for face coverings, I can’t help but feel that there must be a better way!
There is a middle ground and it’s called minimal waste. I rarely follow the layout instructions on patterns as I can always play Pattern Tetris and reduce the amount of fabric I need. I’m not sure why patterns have such inefficient layouts. Also, by changing the shape of a piece, or cutting it in two (for example a sleeve), you can often get a big saving in fabric. I’m always adding design lines to patterns to fit them on. Also, 5/8″ seam allowances are not necessary for a lot of patterns, particularly if you’ve made them before and know they fit. This is the first area I change on a pattern and saves a surprising amount of fabric.
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I’m just getting back into making my own clothes again after 30+ years. I absolutely love the main photo of the long dress and matching bag, is there a pattern or instructions available for this. I’m 62 and have been looking for patterns that work with my body and can hide a great deal but still look feminine.
This article is amazingly well written! I love your ethics and heart! I have always been a believer in supporting artists of any kind and not taking advantage of them (free vs paid). I love that you support them by buying a pattern when you find a free one.
I have come up with a few zero waste patterns myself, but I am terrified of sharing my creations with the world due to all the judging out there. I’m so happy to see similar patterns and ideas emerging into the fashion world!
Thank you so much Sara, this is so deeply appreciated. I feel sick that people just hunt for the freebies, they wouldn’t want to work for nothing, I’m sure. The judging is another issue, of course, but I’d love to see what you’ve done.
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Great article! Also loving the long dress (top of the article). Is there a pattern or instructions available for it. Thank you.
Thank you so much. I don’t think the instructions for this dress were ever published. It’s by Pattern Union. I talk about the dress on my blog at https://fadanista.com/2020/11/22/zero-waste-1930s-style-dress/ with a schematic of the design if you are interested.
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