Zero waste sewing

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/)

A graphic representation of a flat piece of fabric with a few cutting lines drawn on. A 2nd graphic shows how once cut, the fabric can be folded to create sleeves and fronts, thus forming a 'bog coat'.

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/.

A graphic representation of a flat rectangle of fabric,  which when folded at the short sides and sewn, turns into a shrug.

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.

A 3D paper presentation of a zero waste t-shirt, which has been cut from a diagram, and glued together at the relevant places.

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.

Zero Waste Fashion Design book by Timo Rissanen and Holly McQuillan

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:

Elbe Textiles Robe

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.


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