Liz Haywood’s Zero Waste Sewing Adventure

Hello, Sewcialists,

Thank you for having me as a guest blogger.  My name is Liz Haywood, I live in rural Australia and make zero waste sewing patterns.  In this article, it’s my pleasure to share with you the way I design zero waste patterns and some of the challenges.

About me: I formally trained as a pattern maker in 1990/91 but started my career as a junior cutter in what’s called a CMT (cut-make-trim) factory.  A CMT factory does the making for designers who’ve already done their patterns and samples.  Over the next 20 years, I worked in at least ten factories and workrooms as either a cutter, pattern maker, or both. 

Image of a woman bulk cutting school uniforms in a factory
Bulk cutting school uniforms circa mid-90s, one of the very few photos of me at work. Beyond the cutting table is the screen printing department.

On reflection, all of the cutting departments I worked in struggled with waste.  Factories are thrifty places, and no one likes fabric waste; clothing cutters like good, compact layouts with the pattern pieces fitted in as tightly as possible.  However, there was nothing we could really do about it on our end—the design and pattern were already finalised and weren’t our department.  Even as a pattern maker, one has to adhere to the design.  (Not that anyone had heard of zero waste then, but it’s easy to override waste-saving ideas with other considerations.)  Although most of these factories were relatively small—the biggest had about 30 employees—a surprising amount of waste was generated.  It was okay the day after the bins had been collected, but the scrap bins filled up quickly, and typically someone had to get into the bins and jump to make room.  Only one of the factories sold their scraps, but only handkerchief-sized pieces of 100% cotton.

Fast forward to 2016: I’m now living in the country with my own family, and no longer working in industry but still enjoying making patterns as I always have.  I read about zero waste patterns in Zero Waste Fashion Design by Timo Rissanen and Holly McQuillan and started experimenting with my own.  I wondered if zero waste patterns would be harder to make than regular patterns—as well as ensuring good fit and appearance, there was the extra challenge of using 100% of the fabric.  However, I immediately clicked with it and found it to be exciting and kinda fun.

There are lots of ways to go about making a zero waste pattern, just like there are with regular patterns, and it depends on the type of garment and the pattern maker.  Some people like to drape fabric on a mannequin and see what emerges, some use computers, some like to work in 1/2 scale, etc.  I’m pretty much a flat pattern maker (I don’t really do draping), and I prefer to work manually with cloth and paper rather than make patterns on-screen.

To make a zero waste pattern, I don’t start with a traditional fashion sketch; I find it’s very difficult to make a zero waste pattern with set ideas on the outcome.  The designing happens as the pattern is made.  In 2019, I attempted to make zero waste jeans—it was really hard! Jeans are defined as trousers with 5 pockets, waistband, back yoke, and front zip, and to deviate meant that they wouldn’t be jeans. Ultimately, I failed on the zero waste part (but not by much).

Image of a woman smiling to the camera wearing a pair of trousers with next to the image of the cutting layout of a zero-waste jeans
The zero waste jeans. I could probably improve the zero waste outcome if I tried again. Read the full saga here.

So I start with an idea, which is usually in the form of a cutting layout, drawn in my sketchbook.  The sketchbook also has fashion photos from magazines stuck in it and is used for making detailed notes and sketches as I’m working on a pattern.

How do I get ideas?

1. Sometimes, I see pictures of people wearing things, or people in real life down the street, and I think, hmm… I wonder if I could do that outfit in zero waste?  If I have a photo, I stick it in my sketchbook with a little drawing of a potential cutting layout. 

Image of a woman walking the runway wearing a white dress with black details; below, image of the sketch of a zero-waste top with notes about the pattern; next to these images, an image of a woman smiling to the camera wearing a yellow flowy top
In this example, I saw an Armani dress in a runway magazine and thought it could be cut zero waste. Below the dress is the little sketch I made at the time. The layout evolved from the sketched one and eventually become this zero waste top. It was destined for Zero Waste Sewing, but I ran out of space; I might revisit it in the future.

2. Other times, I make a mini challenge within the challenge of zero waste.  I suppose it’s kind of like writing a vague design brief.

Image of a zero-waste pattern for a blouse with a tie next to the image of a woman with short hair wearing a white blouse with a tie bow
Here’s an example from Zero Waste Sewing—the tie front top. The challenge was to cut a top with a tie bow from a perfect square of 115cm/45″ wide fabric. I started off with the perfect square. I drew in the tie first on the diagonal to give maximum length and a bias cut. Next, I drew in the back and the front next to the tie to give maximum length for the body. This left four triangles to make sleeves from. The shambolic first version of these sleeves can be laughed at here.

3. Another starting point is a historical zero waste cutting concept.  This is a very approachable route to zero waste.  As you no doubt know, the idea of zero waste cutting isn’t new, and there’s plenty of examples from the past.  Sometimes, these are very simple, to showcase fabulous textiles. Library books on ethnic clothing, folk costumes, and historical clothes have been very useful to me.  Some examples of historical cut can be found here.

Image of a zero-waste dress with its cutting concept next to the image of a woman wearing a blue dress
This brilliantly simple cutting concept, known as a bog coat/jacket, dates back to the Bronze Age.
This 1980s-vibe dress from
Zero Waste Sewing uses this cutting idea.

4. I also get fashion ideas from looking around on Pinterest and doing Google searches.  I keep a zero waste Pinterest board and other boards with pocket details, skirt shapes, etc.

Almost always, I begin by drawing the pattern straight onto the fabric using tailors chalk.  I confess I initially found it confronting to draw straight onto the fabric and then cut (What if I’ve drawn the line wrong???  Yes, even after years of cutting!), but I discovered it gave me a sudden big jump in confidence! 

Image of a woman in a kitchen marking a pattern onto the fabric
Drawing a pattern straight onto the fabric, working in our (unrenovated) kitchen. As I do this, I keep very detailed notes and sketches in my ever-handy sketchbook. As a guide to sizing, I refer to a Winifred Aldrich basic block (at left) to make sure the neck, armholes, body widths, etc are going to be right.

I use a wearable fabric rather than calico (but not too special, in case I get it all wrong!) as often this can be finished off and worn by someone. 

The obvious constraint with zero waste is, of course, the fabric width.  The pattern pieces need to fit exactly within the selvedges.  However, fabrics don’t always come in the “as advertised” widths and may measure up to 5cm/2″ either side. Clothing cutters see significant variations in fabric widths—in factories, we measure all the rolls to find the narrowest one and then make the cutting layout according to that width (and naturally, if you miss one, it’s always the narrowest one). 

Early on with zero waste pattern making, I thought that the fabric width was an unwavering, inflexible, cannot-be-negotiated factor, but I discovered that in many (but not all) cases, an approximate width was acceptable. The pattern could be tweaked to work with whatever was available without too much hassle.

Even when the fabric isn’t the right width, all is not lost: a rectangular strip off the side is far easier to use later than irregular scrappy bits. The fabric can be used across several garments and therefore still achieve zero waste.

So back to making the pattern……

The big pieces get positioned first on the fabric, just like making a regular cutting layout.  Then, I look at the smaller spaces left and see how I can use them.  Creativity here will often inspire the design. 

If there are pieces that I consider “non-negotiable” (an example might be the collar pieces on a jacket with a statement collar), I’ll position them early on and then design the other pieces around it.

I make the pattern in my size, cut it out, and then pin it together. I use pins without heads for this since they’re not as sharp.  I try on the pinned-together sample very carefully (I’ve only had one mishap with this method, when I tried on pinned-together trousers and lost my balance, incising my thigh).  

It might work okay the first time, or with a little tweaking, or it might lead to something different altogether.  

The R&D phase of developing a pattern is the part I love best.  It stretches my mind to think outside of the box and beyond orthodox cutting and construction.   The final outcome is unknown, but I trust that everything will come together, with all fit and design issues resolved.  Partly, I think this confidence is the result of maturity and experience, but the more zero waste patterns I do, the more my brain seems to switch into the puzzle-solving mode to think of solutions.

Which brings us to one of the challenges of zero waste patterns: creating multiple sizes.

Regular patterns are graded after they’re made, and then a cutting layout is done.

With zero waste patterns, the process is different.  Because the pattern and layout are made at the same time, the sizing needs to be thought about as the pattern is being made, not afterwards.

You can see the problem: when you make the pattern pieces smaller, there will be gaps, and when you make them bigger, they won’t fit within the physical limit of the fabric’s width.  As well, the pattern pieces change proportions as they’re graded, so they don’t always fit together in the same way.

It’s one thing to make a zero waste pattern in a single size, but we need to do better than that!  Inclusive sizing is important because it means more people have an opportunity to try a zero waste pattern.  I now strive for 12 sizes in zero waste patterns.

Here are some examples of the ways I tackle multiple sizes:

1. One way that I incorporate many sizes is to cut the garment around the other way on the fabric.  I use this quite a lot actually.  You may have done this yourself to use a border print on a skirt or dress.  Garments grow in width rather than length as the sizes increase, so bigger sizes just require more fabric. The garment’s length is dictated by the fabric’s width.

Image of a zero-waste A-line dress with its cutting layout next to the image of a woman wearing a red dress based on the pattern
The Lilly Pilly dress uses this idea. The red arrows show the direction the pattern increases. Each size simply uses more fabric. The dress comes in 3 lengths (this one is the shortest) made by using 3 different fabric widths.

2. Sometimes, I use a “sacrificial” pattern piece which gets moved around as the main pieces increase in size.  It’s usually something long and thin, such as a waistband, belt, button bands, strips of binding, etc.

Image of zero-waste wraparound trousers with cutting layout next to the image of a woman wearing a pink  long-sleeved jacket and cranberry-color pants
These are the wraparound trousers from Zero Waste Sewing. As the width of the trousers increases (shown by the red arrows), it takes up the space where the waistband is, and the waistband gets cut elsewhere (across the fabric). When the trousers reach the limit of the fabric width, the pieces are cut around the other way as shown in example #1.

3. Cutting two garments together can give more flexibility with the layout and therefore the sizes. 

Image of a zero-waste flowy top and dirndl skirt pattern with combined cutting layout next to the image of a woman wearing a straw hat and a red dress based on the pattern
The Cendre top can be cut on its own across the fabric as described in example #1. However, if it’s cut with a simple dirndl skirt to make a two-piece dress, both can be cut “around the right way”. As the top gets wider (in the direction of the red arrows), the skirt panels next door shrink, but extra panels are cut to make up for it.
This cutting layout means that a wider range of fabrics can be used, like napped or one-way prints.

4. Another idea which I have used a little bit is modular pattern pieces. These are pattern pieces that are square or rectangular and are easy to move around the fabric whatever its width. If I was a fashion designer with in-house manufacturing, I would use this a lot, because it easily lends itself to cutting many garments in a range of sizes with zero waste. However, when making home sewing patterns that are going to be used for a single garment at a time, I feel it needs to be called low waste rather than zero waste.

Image of a zero-waste pinafore next to the image of a woman wearing a dark pink pinafore
The Smith pinafore dress uses modular pattern pieces. The pieces are cut as rectangles (top sketch) and are sewn together to make a trapezoid (bottom sketch). All the pieces, even the shaped pocket bags, are cut as rectangles.
After cutting out, you’re left with a rectangular-sized offcut which is far easier to find a use for than many odd-sized bits.
I also used this modular idea for scrubs.

When I’m happy with the zero waste pattern I’ve made, I sew the sample properly using the construction techniques I want to use.  I write detailed notes and sketches at the same time, and this forms the basis of the pattern’s instructions.

Then, things follow the same path as a regular pattern: over the next 4-6 weeks, I make it in several sizes and fit test them on fit models. I also try it out in different fabrics and make notes if the construction needs changing. I write and illustrate the instructions, organize photography, get the pattern independently edited, and then it’s ready!

If you haven’t tried a zero waste pattern before, you’ll find they tend to be very economical on fabric.  When we waste nothing, we get the full use of what we do have. You’ll also find that the cutting time is quicker because all the lines are shared (but you have to be accurate!).

There may be unusual construction techniques, and you might be challenged to think about sewing and construction in a different way. Zero waste patterns often feature unusually shaped pattern pieces. Many people comment that sewing a zero waste garment is a very satisfying experience. 

Zero waste isn’t suitable for every type of garment, but there are plenty of garments that can be—including some you might not think possible. Take a look at these: Emroce makes zero waste swimwear; Zero Waste Wardrobe has a capsule collection of free zero waste patterns including knickers and bras (website is in Finnish); Pablo Alejandro Maas created a mind-blowing three-piece men’s suit; Sophi Lou redesigned the T-shirt to have only 3% waste; Danielle Elsener made a free pattern for hospital scrubs; Threadfaction designed a range of children’s wear patterns.

Pattern makers will continue to innovate and experiment with zero waste as a small part in the bigger picture of using our resources with wisdom, taking care of the environment, and valuing fabric and clothes.

Liz Haywood is the author of the award-winning books The Dressmaker’s Companion and Zero Waste Sewing.  She also designs zero waste PDF sewing patterns.  Read her weekly fashion and sewing blog The Craft of Clothes and catch her on Instagram @lizhaywood3754.