Zero Waste Sewing: Zero Waste Across Cultures — Rectangles on Display

When I was a little girl — maybe 6 or 7, I created my first zero-waste garment. In fact, it was negative waste, because I used an already pre-existing textile object — my homemade and quilted blanky. I loved my blanky so much that I wanted to wear it (the highest honor to bestow on any fabric in my opinion). So, I found a pair of scissors and made a cut in the middle for my head and slipped it on. With my new blanky poncho surrounding me, I felt secure and happy. My hands were free to play, I could show off my most prized possession, and I knew I looked amazing! Thus my affection for the design combination of simple form, specialty fabrics and practical wear was born.

I am not a fashion historian or an archivist but I have noticed many similarities of both design and textile reverence in the traditional costumes of cultures all over the world, especially in historical times when fabric was handwoven and a limited resource. This article is not meant as a history lesson, simply the observations of an interested and well-read party. With that, let’s continue on with this article of admittedly limited scope — one that will hopefully pique your interest in zero waste sewing and design.

The concept of “Zero Waste” sewing and design is simple: to use every inch of available fabric, with nothing left over. Measured rectangles, squares and triangles are the “pattern pieces”, often drawn onto the fabric instead of laid on or traced.

The examples below are joined by a common thread (I couldn’t resist). In all cases, the fabrics and textiles used are imbued with cultural signifiers. Gender, class, and regional references are literally woven into the fabric, transforming the humble rectangle into the unique story and identity of the wearer.

When I think of traditional zero waste garments, the first that come to mind are the sarong, tunic, poncho, and robe. All of these garments are staples throughout history and currently in the (problematic) form of high-fashion items. (Go ahead and google ‘Gucci Poncho’!)

One truly waste-free example must be the sarong. The sarong is a length of fabric wrapped around the waist or over the bust. Not a pattern, per se because there is no cutting involved. However, it illustrates the nature of many no-waste traditional garments that put regional and culturally-specific textiles front and center.

A Thai woman wearing a traditional and brightly colored sarong and wrapped sleeveless top.  She is in a dance pose with flowers in her dark hair.
A Thai Sarong (Photo credit: mythailand.blog)

The traditional garment I am most inspired by (as illustrated by my blanky fashion) is the poncho— traditionally worn by men. Born out of the Andes of Chile, the poncho is a simple garment that celebrates culturally rich handwoven textiles while allowing the wearer the warmth and the mobility to work out of doors. A simple garment, it is a rectangle or square of handwoven textile with a slit in the center for the head to slip through.

An Andean man wearing a brighly colored poncho of reds, greens and blues, sprinkles seeds over the ground. He is looking at the ground.
Traditional Andean Poncho (Photo credit: kuodatravel.com)

Continuing on our exploration of Mesoamerican traditional garments, the huipil is a Mayan garment traditionally worn by women and girls. The variety shown here are examples of huipils from the highlands of Guatemala, where thicker, warmer fabrics are used. The huipil is also a basic rectangle, folded in half at the shoulder, with a square or small rounded head opening and side seam openings to create sleeves that cover the shoulder. Colorful, intricate and region specific embroidery is featured on these garments, concentrated at the neckline.

Three examples of Huipils from the highlands of Guatemala.  All have bright and intricate embroidery near the neckline and shoulders. Embroidery is in themes of geometric patterns and animals.
Modern Guatemalan Huipils (Photo credit: https://samnoblemuseum.ou.edu/)

Moving on to West Africa, we find traditional handwoven indigo textiles. The woven textiles are often sewn together at the salvages to create large swaths of fabric. In the photo below are three examples of a tunic type garment (similar garments are found throughout Africa, with important differences including name and significance). As you can see, the textile itself, and the sheer volume of the garment are a celebration of artistry and cultural importance.

Three West African men stand facing each other as in conversation.  They are wearing indigo dyed tunic-like traditional garments.  Garments are volumnuous and drape to the ankle.
Traditional Indigo Dress (Photo credit: contemporary-african-art.com)

Let’s go far from the southern hemisphere and back to the time of the Vikings to see an example of zero-waste design.

A sketch of the pattern layout of a Viking tunic.  On the tunic are rectangular and triangular shapes, denoted by letter with measurements of the fabric provided.

In this example, only a small rounded neckline is cut out, and the rest of the fabric divided into simple shapes. All are utilized to form the garment. The rectangular front and back of the bodice form the front and back, while truncated triangles form the sleeves. Narrow triangular pieces form gussets sewn under the arm for ease of movement.

Moving to the island nation of Japan, we see an example of historical men’s costume. In this example, the pieces again are squares and rectangles. The bodice is a simple shape, but the dramatic proportion of the sleeves sets this garment apart from other similar garments we have seen so far.

An example of a traditional, historical Japanese garment. the garment is white silk with a wave pattern throughout. The garment is displayed on a stand as if in a museum.
Japanese Historical Men’s Costume (Photo credit: japantravel.com/)

In this example, the textile denotes both gender and nobility — woven in a white silk representing the divine origin of the wearer. Again, note the cultural significance of the textile itself.

As you approach Zero Waste sewing, I encourage you to reflect on and draw inspiration from (please do not appropriate) the idea of making the textile itself the star. By utilizing zero waste design and concepts, specialty fabric is allowed to shine and the “preciousness” of our favorite and most coveted fabrics can be utilized to their full extent. For the dyers, painters and hand sewers, these types of garments make excellent canvasses on which to showcase embellishment and technique. Instead of interpreting voluminous squares as “shapelessness” consider them as a luxurious and dramatic way in which to envelop the body.

Editor’s note: Cris encouraged our readers to reflect on and draw inspiration from rather than appropriating the culturally-specific textiles in this post. If you would like to learn more about appropriation versus appreciation, this Sewcialists post and this resource from AORTA are a great place to start.


Cris Wood is a Zero/Minimal waste pattern designer with a penchant for sewing oversize squares into garments and pattern mixing. She currently lives in Seattle with her husband and young son, spending most of her time in the sewing room. Her website is criswoodsews.com.


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