Zero Waste Sewing: Piecing together to solve sizing challenges

Last year, I was sitting in a zero waste workshop, to learn about making my craft practice and my handmade wardrobe more sustainable, when the question of sizing came up – specifically, grading and increasing and decreasing a size range. I leaned in for the response, eager to learn strategies for addressing sizing in zero waste clothing, and the instructor’s immediate response was dismissive: “It’s impossible. It’s too difficult.” For one of the most creative clothing construction areas, my body is “impossible” for zero waste pattern making? I couldn’t believe that, so I set out to find out whether that was true, how zero waste designers are handling the challenge of fitting a wide range of bodies, and to look for ways to change that “impossible” attitude with creative solutions for both makers and designers.

In my design work, I see limitations and boundaries as creative opportunities. Limits give us ground rules. They form a framework for us to work inside, around, outside, and, when necessary, break. I see limitations as a challenge to be met and conquered. With this in mind, I seek out zero waste designs that give enough guidance for me to transfer the shapes and expand the sizing to my own needs.

My first encounter with the concept of zero waste clothing was the make/use system of user-modifiable clothing. Consisting of patterns for two t-shirts, two dresses, a coat, pants, and a wrap skirt, make/use provides templates and directions that the user can manipulate to make clothing of any size, for any body. Intended to be a clothing system that anyone, at any level of experience, can make, make/use also includes decorative pre-finishing, joining, and modification techniques. With “flat to form” templates, you can print a miniature version of each garment onto paper and cut and fold them to see how this system works and allow you to test your modifications before taking your ideas to fabric.

3 photos, each show a model wearing a different pattern from the Make/Use range.

The range of user modifiable garment templates on make/use means a zero waste capsule wardrobe is within reach for a full range of sizes. Users can modify not only the size, but the shape and fit of these garments.

I often think that because my first experience with zero waste was limitless, all zero waste should be unlimited, making me a challenging sewing pattern customer! I’m not afraid to ask questions and get advice directly from the designer about modifying their patterns for my particular fitting challenges (height and proportions) while remaining zero waste.

A grid of 9 photos showing different views of the Maynard Dress.

Image: screenshot of the Maynard Dress page by Elbe Textiles

How do other designs approach sizing in zero waste? To understand how zero waste design works, I spoke with Dr. Holly McQuillan, co-author of the first book about zero waste (Zero Waste Fashion Design) and one of the make/use project creators, also to Australian zero waste sewing pattern designer Liz Haywood , about their thoughts on sizing zero waste patterns.

McQuillan says : “Zero waste is always limited by the fabric width…so conventional grading methods are sometimes problematic (depending on how the pattern is developed).” Fabric width, and indeed loom width, is undoubtedly a limitation when working with commercial fabrics. However, I believe this is a simple challenge to meet. Turn the fabric 90 degrees, so you’re working with fabric length as width. Combining two widths of material or extending the width by using scraps to create a unique, decorative element would create an opportunity to extend size ranges in zero waste design. Guidelines for sizing to your body—as evident in the make/use system’s template option—allows us all, no matter what height or size we are, to make our own zero waste clothing.

A photo of Kim's notebook, showing a sketch of how a large piece of fabric and scraps can be joined to create a larger workable piece of fabric.

Above : Making plans in my Bullet Journal for creating wider fabric that also uses scraps from some of my favourite fabrics. I love that we, as makers, have complete control over our materials in this way. It’s the opportunity to create a brand new, unique fabric, while using up every bit of old favourites

Haywood agrees : “Sizing needs to be thought about right at the beginning, as the zero waste pattern is being designed. This is key. A strategy for increasing and decreasing the size of the pattern pieces needs to be in place so that the garment is still zero waste for every size. You need to see how many sizes are possible and how you can make every size you want.”

Many of Haywood’s designs have you create templates based on your measurements to trace directly onto the fabric. This allows you to be creative with how the lines are oriented on your fabric. You will know right away how you need to manipulate, orient, adapt and/or construct your fabric to make the pattern work in your size.

McQuillan goes on to say, “Sizing in zero waste has to be approached one of a few ways. One way is to accept waste at whatever sizes the pattern wasn’t originally designed for. Another is to nest sizes large and small side by side (which can impact on production numbers in commercial clothing). Then there is “one size fits all” (which is a bit misleading) and a further option is to design each size separately (which is time-consuming). Finally, you can embed sizing into the design at the start and accept slight construction differences.” She believes that sizing in zero waste can be expanded, “so long as the designer and company know what they’re doing and plan accordingly…We just need to adjust our mindsets around this stuff.”

Haywood designs in the broadest range of sizes she can manage. Most of her patterns are entirely customizable. I’m always curious when a slimmer designer quietly chooses to be inclusive in their sizing practices without public pressure. “It’s tough when you want to try a pattern, but it doesn’t come in your size, and inclusive sizing allows lots more people to try a zero waste pattern. Producing multiple sizes is something which I think is important and which I decided to commit to,” says Haywood, “The other reason is that I like the pattern–making challenge.”

Two versions of the Smith Pinafore dress - on the left a yellow version is modelled in a small siz, on the right a pink dress is modelled in a larger size.

Size representation in images matters. Showing zero waste garments on a wide range of sizes means more of us believe we can make well fitting, attractive clothing that leaves little to no waste. Liz Haywood’s Smith Pinafore pattern cover, for example, shows 2 very different sized women wearing the garment. “Sizing needs to be thought about right at the beginning, as the zero waste pattern is being designed. This is key. A strategy for increasing and decreasing the size of the pattern pieces needs to be in place so that the garment is still zero waste for every size. You need to see how many sizes are possible and how you can make every size you want.”

In her Zero Waste Sewing Book, Haywood lists sixteen appealing projects that look fun to sew and wear. Four of the patterns are graded for sizes 8/16 or 8/20. All the rest are customizable for all sizes. Size limits come via fabric width and design considerations. With two and a half more years of zero waste design under her belt, Haywood admits that now she would change the fabric’s orientation to accommodate more sizes. Experience has led to more confidence in her designs. “I now write PDF patterns, which gives me the freedom (page number-wise) to do patterns with expanded size ranges, and I aim for at least 12 sizes, from an 87cm/34″ bust to a 142cm/56″ or bigger.”

A pair of zero waste trousers on the left, in white and on the right in yellow and green.

Above : video post from Zero Waste Design Online Collective (ZWDO) shows a zero waste spiral trousers pattern on a plus size avatar, from @zwdo_collective on Instagram

As one of the founders of the Zero Waste Design Online Collective (ZWDO) , Dr. McQuillan tells me that “At ZWDO, we will be releasing some new patterns we’ve developed together, starting with plus-sizes because we know that community is underserved in ZW.” And indeed, in all patterns!

I, for one, can’t wait!

Don’t miss the ZWDO’s Community Call for the Home Sewing community! Information and registration.

Curiosity and exploration and an ever expanding plan for world domination are the name of the game for fibreartist, Kim McBrien Evans. A lifelong love of colour, texture, and pattern prompted Kim to transition from working artist to textile maven. Her knitwear designs are known for their ability to turn an abstract idea into a textile reality while simultaneously fitting and flattering every body. This design work has lead her to explore how home sewers and knitters can create clothing that fits, while showing professional designers the beauty of inclusive design. She lives and works in the woods of Ontario, Canada.