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Sustainable Sewing: Eco-Friendly Techniques For The Modern Sewist

When most people think of sewing, they think of creating something new from new materials. And while that certainly is one aspect of sewing, there’s also a growing awareness of using sustainable sewing to make a positive impact both for your creative endeavors, wallet, and the earth.

If you’re new to sustainable sewing, I have some tried and true ways to help you get started.

Sew Sustainably Discover 12 Techniques for Eco-Friendly Fashion

In today’s world, it seems like we can’t get away from plastic and chemicals. Our sewing machines have plastic parts, and a lot of our fabrics, like polyester, come from petrochemicals that are far from eco-friendly. Even the tools we use and our sewing rooms have loads of plastic. 

So, you might wonder why bother trying to sew in a way that’s good for the planet. Can we really make a difference? I am sure we can! 

Small steps can add up. Just like one drop of water might not seem like much, many drops together can make a hole in a stone. If we all do our part, we can be those drops that help change the world and make it a better place, one stitch at a time.

Sustainable Techniques For Earth-Friendly Creations

In my sewing practice, I am increasingly turning my focus toward creating items that reduce waste and minimize my environmental impact. 

Although it’s not always easy to make earth-friendly choices, it’s important to try. Even the smallest changes can create a huge ripple of environmental benefit! 

1. Choosing Sustainable Fabrics

I’ve always believed that fabric is the heart of any sewing project, and we can start consciously prioritize materials that minimize environmental impact. 

Use Natural Fibers That Are Biodegradable And Sustainably Farmed

Organic cotton is one of my go-to fabric choices. It’s cultivated without harmful pesticides or fertilizers, fostering a healthier ecosystem. I find that organic cotton, with its soft texture and breathability, is fantastic for quilts and everyday wear.

Please read my Organic Cotton Review post to learn more about this versatile and sustainable fiber.

More and more fabric stores are starting to carry organic fabrics. In the image below, you see a fabric store near Portland, Oregon, that has a wide selection of organic fabric. A few years ago, when I was visiting the city, I had the chance to shop there and was so impressed by the variety and quality of the organic materials they had on offer. I ended up buying some beautiful pieces that not only felt good in my hands but also aligned with my commitment to eco-friendly sewing practices.

organic fabric board

Other top natural fabric choices include linen, hemp, wool, and silk when cotton isn’t the right choice for a project.

Selecting these materials means I’m choosing fabrics that will naturally break down once they’ve served their purpose so I avoid contributing to the mountain of waste that synthetic fibers, which can take hundreds of years to decompose, often create.

To take it one step further, we can use sustainably farmed materials because doing that helps support and encourage farming practices that prioritize the health of the ecosystem. These methods often use fewer pesticides, maintain soil quality, and conserve water, which is important for any sewist committed to adopting green sewing habits. 

Selecting Recycled Materials

Recycled fabrics can mean two different things. First, you can repurpose materials that were used for other things such as clothing, window dressings, etc., and transform them into fresh pieces. 

Second, recycled fabrics can come from repurposing plastic into fabrics. This growing trend in textiles keeps more items out of landfills and reduces the amount of energy and water used to create these materials. 

recycled fabric label
handband made from recycled fabric

2. Mindful Fabric Consumption

Although I didn’t put much thought into my fabric many years ago, now I try to be as thoughtful as possible with my fabric purchases. These days, choosing the prettiest patterns takes a backseat to considering the life cycle of the materials I buy. 

Purchase Fabric Thoughtfully To Avoid Excess That Becomes Waste

I try to make each yard count when I dive into my sewing projects, so planning ahead is essential. 

✅ Related tutorial: How Much Fabric Do I Need? 21 Helpful Tips For Success

Before I hit the cutting counter, I try to take a moment to really assess my project needs, double-check measurements, and adjust quantities accordingly so that I try to buy only what I will utilize. It’s not always possible, but I try.  

Then, before I cut into a new piece of fabric, I lay out my sewing project and imagine the pattern pieces fitting together like a puzzle. This ensures I use every inch of fabric efficiently so that I minimize or eliminate scraps within the project! 

At other times, my approach changes: maybe I’ve picked up fabric simply because it caught my eye, or it was a great deal, and I didn’t have a specific project in mind for it. In those cases, I’ll pick out a sewing pattern that works well with the amount of fabric I have, aiming to create as little leftover material as possible. I look for patterns that use fabric efficiently or think of ways to use any scraps for other small sewing tasks. This way, I stretch every inch of fabric I’ve bought. Doing this fits perfectly with my eco-friendly sewing goals. I make sure that every piece of fabric is put to good use, and nothing goes to waste.

Now let me give you a few examples.

In this image, I’m showing a dress that I’m currently working on. You can see it laid out on the table with only two small pieces of fabric left over. 

a dress that I'm currently working on with 2 pieces left overs

I used these little scraps to test the settings on my sewing machine and serger, making sure everything was just right before I started sewing the dress. The fabric I had wasn’t quite enough for the pattern I chose, so I had to make some adjustments. I shortened the dress and the sleeves to make it all fit. And I love how it’s turning out.

This image features a different dress I am making from one yard of knit fabric.

dress I am making from one yard of knit fabric

This time, I managed to use every single bit of the fabric, with nothing left – not even enough for the facing of the neckline. But that’s okay; I’ll find a creative solution. Maybe I’ll use a piece of fabric from my stash that complements the dress for the neckline facing. It’s all about being resourceful and flexible with the materials I have.

Plan Projects Carefully To Ensure All Fabric Is Used Efficiently

As I incorporate more green sewing practices, I have started to carefully plan my sewing projects to streamline my fabric consumption even more and avoid ending up with unused scraps. 

I appreciate zero-waste patterns because their clever design maximizes fabric use and leaves little to no waste! 

When I do, inevitably, have some leftover material, I work to repurpose scraps, often incorporating them into smaller projects or using them as accents (see more ideas for using scraps below).

In the images below, you can see me wearing my creations. I liked this printed cotton, and, perhaps a bit overzealously, bought more than I needed. But who could resist such a charming print? So, I decided to put every inch of it to good use. First, I made a dress. Not wanting to waste the remaining fabric, I then sewed a skirt, which paired well with various tops, giving me a fresh, coordinated look. With the last of the fabric, I made this bucket hat.

repurposed scraps as accents in my projects
repurposed scraps as accents in my projects

Challenge Yourself To Get Creative With Your Existing Resources

For me, it’s very difficult not to buy fabric, I love to buy fabric. And you are probably the same. The new patterns, textures, and colors can be irresistible, and there’s a certain excitement in acquiring fresh materials for our next project. We walk into a fabric store and it feels like a world of possibility, each roll of fabric offering the promise of a new creation.

But before you give in to the temptation to add to your collection, pause and consider the wealth of materials you may already have at your fingertips. You likely have pieces that you were once excited about, waiting for their moment to shine. Dive into your existing stash and you’ll not only rediscover these gems but also save money and space.

✅ Related tutorial: How To Store Fabric: Fabric Storage Ideas For A Sewing Room

Moreover, by resisting the urge to buy new fabric, you’re making a conscious choice to be more sustainable.

You can piece together scraps to make a quilt, or turn a worn-out pair of jeans into a chic denim tote. Look at your existing materials with fresh eyes and consider how they could be given a new life. It’s not just about making do; it’s about sparking your imagination and discovering the endless possibilities within what you already own.

This approach isn’t only better for your wallet; it’s kinder to the planet, too. Each time you repurpose an item or use up leftover materials, you’re practicing sustainable habits that contribute to a healthier environment.

3. Zero-Waste Patterns

Think about typical sewing projects where you follow your pattern and find that after you’re done you have a handful of oddly-shaped fabric pieces that might not see the light of day again. 

Zero-waste patterns flip the script because they’re carefully designed patterns that do all the hard work of efficient planning to ensure every thread of your sustainable fabric is put to good use, leaving virtually no scraps behind.

Utilize Creative Cutting Layouts To Minimize Offcuts

A clever cutting layout goes a long way toward reducing waste for eco-friendly sewing. By arranging patterns thoughtfully on the fabric, I ensure every inch is used to its full potential. 

Whether it’s angling sleeves alongside the bodice or fitting accessory parts into curved spaces, every cut counts! 

Also, sewing patterns often come with optimized layouts for various fabric widths. Sometimes I find them valuable in helping me plan my cutting strategy before I even lay the fabric out so that I get the most out of my materials.

4. Reducing Chemical Use

Reducing chemical use is not only better for the environment, but also for our health and the longevity of our creations.

Avoiding Harsh Chemicals For Cleaning

Although I’ve never been fond of using harsh chemicals in my home, I now use simple, natural cleaning solutions more than ever. 

Traditional commercial cleaners often contain substances that can harm the environment once they wash down the drain. I choose to use gentler, natural cleaners which can work quite well and are kinder to the earth. 

Nature provides powerful cleaning for anyone who is committed to sewing green if you know where to look!

For fabrics, I try to use gentle, natural, plant-based soaps that don’t contain aggressive chemicals that can be harmful to the fibers and our skin.

Using Natural Alternatives For Stain Removal And Fabric Treatment

In addition, there are effective eco-friendly solutions for tackling stains and treating fabrics. It turns out that simple ingredients you already have in your pantry, like white vinegar and lemon juice can work wonders.

✅ Related tutorial: How To Remove Coffee Stains From Clothes: Ultimate Guide

For example, white vinegar is my go-to for mildew spots and deodorant stains. Just apply a bit directly to the stain, let it sit for a few minutes, and wash as usual.

When tackling stains, I use lemon juice and sunlight to lift a variety of stains, and it also works well on those tough stains if you mix the lemon juice with some salt. No need for bleach!

Note: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links. This means I will receive a commission if you order a product through one of my links. I only recommend products I believe in and use myself. 

Using Non-Toxic Plant-Based Dyes And Detergents 

WINSONS Tie Dye Kit, 8 Colours Non Toxic Permanent Fabric Dye Art Set for Kids Women for Homemade Party Creative Group Activities DIY Gift
Non Toxic Permanent Fabric Dye Art Set

Dyeing fabrics used to be a chemical-laden process, but now we embraced materials colored with plant-based dyes that add vibrant hues to any project. These dyes are safer and provide a softer, more organic look that’s also more eco-friendly. 

These plant-based alternatives are biodegradable, breaking down naturally without harming aquatic life or polluting the ecosystem.

Aside from being kind to the environment, they’re also super gentle on fabrics so my creations last longer and reduce waste. By being conscious of the cleansers I use, I’m also taking care of my health by avoiding toxic substances that can irritate the skin, or cause other health issues.

5. Low-Impact Care And Maintenance

Low-impact care and maintenance in sustainable sewing refer to practices that aim to reduce the environmental footprint throughout the lifecycle of a garment. This includes how you wash, repair, and care for your clothes to ensure they last longer and have minimal impact on the planet. Here are some key aspects of low-impact care and maintenance:

Designing for less washing

Simple patterns, darker colors and colorful prints may require less frequent cleaning. I prefer to make items that are durable and don’t require washing and drying every day.  Some natural fabrics can naturally resist stains and don’t need to be washed as often. 

Also, by washing clothes only when necessary, you can conserve water and energy, and reduce wear and tear on the fabrics.

Using cold water when possible
Washing clothes in cold water saves energy, as heating water consumes a significant amount of electricity or gas.

Choosing eco-friendly detergents
Using biodegradable and plant-based detergents can reduce the release of harmful chemicals into water systems.

Skipping the dryer
Air-drying clothes instead of using a tumble dryer saves energy and also reduces the risk of fabric shrinkage and damage.

Mindful ironing
Ironing only when necessary and using the correct temperature settings can save energy and prevent damage to fabrics. I usually don’t iron knits. 

Proper storage
Storing clothes correctly, such as folding knits instead of hanging them, can prevent stretching and distortion, keeping them in good shape for longer.

Upcycling or repurposing
Transforming scraps or old clothes into new items gives them a second life and reduces waste.

These practices help ensure that the effort put into sustainable sewing continues through the care and longevity of the clothing items you created. 

Repairing and Mending

Mending is an integral part of sustainable sewing, serving as a bridge between traditional sewing skills and modern eco-consciousness. It’s a practice that breathes new life into garments that might otherwise be discarded, reducing waste and extending the life cycle of our clothing.

I am mending a hole in a sweater

By repairing a tear, darning a hole, or reinforcing a seam, we’re not only fixing a piece of fabric, but we’re also making a statement against the throwaway culture that’s so prevalent in the fashion industry today. Mending allows us to cherish and preserve the clothes we have, rather than constantly buying new ones. 

Moreover, mending can be a creative process. Techniques like visible mending, sashiko, or decorative patches not only fix the damage but also add a unique aesthetic to the piece, celebrating the repair as part of the garment’s history and character.

✅ Related tutorial: Darning With A Sewing Machine: How To Easily Repair Holes In Your Clothes

Incorporating mending into our sewing practices is a powerful way to contribute to sustainability.

Repairing And Maintaining Sewing Tools To Extend Their Lifespan

I am meticulous about maintaining my sewing tools. Because a well-maintained sewing machine sews more efficiently (and needs fewer repairs), I clean mine frequently according to the manufacturer’s instructions. 

Using sharp scissors and replacing bent or damaged needles also ensure clean cuts and less waste due to mistakes. 

✅ Related tutorial: Care Of Sewing Tools And Equipment

6. Repurposing Scraps

One of the best ways to reduce waste is to find creative ways to give new life to leftover materials. Every scrap of fabric holds potential, and with a bit of imagination, you can transform it into something beautiful and functional.

scrap fabrics from previous projects

I love the challenge of taking small fabric remnants and turning them into something completely new! A simple way to start is by creating patchwork quilts or coasters. These projects don’t require large pieces of fabric and can make great use of the varied patterns and textures of your scraps. 

One great example is this DIY Needle Book that I made. Check out the tutorial!

For something a bit more substantial, consider sewing fabric scraps into tote bags or zipper pouches. Both are not only practical but also make thoughtful, personalized gifts. Other projects might include making a DIY Dog Poop Bag Holder or even a DIY Drawstring Bag

There are so many options! Check out 17 Fun And Unique Fabric Scrap Projects for even more ideas.

Using Fabric Scraps for Stuffing

Another creative way to use fabric scraps is as stuffing for toys or decorative pillows. This tutorial How-To: Make a Pillow Without Polyfill is a great example of a project that’s perfect for stuffing with fabric scraps.

Instead of buying new materials, these tips help reuse and tremendously reduce waste.

Using Thread Scrap

Even thread scraps, those tiny bits that usually end up in the trash, can be given a new purpose. I started collecting these colorful snippets of thread in a glass vase, and over time, it has transformed into a unique home decor item. The layers of different hues create a vibrant display that is a personal reminder of the projects I’ve worked on. This approach is just another small step in my journey towards sustainable sewing.

thread scraps in a jar

Donating Scraps 

When you accumulate too many scraps, or they’re too small for your projects, you can seek out quilting groups, local schools, community centers, or artists who can use them. I’ve found that elementary school art classes, after-school programs, and local craft groups often appreciate the donation and put the scraps to very creative use!

Composting scraps

I also heard about composting fabric scraps. Apparently you can compost your natural fabric leftovers, like those from 100% cotton, linen, or wool, as they are biodegradable. The idea is that when you compost these materials, they break down over time and become part of nutrient-rich soil, which is great for your garden.

But I don’t do it and don’t recommend you do it because you need to be mindful of the dyes used in these fabrics. If the fabric is dyed with natural, non-toxic dyes, then you’re good to go. But if it’s colored with synthetic dyes, especially those that might contain heavy metals or other harmful chemicals, it’s best to keep them out of your compost bin. These can interfere with the composting process and might even harm the environment.

7. Upcycling Old Clothes

Want a way to use old clothes you can no longer wear? Upcycling them into new items gives new life to clothes I’d otherwise discard, creating unique, eco-friendly sewing projects.

Transforming Existing Clothing Into New Pieces

Old clothes are a treasure trove of potential! For example, a pair of worn-out jeans can easily become a trendy skirt or tote bag. Check out my tutorial showing how I upcycled an old dress to learn more about the process!

I highly recommend paying attention to the fabric’s quality and condition so that your eco-friendly sewing project adds value by extending the life of the material.

Here are some other ideas for using old clothing:

  • Old t-shirt: A simple tee can become a charming shopping bag or decorative pillow.
  • Worn sweater: Turn these into cozy mittens, hats, or even a pet bed.

And the list doesn’t have to end here! I’m sure you’ve also got some fantastic upcycling ideas up your sleeve – why not share them with a community of like-minded individuals? Come join my Facebook page where you can showcase your upcycled projects, exchange tips, and draw inspiration from fellow sewists. Together, we can turn the old into something astonishingly new.

Deconstructing Garments To Harvest Buttons, Zippers, And Trims

One way to save money (and recycle items) is to deconstruct worn old items specifically to harvest their embellishments for new creations. You can do this when you transform old clothing into new items. It’s also a good habit to do when clothing becomes too worn to repurpose. 

Every button, zipper, and trim has potential in a future sewing project!

That’s something I often do. Sometimes, when I have an old purse that is no longer usable, I carefully cut out all the metal hardware, such as clasps, buckles, and rings, and sometimes even leather pockets. These pieces are incredibly useful for future sewing projects. In the image below, you can see a collection of items I’ve gathered to repurpose. 

gathered metal hardware on an old purse that is no longer usable

Some buttons are simply too beautiful to discard along with worn-out clothes. They have their own unique charm and can really add something special when I use them in new creations. It’s a great way to give these materials a second life and add a personal and eco-friendly detail to my sewing projects.

8. Eco-Friendly Embellishments

The little details make the biggest difference in style and in sustainability too. Here are some ideas for eco-friendly embellishments that anyone can incorporate into their green sewing projects.

Using Natural Materials Instead Of Plastic

When possible, I recommend using natural materials for embellishments! Here are some ideas:

  • Buttons made of shell, wood, or metal are more durable and biodegradable than their plastic counterparts.
wooded beads and buttons
  • Glass, stone, or wooden beads add natural elegance when appropriate.
  • For buckles or similar items, bamboo is a fantastic, sustainable material that I recommend using.

Creating Your Own Embellishments From Scrap Materials

Instead of purchasing new items, you can use scrap materials to add unique elements to your creations! For example, you can turn smaller pieces of fabric into appliqués or patchwork designs. Check out how I used scraps to make the beautiful applique I added to this pillow!

Leftover yarn can find new life in embroidery or as tassel and fringe additions.

And this is my embellishment for an evening dress I made for a friend from natural silk. I created this fabric braid from leftover scrap, ensuring that every piece of the luxurious material was put to good use. 

smaller pieces of fabric into appliqués or patchwork designs

By braiding the remnants, I created a unique and elegant trim for the dress. I think you agree that beauty can be found in the smallest details and that sustainable practices can lead to stunning results in high-end fashion. 

9. Sewing For Longevity

When I sew, my goal is to create clothing that not only looks good but also stands the test of time. Here are some tips you can use.

Constructing Durable Garments That Last Longer

To ensure my garments last longer, I prioritize 

  • Quality materials – Natural and organic fabrics are sustainable and also wear well over time.
  • Reinforced seams – I use French seams or flat-felled seams which are sturdy and prevent fraying.
  • Quality thread – I like these brands: Brothread, Coat&Clark, Gutermann.
  • Timeless designs – I prefer to choose patterns that won’t go out of style quickly and can be worn for years.

New brothread - 18 Options - Multi-Purpose 100% Mercerized Cotton Threads 50S/3 600M(660Y) Each Spool for Quilting, Serger, Sewing and Embroidery - 24 Basic Colors
New brothread sewing thread

Using Techniques That Allow For Easy Alterations And Repairs

The reality of life is that for many reasons, sometimes our bodies change and our clothes don’t fit as well as they once did. Here are some helpful things to do for sewing green when repairs or alterations are needed. 

Wide seam allowances
Allowing for a bit more fabric in your seam allowances gives you the option to let out a garment if necessary.

Removable linings
Creating linings that can be easily detached makes it simpler to repair or replace the lining without affecting the outer fabric.

Reinforced stress points
Adding extra stitching, fabric or fusible interfacing at points of tension, such as pockets or buttonholes, can prevent damage and make repairs less frequent.

Adjustable closures
Using adjustable closures instead of permanent fixtures can make altering waistbands and other fitted areas much easier.

Hem allowances
Leaving a generous hem allowance allows for lengthening a garment if needed, and it’s also useful for repairs.

Patch pockets
These are easier to remove, repair, or replace compared to inset pockets.

Using quality interfacing helps maintain the shape of collars, cuffs, and waistbands, making them more durable and less likely to need repairs.

Use interchangeable components 

Detachable collars or cuffs can make a piece more versatile and easily repairable. This makes it easy to craft for the present as well as prepare for future fashion trends in a sustainable way.

By using these techniques, you can ensure that your garments are not only well-made but also adaptable to changes and easy to maintain, which is a cornerstone of sustainable sewing.

10. Using Digital Patterns without Printing

Another innovative technique I hear about more often now involves using projectors to display sewing patterns directly onto fabric. By projecting a digital pattern, you can avoid printing altogether, which is not just eco-friendly, but also saves ink and printer use. 

To do this, you simply set up a special projector to display the pattern on your cutting surface and align the fabric underneath. Then you trace and cut the fabric directly, eliminating paper and preserving the digital pattern intact for future use. 

Pro Tip: This method is particularly beneficial when working with larger patterns that would require multiple pages to print.

11. Sharing And Community Involvement

I’ve found that sharing and collaborating within the sewing community offers the benefits of fostering creativity as well as contributing to waste reduction. Here are some ideas:

Participating In Or Organizing Sewing Swaps To Trade Materials And Reduce Waste

I find sewing swaps to be fantastic venues for trading fabrics, patterns, and notions. It’s a win-win situation: I get to clear out items I no longer need and in return, I receive materials that may inspire my next project. 

This practice significantly cuts down on waste, as unused materials find a new purpose instead of ending up in a landfill.

Teaching And Learning About Sustainable Practices From The Sewing Community 

Sustainability is about continuous improvement and sewing fellowship amplifies this process. Some things you can teach or learn about sewing green in your local sewing community include:

  • Choosing natural or recycled fibers.
  • Using patterns designed to minimize fabric waste.
  • Upcycling existing garments into new creations.
  • Attending workshops and meet-ups to stay informed about the latest eco-friendly sewing trends.
  • Utilizing online forums and social media groups which are invaluable for exchanging tips and tricks.

12. Supporting Eco-Friendly Brands

When you decide to do eco-friendly sewing, it’s good to support brands that are committed to sustainability. This extends to every aspect of sewing, from fabric selection to the final stitch.

Purchasing Supplies From Companies That Prioritize Sustainability 

You can purchase sewing supplies from companies that showcase their commitment to sustainability through:

  • Using organic materials – They provide fabrics made from organic cotton or flex, which are grown and produced without harmful pesticides and chemicals.
  • Ensuring ethical labor practices – These companies ensure fair wages and safe working conditions for their employees.
  • Using eco-friendly packaging – From recycled paper to biodegradable plastic, the packaging materials are chosen with the environment in mind.
  • Implementing sustainable production processes – Minimizing waste and using renewable energy means that these companies reduce their carbon footprint (yay!).

By embracing these eco-friendly sewing tips and techniques, I continuously make my sewing more sustainable and act as a steward for the environment. It’s a win-win!

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Sew Sustainably Discover 12 Techniques for Eco-Friendly Fashion

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