1. Waste not, want not
There is an absolute art to efficiently laying out and cutting pattern pieces. In major fashion houses, skilled cutters are some of the most valued employees because of their ability to get the most out of a piece of (often very expensive) fabric. Honing this skill in your own sewing can not only save you money on fabric, but it also cuts down on waste—and that out-of-control fabric stash. Pay close attention to the layout diagrams accompanying commercial patterns for tips and tricks from the pros.
2. A world of material
One of the easiest ways to make your clothes or accessories more eco-friendly is to pay close attention to what they’re made of. Conventional cotton, for example, is grown using a high rate of pesticide application, so opt for organic cotton fabrics instead. For synthetics fibers, you can often find fabrics made from recycled plastics, like fleece and polyester made from old water bottles. You can also find fabrics made from other renewable resources, like bamboo, wood pulp, coconut fiber, and more.
3. Reclaim it!
Another great source of sustainable textiles is lurking right in your own closet. Old clothing, linens, and other materials can be made over into entirely new projects with just a bit of inspiration and some creativity. It’s not only fabric you can glean from these items, either. Saving buttons, snaps, zippers, and embellishments is a great way to liven up your projects—and save a little money on notions. Shop yard sales and thrift shops for items you can upcycle; look for high-quality natural fibers that still have plenty of wear in them.
4. Get creative with techniques
Especially when transforming something old into something new, don’t be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to techniques. Rather than just altering a garment, reimagine it entirely. Fabrics can be cut into yarn and woven, knitted, or crocheted into new shapes. Patch worn garments using reverse applique or resurrect the nearly lost art of darning and create artful woven embellishments. Don’t be afraid to try something new—upcycling is a great opportunity to learn new skills.
5. Use your leftovers
As you get better at laying out and cutting your patterns, you may find you have fewer scraps to work with, though it’s the nature of sewing that there will always be a few bits that seem too small to be made into anything else. Rather than throwing them away, however, keep a bin handy for thread bits and tiny snippets. This can come in handy for giving dimension to the bodies of dolls and toys, allowing you to reserve more expensive, finer fiber for the delicate areas like hands and faces. For larger scraps, practice your fabric piecing skills! Just as quilters use small bits of material to create vivid pictures in cloth, pieced panels can add personality and flair to garments and accessories, as well as keeping fabric out of the landfill.
6. Maintain your equipment
As important as it is to keep leftover materials out of the waste-bin, another major factor in making your fashion sustainable is choosing sturdy equipment that lasts and maintaining it well. Opt for a high-quality sewing machine. Not only do they last longer, but they’re also easier to find replacement parts and service technicians for. Read and understand your owner’s manual, especially the regular maintenance section that will help keep your machine in tip-top shape. Clean it regularly, and don’t overtax it with materials that are too thick or tough for it to stitch.
7. Opt for natural light
Though sewing isn’t necessarily an energy-intensive undertaking, there are still ways to decrease your electricity usage and, with it, your carbon footprint. One of the easiest is by choosing a brightly lit space for your sewing room. Natural light reduces the need for electricity as well as making it easier to match colors and textures in your fabrics. If natural lighting isn’t possible, opt for daylight-colored compact fluorescent or LED bulbs, as they’re easier on the eyes and use little electricity. Task lights make it easy to illuminate your work without needing to wash out the entire space.
8. Price your fashion fairly
The modern culture of “fast fashion” has driven commercial production overseas in search of ever cheaper labor. While sweatshop workers are still mass producing cheap clothing in appalling conditions, sustainable fashion houses are fighting for change. One way to help is by changing the perception of what clothing is worth. If you make items to sell, be sure to include both your time and materials in your pricing. Keep in mind that you’re not competing with fast fashion; you’re offering a sustainable alternative, and if your business model isn’t financially sustainable, it can’t be environmentally sustainable either.
9. Choose animal products carefully
Some designers maintain that using any animal products in fashion at all is unsustainable, but “vegan” fashion isn’t always green either. Faux leather is a synthetic material made from petroleum products, and wool alternatives may shed plastic microfibers, a major factor in water pollution. At the same time, the agricultural techniques used in “factory farms,” which raise animals for meat and leather, are also terrible for the environment, contributing to pollution, antibiotic resistance, and disease. If you choose to use animal products, look for leather, feathers, and wool from local sources if at all possible. Being able to identify the origin of your materials is also a big draw for customers, if you sell your creations.
10. Avoid gimmicks
“Trashion” shows, which feature haute couture gowns made from everything from coffee filters and trash bags to old newspapers, are all the rage. Of course, like most runway designs, none of these are practical for everyday wear, nor are they viable options for sustainable fashion. Gimmicky tricks like this might be good for PR, but because the clothes aren’t actually wearable, they tend to give real green fashion a bad name. Using materials creatively is an absolute necessity, but be sure that the end result is always the highest quality you can create, since disposable fashion is the antithesis of eco-friendly.
11. Look for inspiration outside fashion
Thinking outside the box is crucial for green fashion design, which means it’s helpful to look far and wide for inspiration. Look into other artistic disciplines, like painting, sculpture, and origami, for interesting shapes, patterns, or uses of material. Check out the latest developments in science for new tools or fibers. Browse museums for historical references and techniques. Incorporating all of these sources not only helps you make the best use of the materials you want to include, but can also help you create a unique look and feel for your items that set them apart from the competition.
12. Buy from local, reputable sources
With the Internet providing easy access, you can shop fabric houses around the globe from the comfort of your living room. While it may be tempting to buy yards of inexpensive fabric from overseas, keep in mind that this can be problematic for eco-friendly fashion. First of all, overseas producers may not have the same health and safety regulations as domestic companies, meaning buying from them may be supporting poor working conditions. Then there’s the environmental impact of shipping a package halfway around the world. Whenever possible, buy materials made, raised, or grown domestically.
13. Don’t forget the extras
After you’ve spent all the time and effort to create sustainable items, don’t forget to consider the extras that each one requires. Labels and packaging are especially important for establishing a brand, but can easily become nothing more than heaps of waste paper and plastic. Look for versions of your preferred packaging that contain post-consumer recycled content, and choose renewable options whenever possible. Using attractive iron-on or stitch-in labels that are a design feature rather than just a care tag will also keep them from being clipped out and tossed in the trash.
Seeing green yet? There are lots of ways to make fashion more sustainable without giving in to gimmicks. From swapping out some lightbulbs to making better use of your scrap fabric, you can add value to your items and save some money. In fact, the “three P’s” of sustainability—people, planet, and profit— all come into play in green fashion. When it’s good for the earth, good for the wearer, and good for the sewist…well, that’s fashion that looks pretty good on everyone.