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Simple Steps To Sew More Sustainably

If you want to sew more sustainably, but you don’t know where to start – this post is for you!

Sustainability can often feel overwhelming and intimidating as a subject, mainly because people think that they have to get it 100% right every time. That kind of mindset isn’t helpful at all as not only is it unrealistic, but it often means that you don’t even start doing things because you feel kind of stuck. So firstly, accept that you aren’t going to be perfect with your attempts. What the world needs is lots of people making an effort to get things right most of the time, not a few people who get things right all of the time.

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Swap your thread

Okay, this one actually bothers me quite a lot. I see so many people on Instagram referring to any old thread as ‘cotton’.

Cotton isn’t synonymous with thread (any more, at least), nor is it a kind of brand name that’s become the normal way of referring to threads, like Hoover has for vacuum cleaners. There are many fibres used for thread out there and a lot of them are actually terrible for the environment – regular cotton included – not to mention the chemicals used to create the colours. Not all thread is equal, either. Some thread clogs up your machine or is only intended for hand sewing.

That being said, if you already have a reel of the perfect colour to use for your next project, or cones of thread set up in your overlocker, don’t throw them out! The best thing you can do is to use it up and make more informed choices the next time you need to buy thread. If you don’t think you’re ever going to use a particular colour or reel again, give it to someone else who sews. That could be a friend, the local maker space, or maybe a school or college who teach sewing – wherever you feel it will be the most appreciated.

So what should you be looking for when you do need to buy thread?

Organic cotton thread is a simple, sustainable switch to make so you can sew more sustainably
Organic cotton thread is a simple, sustainable switch to make so you can sew more sustainably

The easiest change to make is to start using organic cotton thread in place of either polyester or regular cotton. Certified organic cotton is better for people, as well as the planet, as it has been audited and proven to not use dangerous chemicals for pest prevention or dyeing purposes, thereby ensuring no waterways get polluted. It also means that workers in the supply chains – cotton pickers, spinners, dyers, etc – all have access to good working conditions and good pay. Organic cotton is often a higher quality than regular cotton too, so you get a better quality of thread to sew with.

If you’re making a project where organic cotton thread isn’t quite strong enough but you don’t want to use polyester either, try tencel thread. Tencel is made from the pulp of wood from sustainably managed forests – it is a brand name, but by looking for the brand name you know you can trust that it is actually environmentally friendly and not just cutting down any old trees. Lenzing, the company who produce Tencel, have strict rules about the practices put in place to ensure what’s being produced by their factories doesn’t threaten people or the environment – you can read more about it in my post on artifical fibres if you’re interested in learning more. Tencel thread is actually really good for sewing projects like jeans or swimwear and most often comes on cones ready for overlocking, making it an easy swap for polyester.

If you absolutely must use polyester, choose recycled polyester thread (often marked as rPET thread). This is polyester that’s been made from recycled plastics like bottles. It uses far less energy than creating virgin polyester, but it’s still not great for the environment, so don’t be tempted to swap your regular polyester thread for rPET when you don’t need the strength of polyester thread.

If you’re handsewing, you could also use linen thread. Linen tends to be too thick and fiberous to go through a machine, but its perfect for handsewing seams which really need to be strong, such as in backpacks.

Shop your stash

I get it, it’s really tempting to go and buy new fabric – even when you don’t have a project in mind. But so many of us could sew more sustainably if we use the beautiful fabrics we already have in our stashes first.

Whether your stash fills just a small box or takes up an entire room, you almost certainly have some suitable fabric for your projects already. You shouldn’t ever feel like you’re missing out on fabric because, ultimately, there will always be more fabric.

There’s lots of ways you can make shopping your stash more efficient – and even make it as exciting as shopping for real, especially if you have a particularly big stash. Making it easy to search through what you have is the best place to start. This may be arduous at first, particularly if you have a big stash, but once you get in the habit of logging what you have and how much of it, it will become easier. Some people do this by cutting little swatches of fabric and keeping a physical scrapbook, other people use spreadsheets or apps like Trello to organise their stash. If you have a particularly big stash on shelves, you could make it easier to see the fabrics you have, so you get even more of the ‘shopping’ experience.

However works best for you, don’t forget to keep some key details with your swatches or photos. You should write things down like how much you have of the fabric, what width it is, the main colour, solid or print, what fibre or type of fabric it is (if you know) – so your entries could look something like this:

Brand: Liberty
Fibre: Cotton
Type: Tana Lawn
Print: Tigers and florals
Main colour: Red
Width: 133cm
Length: 2 metres

If you use a particular fabric, don’t forget to update your notes either. You wouldn’t want the disappointment of planning a project around a fabric you think you have to then find out you either don’t have enough because you used some of it, or you haven’t got any left at all.

Likewise, you might have a button collection you could look through if you need buttons, or a little collection of other notions like ribbons and elastics. The key here is always keeping an eye on what you have, so that you only have to buy more if you don’t actually have what you need.

Buy only what you need

This comes back to the shopping aspect and why some people’s stashes become so big and unwieldy. To sew more sustainably, you should only buy things (patterns, fabric, thread, interfacings, etc) when you actually need them. In the case of PDF patterns, this could be only getting them printed just before you plan to start sewing. In the case of fabrics, it means only buying with a project in mind – and only if you can’t use what you already have.

It’s easy to overbuy fabrics – whether that’s because they’re on sale or because you aren’t sure exactly how much you actually need. I’ve been there, I get it. If it’s a particularly big or special project, you might be worried about needing more in case you make mistakes, or perhaps the roll width is different to what’s suggested on the pattern.

What you need to keep in mind is that the suggested fabric requirements are typically the maximum amount you’ll need – so even if you buy exactly the amount stated in the width suggested on the pattern, you’ll more than likely have some left over.

Sewing is an expensive hobby, but part of what makes it expensive is the idea that you have to buy more and more. You really don’t need to do this – it’s far better for both the environment and your finances if you use what you have first and then buy only what you know you will use.

Make scrapbusting projects

Why buy bias binding when you can make it from your scraps? Have you thought about making a quilt, or perhaps a bag to match your beautiful new garment which could use up your scraps? What about using your scraps to stuff items with, instead of using polyester stuffing?

There are so many things you can make with and use your scraps for – whether that’s gifts, decorations or things you can use in future sewing projects. Believe me, I tried to collate all these ideas a while ago! Rather than repeat them all here, check out my previous posts on scrapbusting projects. You can also check out my book list below for other scrap busting ideas. Scrapbusting is a great way to sew more sustainably, as you aren’t wasting those odd shapes and tiny scraps that you otherwise might be tempted to throw away. Instead, you’re turning them into something useful or beautiful (hopefully both!)

These steps should help you to sew more sustainably

No one is perfect, and no one will be perfect at sewing completely sustainably, so don’t beat yourself up if you struggle with some of these steps. It takes time to make new habits and break old ones.

What you can do while you’re trying to make better habits is to think about a purchase before you make it. Is it the right choice for your project, or is there perhaps a better, more sustainable version of the fabric or print? Could you buy it from a little local business or a more ethically minded business instead of a big chain store? Do you already have something similar in your stash that you could use instead? And ultimately, the question we should all be asking ourselves – do you really need it?

If you can’t stop thinking about it after 24, 48 or 72 hours, then maybe it’s worth getting. If you forget about it pretty quickly, then it’s clearly not something you really needed or wanted. It’ll take time before this way of approaching your sewing becomes the norm, but take things one step at a time and you’ll soon be doing these steps without even realising it.