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Zero Waste And Minimal Waste Patterns

Zero waste and minimal waste patterns are becoming increasingly popular amongst sewists who want to be more conscious of sustainability in their sewing practice. But what’s the difference between a zero waste pattern and one that’s minimal waste?

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The guiding principal of zero waste design

Many pattern designers – myself included – are influenced by design philiosophies and styles. Zero waste is no different, really.

It might not be the most inspiring of names, but zero waste design has been around for much of humanity’s history. What it ultimately boils down to is the ability to use every last little bit of raw material to create something with. In the case of sewing, that’s using every millimetre of fabric. It’s more or less as simple as that  – though it does get a little more complicated when you start thinking about the differences between mass producing clothing and making a single garment at home.

We humans used to be very good at zero waste design, long before we started making everything disposable. Togas, kimonos, tunics and many more styles of clothing which have been in use for centuries all utilise simple, rectangular pieces in very different ways to create their distinct silhouettes. It’s also possible to create curvy pattern pieces while adhering to the principal of using all of your raw material, though it is much tricker to actually do and it doesn’t always translate well across different sizes.

What does a modern zero waste garment look like?

This isn’t a simple question to answer, as with a bit of thought and pattern hacking almost any sewing pattern can become a zero waste one.

Generally, however, modern patterns which are designed to be zero waste are slightly oversized and roomy, allowing for your bodyweight to naturally fluctuate a little. Designers have already created a range of garments inkeeping with modern trends – and are continually coming up with inventive ways to create more garment styles and types as we speak – so don’t think that you’re stuck with buffet dresses if you really don’t like them!

Because of the nature of these designs, most zero waste patterns are designed for woven fabrics rather than knits. It’s absolutely possible to create zero waste patterns for both wovens and knits while utilising all available fabric – but as with creating curves, it takes some more thought as to how to make these patterns with knits due to the difference in fabric construction and resulting behaviour of the fabric.

Designing zero waste patterns can be a little tricky depending on whether you're designing for home sewists or for mass production
Designing zero waste patterns can be a little tricky depending on whether you're designing for home sewists or for mass production

What is minimal waste design?

Minimal waste design utilises the same guiding principal as zero waste design, though it’s more loosely applied. This allows for a greater range of garments and styles to be created, sometimes across a greater size range.

Rather than using all the available material being a must, minimal waste patterns seek to reduce wastage and ensure that any scraps are of usable sizes and shapes. Some patterns which are marketed as zero waste might be considered to be just minimal waste by the designer due to the way the pattern layout works across different sizes. Other times, the pattern would be zero waste if it is made en masse – or at the same time as another garment – but not as a single item like you might create at home.

What does a modern minimal waste garment look like?

As before, this isn’t a simple question to answer. The reality is that many clothing factories are already producing “regular” patterns in a minimal waste manner as it reduces overheads, so you could be wearing a minimal waste garment from the high street already.

As mentioned before, it’s very different to think about zero and minimal waste design when creating large amounts of the same pattern at any one time. The reason being you have much more flexibility on how to use up the available fabric; large pattern pieces can be nestled against smaller pattern pieces from a different size of the garment. It’s therefore entirely possible to use a very high percentage of your available fabric (think 90%+) without changing the pattern a great deal. It’s also worth remembering that clothing factories are often using wider fabric sizes than are typically available to the domestic sewing community and so they can fit more along the same length.

Amongst domestic sewing patterns, it’s not common to find patterns marketed as minimal waste, though you’ll likely see some markers in the description and layout instructions. Often patterns which can be made with a small amount of fabric and some clever construction (check out my offcut projects post for a round up of some of these) fall into the minimal waste category simply as they’re smart about their layout. Construction methods such as smocking, shirring and utilising pleats or tucks to create shape and volume in a reasonably straightforward garment are other markers of minimal waste design, as counter-intuitive as this may be. Whilst these construction methods inevitably utilise more fabric than other design features, they generally require simple pattern pieces, as all of the design details are created by the construction of the garment.

Choosing a zero waste or minimal waste pattern

As more and more designers aim to be more sustainable, you’ll find there are more options available for creating zero waste items. In the mean time, there are a couple of good starting points you can check out.

Zero Waste Design Online has a great pattern library of all sorts of zero and low waste patterns – including for bags, accessories and kids. These are marked with “free pattern” or “pattern for sale” too, making it more accessible to the wider sewing community.

One of the designers frequently mentioned on the ZWDO pattern library, Liz Haywood, also has a book and a monthly zine with several zero waste patterns in each.

Holly McQuillan and Timo Rissanen’s book Zero Waste Fashion Design is one of the most widely utilised books on the subject of zero waste design. Far from being a dull textbook on the subject, there’s plenty of ideas you can try for yourself in there as well as a detailed history of clothing design and construction.

Pattern hacking "regular" sewing patterns

Perhaps one of the more inviting methods of creating zero waste or minimal waste clothes is to have a go at pattern hacking.

Trace out the pattern of something you’ve made before (and therefore know the cut and fit of). Start playing pattern tetris with the traced pieces and see where the holes are in your pattern. Now try and ‘fix’ those holes while maintaining the intended shape and fit. You might have to tessellate pattern pieces (slot them together so neatly that there’s no space in between them), or perhaps you have to add pleats or tucks in where there’s shaping in order to maintain the same look. Maybe you straighten out a curved seam that you wouldn’t otherwise notice. Keep going until you’re happy with your hack and you’ve got either minimal scraps of usable size and shapes, or no space left on your fabric at all. 

Of course, as with any pattern alteration, I’d seriously recommend making a toile or muslin of your pattern hack before cutting up your precious fabric. This way you can check that you’re happy with the changes you’ve made and how the garment now fits (as it will be ever so slightly different to what the designer intended). 

It's all about reducing your impact

Whether you choose to adopt full zero waste patterns into your wardrobe, look out for minimal waste patterns, pattern hack or continue with the patterns you have while you learn a bit more, there’s no right or wrong course here. 

Ultimately, this approach to fashion (and particularly clothing construction) is all about encouraging you to reduce your impact on the planet, but it’s not the only way you can do this. There’s a multitude of different ways you can incorporate sustainability into sewing and the rest of your lifestyle, so no two people will ever make the exact same decisions on this topic. Your decisions have to be right for you: if you aren’t going to wear or use what you make, then what’s the point of buying the pattern?