Home Sewing and Fast Fashion–Thinking about Waste

A small part of my fabric stash

On the face of it, home sewing is the opposite of fast fashion.  It can take mere minutes to make a jacket in a factory; a homemade jacket takes hours if not days.  In the eighties, McCalls advertised an “eight hour” tailored jacket using short cuts and fusible interfacing. The pattern was wildly popular, but the general consensus was that it took a lot longer than eight hours to make.

Critiques about the wastefulness of fast fashion abound. However, I think it’s high time that those of us who make our own clothes to start worrying about waste.  The fabric stashes we accumulate are composed of textiles that have harmful consequences for the environment, including dangerous dyes, pesticides for crop growing, and polyester filaments that make their way into the ocean. And what happens to those stashes when we move or die? Each year my sewing guild has a yard sale with piles of fabric going for cheap, and eventually for nothing. Some of that fabric eventually ends up in land fill. Add to that the waste from cutting, from muslins, from false starts.  It all adds up.

I read a lot of sewing blogs, some by women who sew more than a garment a week.  In one recent feature, an interviewer asked one of these super seamstresses how she managed the constant stream of clothes coming into her closet.  She purged her closet regularly, this woman replied, and gave the extras to a charity shop. Are these homemade clothes any less likely to end up in the trash than clothes made in factories? They are probably better made, but also altered for her individual shape.  It is not certain that they will find appreciative buyers.

As someone who loves to sew, I know that the process brings inspiration and joy. I have my own large fabric stash. But our pleasure also has costs.  Shouldn’t the same environmental principles that apply to store bought clothes—buy less, buy higher quality, wear clothes longer—also apply to those of us who sew?

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7 Responses to Home Sewing and Fast Fashion–Thinking about Waste

  1. eimear says:

    good comment Lynn – I know I ended up getting myself into a bind over my own waste – and especially when a project does not work out – and although I try and use charity shop buys as my fabric for making, even then any left overs always seem wasteful…..I have started putting my wool scraps to one side as I am going to stuff a footstool- my local free cycle had a few posts looking for fabric scraps and upholstery scraps (one for a learner sew-er, and the other for a un-cycler….so they got a bag each from me, and probably too much!!). My own sewing has slowed a lot recently as I like and wear my own makes so much, I have no need of newer pieces as much….

  2. I appreciate this thoughtful piece. One nice thing about a successful muslin is that you can make several garments from it, copying what you learned about fit. But the idea that we need new clothes constantly — and can shop compulsively — has got to go. I remember reading about a political fund-raising dinner at which one of the guests asked how much she should donate. The candidate answered, “About as much as you paid for the outfit you’re wearing tonight.”

  3. I think about this a lot, as I do sew a lot but try to be responsible about what I buy, and what happens to my sewing waste. H&M does recycle textiles, so I’ve been putting anything too small to reuse into their bin (I rarely shop there, but it is nice to have a textile recycler on the way to my kids’ school), and I have several friends who quilt or do other projects with smaller pieces of fabric that are happy to have my selvages and other unusable-to-me pieces. The styles I wear aren’t as specifically fitted to me, and so I feel okay about donating them to a charity shop when I don’t want to wear them any more, and I do try to get at least one or two seasons’ heavy wear out of them. When the cloth is worn out or a sewing project goes really awry, I recycle it at H&M. I’ve just figured out a way to cut my own dresses that leaves me with a usable selvage to get a dress or two out for the girls at the same time and dramatically reducing selvage waste, but it only works on wider widths. I should probably get into the habit of cutting my dresses down for my girls, as what wears out is often under the arms and on the sides, with plenty of okay fabric still left in the middle, but I just can’t seem to go that far at this point in my life. Something to work toward.

  4. Reading some sewing blogs makes me dizzy! I could never sew a new garment every week, but then I’m very slow. I have had to make myself stay away from fabric stores, and so it’s been over a year since I’ve bought any “new” fabric. But I find so much great yardage at my Goodwill that my stash continues to grow.

  5. I think the difference is that the home sewist’s clothes end up lasting long because they are what we want, better made and more durable. However, I can relate to your example of a new garment every week. I did that when I was learning to sew for 10 years and finally found it boring, time-consuming and busy-work to have to do all that closet-purging. That’s when I started my company and starting doing all that sewing for others. I donate my “leftovers” to a local design school where they can be used, but I’m also very judicious about what comes into my stash as much as what comes into my closet. And when I do purge, I make sure that the receiver of my donated garments understands that they are well-made, whereas a lot of the fast/cheap fashion stuff is unusable the second time through because it has become unusable for the primary purchaser (worn out, ripped, falling apart, ill-fitting, stretched and/or shrunk).

    I appreciate what you’re saying, but with so much bulk going into the recycle bin from the purchases of fast/cheap fashion garments, I wonder how that compares to the little that the home sewists contributes to the trash/recycling issue, not that we aren’t complicit, I simply wonder how much. My dream is that the sewist’s waste does become a problem which means sewing becomes more valued, consumers purchase more durable clothing and making our own garments becomes a respected skill.

    • Lynn says:

      Dear Claire–If we all sewed like you, the world would be a better place! Of course you are right that the waste from home sewing could never match the piles of cast offs from the garment industry. But I think we can all do our part to reduce waste whenever we can.

  6. JS says:

    You raise good points –especially about donating custom made clothing to charity — but I don’t have enough of a stash to worry about this.

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