Sewing and Sustainability


A hot topic that can create a lot of confusion, guilt and the feeling that you just want to give up. At least that's the case for me sometimes. I work in the fashion industry as a garment technician and production manager for a small Swedish brand. The topic of sustainability comes up all the time in discussions at work. That's a good thing because it means the company I work for cares and wants to make good decisions but it can feel like a never ending wormhole of confusion and unanswered questions most of the time.

Garment factory

Some time ago I tried to focus on switching to better materials for our fabric qualities (tencel, anything other than cotton, recycled materials etc) and then went to a sustainability workshop and learned that all efforts might've been in vain because the material is not the biggest problem we are facing and there are so many components and aspects to take in to account.

Taken from Mistra Future Fashion's report: "The common separation into “good” and “bad” fibers, based on generic classifications of fiber types, is too simplified.

A much more nuanced view is needed in which the separation rather is done between producers with or without appropriate environmental management, and poor or better uses of the fiber. This measurement must account for the environmental performance throughout the entire life cycle of the final textile product.

In other words, a t-shirt made from organic cotton or recycled material does not automatically become a more sustainable t-shirt compared to a fossil based textile product. Organic farming is a good start, but one must also calculate for the resources used during the entire life cycle. If the factories completing the spinning, weaving, color and sewing part is run on fossil fuel the impact from these processes is larger than the impact from the textile fiber alone.

The differences between site specific suppliers of textile fibers are often greater than differences between fiber types. For example, the difference in climate impact between the best and worse cotton fiber is greater than the average difference in climate impact between cotton and viscose. Implementing best use practices throughout the production chain is right now a more pressing issue than fiber content."

Fabric rolls in factory

Mistra future fashion is a cross-disciplinary research program based in Sweden (their website is in English too, so have a look). 8 years of research is published in to reports and information you can download for free. It's great not only for industry people but for consumers as well, and it's very interesting as a member of the sewing community too. I've had the opportunity to go to lectures and workshops with them and I've learned so much. Textile is a vast subject and there's always something new to learn. 

Well, what's the best thing we can do for the planet? Die. Well.... most of us don't want to do that so we better figure out a better way :) The first step is to get educated, be interested and open and see that we as individuals can do something but no one can do everything

It gets overwhelming and sometimes I just feel defeated and that there's no right way to do anything. My friends ask me why I want to work in such a "bad" industry and I say it's because I want to make it better. That's the simple answer. The fast fashion industry is not going away and if I can be a small part in contributing to a more sustainable fashion industry then wow, it's all worth it, right? And another reason: I love it. That should count for something too you might think. 

Threads on shelves in factory

What does any of this have to do with you, you might wonder? I think about sustainability regarding the sewing industry a lot as well. Sewing in and of itself is not sustainable. That's it, that's the truth. Sewing your own clothes is not sustainable. BUT there are less and more sustainable ways of sewing as a hobby. The planet has enough clothes as it is. We don't need to produce more clothes - yet we do, and it won't stop. We will want to create more clothes in this world so we better do it in the best way possible. We want new things, we use sewing as a creative outlet, we express ourselves with clothing and fashion. I think that's a good thing and I don't want to quit. I also want to be able to continue my sewing practice without feeling the quilt, and I would guess it's the same for you. So I'm trying to find ways to lessen my impact on the climate. The easiest way is fabric sourcing. I try not o buy more fabric than I think I can use. I took a one year break from fabric shopping, you can read about it here. I think about the clothes I'm making and I want them to be clothes that I will reach for again and again. After all the most environmentally conscious thing to do is to use what you have. Use the fabrics that you already have instead of buying more. Use the clothes that you have. Thrift fabrics when possible. Sheets, tablecloths, curtains... they make excellent dresses and are great for toile-making. Buy recycled fibers (recycled polyester, cotton etc). Recycled saves natural resources BUT the fibers go through a very high consumption energy and water process to get recycled so it's not that good but a little bit better. Organic cotton for example uses a lot of water but the toxins are less which is good for everyone involved. It doesn't save energy and water though, so it's not a perfect solution. And you also have to be conscious about the fact that where the cotton comes from (where it's grown) can be more important than wether it's organic or not... however as a customer buying just a couple meters to sew a garment for yourself it can be very hard, if not impossible to get this information from suppliers. Even as a small fashion brand buying thousands of meters of fabric per year it can still be very, very difficult to get your questions answered. That's not a reason not to ask questions though. If more people ask the hard questions we will get closer to a conscious, ethical and more eco-friendly fabric production. Consumers have power, even if it doesn't feel like it. The textile industry is shifting. Just 5-10 years ago there were almost no organic, recycled or even OEKO-TEX fabrics on the market but now everyone knows about it and it's not a weird question to ask if the fabric supplier has some sustainable options. However we have a long way to go for the supply chain to be transparent. Where is your cotton grown, spun, weaved, dyed etc? Those are still questions asked by the "annoying" people (like me). Some day it will be standard information known to anyone who wants to know. But it's going to take some time I'm afraid. At last it's moving in the right direction.

All this to say I think that the main thing we can think about as sewers is how much we are consuming freshly produced fabrics and how many garments we really need. Will you wear it? Same as you would ask for your ready to wear clothes when you are doing a wardrobe cleanse. Trying to source fabrics locally is another great idea. Support your local fabric shop instead of buying from another country/continent. The less shipping the better.

This is a scale from best to worst when it comes to clothes, from Frederique

My fashion consumption pyramid

I think one point that is often overlooked when talking about sewing being sustainable or not is the labor aspect. The production. It's not all about the fibers.

A huge benefit of making your own clothes is that you know that they are made in good conditions (as good as you make them), by someone who wants to be sewing and the clothes are made with love and passion. I mean this point alone should be enough for anyone to want to sew their own me made wardrobe. There are so many places in the world where clothes are made under horrific working conditions and most people just close their eyes and don't want to dig deeper. If everyone knew how their fast fashion clothes were made they wouldn't buy them so happily I'm sure... 

Thinking about all this can get very depressing but it's the truth and it needs to be talked about. I'm sure you who are reading this already know because you already have an interest in how clothes are made. But I'm often amazed that consumers of fast fashion don't even know that there are people making their clothes. Some people just think fashion is some automated process using mainly machines...

Quality is another thing to consider. By making your own clothes you have 100% control. You can choose the best materials that will last you a lifetime and sew them in the best way possible.

In conclusion; sewing is not sustainable, but in many ways it's so much better than buying RTW. So please continue making your own clothes :) 

You can make quality items that would cost a fortune to buy in the store, in the comfort of your own home. That's amazing! And you can wear them with pride knowing you made them yourself. They might not be helping the environment; but guess what - no clothes do that! Of course you want to wear something, so you might as well wear clothes you made yourself and that you made with love and care and attention to detail and quality. And sometimes, you might just sew because it's your hobby, your creative outlet and because it's FUN! And that's OK. 

So what about my wardrobe? I still buy ready-to-wear sometimes. But I don't buy bad quality fast fashion. I buy something that I know I will wear and that I don't know how to make myself or don't have time to make. I buy quality and try to find timeless pieces. Other than that I try to do as much loving of what I have as I can. I mend my clothes when they need it. I hang my clothes outside instead of washing after every wear. I I hang everything to dry and almost never use the tumble dryer (European thing?). And finally I gravitate towards a me made wardrobe, one item at a time. I use the fabrics I have in my stash or I go thrifting for fabrics and I alter clothes. I make sure I make clothes that I need and want and that I know I will wear. If they fit me perfectly and I like the design, the fabric and the over all garment I think that's great!

pussy bow blouse

Clothes shouldn't be disposable! I think we as humans need to move away from the concept of clothes being something "disposable" to being an item of value that we take care of and cherish. A positive consequence of making your own clothes is that you put your time and effort in to creating it so it will be less likely that you think of it as a disposable item. You also have a bigger understanding about what clothes should actually cost. If something is super cheap that means someone had to pay along the way... that's also the theme in the documentary "The True Cost". Have you seen it? 

♥ Resources for further information:

♥ The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluting industry in the world. But have you ever heard it's the second biggest? Well, turns out that's fake news... read more.

♥ The fast fashion documentary that everyone needs to watch. The True Cost, directed by Andrew Morgan. He began the work after the Rana plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. 

♥ The organisation Fashion Revolution has some great resources. You might know that they want everyone to ask "Who made my clothes?". But the do so much more than that and there are many ways to get involved. 

♥ "Sustainability In the Slow Fashion and Home Sewing Industry" Great article by Saki Jane for Seamwork. 

♥ "Interested in sustainable sewing?" Another great article to read. Written by Kate from Time to Sew for Sewcialists. 


♥ Photos in the beginning are from my factory visits in Turkey. 

That's it for today! 

I hope this was not too much of a downer :) comment below what your take on sustainable sewing is! Or if you have any questions you think I can answer.

Have a wonderful day

♥   ♥   


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