Choose carefully: look good
Wear wisely: feel good
Recycle: be generous
These words were on the introductory label of the recent V&A exhibition, Fashioned from Nature, and they’ve stuck with me since I saw it a few weeks’ ago. If you didn’t see the show, it was a brilliant exploration of the ways in which the fashion industry for centuries has been inspired by and destructively exploited the natural world. It featured pieces of extraordinary and troubling beauty: an evening dress decorated with thousands of iridescent beetle wings; an exquisite white swan-feathered shawl; the tiniest of birds hung as pendants from earrings. Of course, this being human history it wasn’t just nature who suffered, but frequently the men, women and children involved in the manufacturing processes too.
Upstairs things were less bleak; the exhibition moved into a display of contemporary fashion by designers whose creations embrace sustainability. Here there were dresses made entirely from recycled bottles or offcuts from other production lines; there were the vegan leathers used by Stella McCartney (her Desert Island Discs episode is well worth a listen if you’re interested in her ethical fashion practices) and garments from designers such as Vivienne Westwood emblazoned with environmental slogans. There were even some displays from closer to home – Rosie Martin’s book No Patterns Needed and Wool and the Gang knitting kits!
It can be sometimes all-too-easy to feel a complacence around the concept of fast fashion if you are a home sew-er. It’s absolutely true that we’ve cut out a frequently-horrific section of the clothing supply chain and that our garments are more likely to be repeatedly worn, mended and to last. We should feel proud of that. But thoughtful and sustainable consumption of the fabrics and other supplies we use should still be a long-term goal. I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad here by the way; this is coming from someone who adores acquiring clothes (often made, sometimes bought) and expanding her fabric stash!
Anyway, the exhibition got me thinking about the sustainability of my business and sewing practice as a whole, and I thought it might be interesting to share some of the ways in which I do try and keep waste to a minimum as a business owner.
As a pattern designer, I sometimes use a lot of fabric in the process of experimenting with and finessing a design. I can end up with myriad half-made mock-ups that don’t ever see the light as wearable garments. I currently put all fabric scraps and unwearable mock-ups into fabric recycling bins. (I’ve heard H&M take scraps too although I’ve yet to try this.) Any wearable versions I discard go to charity shops or charity recycling bins. I also try to use unbleached/un-dyed cottons for toiles as natural fibres will break down more quickly than synthetic.
Each element of my physical patterns is printed here in the UK. My envelopes are printed here in London, so travel the shortest distance to reach me. My instruction booklets come from a company with this statement on their website:
ISO 14001 certification means we are minimising any harmful effects on the environment caused by the printing process, and continually look to improve our environmental performance in all aspects of our day-to-day business. We ONLY print on paper and card sourced from forests that are 100% sustainable. We were also one of the first UK printers to make the switch to environmentally friendly vegetable-based eco inks, without compromising on our superb print quality.
For my wholesale orders, I reuse cardboard boxes and packaging materials from other orders as much as possible. Whatever cardboard or paper isn’t used, I recycle. The envelopes I put my patterns in are also FSC.
I work predominantly from home, where we use a fully-green energy supplier.
When it comes to the actual patterns, I try to minimise the amount of paper used by utilising the tightest possible layouts. For the pdfs, my instruction booklets tell you which pages to print out for different options, so you shouldn’t end up with any unnecessary pages. Similarly, all my pdfs are layered, so you can save on ink by only printing the size(s) you require.
The fabric requirements I provide are always based on again the tightest possible lay plans, with usually no more than a 10 cm excess allowance. I know how frustrating it is as a maker if you end up with too much fabric left over (which somehow is never quite enough to use for anything else!).
I know this isn’t enough. Over time I’d like to ensure my entire printed pattern supply chain is sustainably sourced, that I use eco-packaging and move towards only buying organic and ethically created fabrics. Small steps towards big change. But we all have to start somewhere and I will say again that we, as makers, are part of the solution, more than the problem. Have you any good tips for improving the sustainability of your sewing (or business?!)? If so, please share and we can all support each other in this goal! x