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Mailbag: Actionable Ways to Sew More Sustainably

Episode 126: Sarai and Haley share four main ways to consider your environmental impact when sewing, including a bunch of actionable tips from the community.

Posted in: Seamwork Radio Podcast • January 23, 2023 • Episode 126

Podcast Transcript

I'm Sarai.

And I'm Haley.

And this is Seamwork Radio. Welcome back to Seamwork Radio.

Today we're talking about ways to sew more sustainably with tips from you all in the Seamwork community. So we're going to cover four main ways to consider your environmental impact when sewing, but also create less waste and maybe save yourself some money, too. And then we're going to break down each of those four ways into actionable tips that we heard from the community.

So we're going to have some really great tips from you guys. We started a thread there and asked for your best ideas for sewing more sustainably, and we got some really good ideas, and I am really excited to actually incorporate more of these myself.

So before we get to that, let's talk about our ice breaker today, which is related, and it comes from that thread in our community about sustainability, and it's from Natalie, and it's actually more of a question. Natalie asks:

“As a beginner sewer, I try to view each project as a learning opportunity, because I know I will make mistakes and I'm not experienced enough in getting the right fit that I prefer. It’s almost like I'm developing a closet full of wearable muslins for the time being. It seems wasteful to make actual muslins. Any tips on what to do about the sheer volume of fabric that is needed to learn with before we can get to the point where everything we're making can be lifelong closet staples?”

What a great question. Thank you for that. Natalie, what do you think? Haley how would you answer?

Natalie, I have so much to say about this. The first thing I want to say is kind of more of a mindset thing, and that is to—something I notice kind of circulating in this towing community is this idea of achieving perfection in your garments. And not that that isn't a noble pursuit. You want to have a mastery of your craft, but for some people, that is definitely a goal. But I think ditching the mentality that everything has to be perfect in order for you to love it and wear it and enjoy it, I think that that is such a big thing and something that I have learned to do, because the reality is that having that mentality does contribute to a whole lot of waste.

So I just want to give you permission, if you don't feel like you already have it, to release that. My next tips are more practical things. The first thing I'm going to recommend is to keep a fit journal, because the more you sew, the more you're going for yourself, the more you're going to notice things that you need to do consistently to get garments to fit on your body.

And having a place to write all of that down and notice those patterns is really going to save you a lot trouble and time and also projects.

Another thing that I would recommend is checking out tissue fitting. Tissue fitting is the process of using tissue paper pattern to check the fit before you cut and sew a garment. And I think that it's really helpful for creating a better fit without always having to make a muslim. I am a big fan of making a Muslim and sometimes it's just absolutely necessary, but you can definitely reduce the instances where you'll need one.

Another tip is to slow down your sewing process and based and try things on as you go. I think that that's definitely going to help you to intercept some fit problems that maybe could have been avoidable or easier to fix if you would have caught it earlier on. Those are the things that have to do with fit. I guess.

One other idea I have is that if you are concerned about the sewing skillset and that hindering your finished product, then I would encourage you to do small samples of whatever skill that you're maybe a little nervous about. If you're nervous about zippers, practice the zipper on some scrap fabric before you put it into your garment. I think little step-outs like this can be a really good practice for practicing before you get to your garment. That was a mouthful. Sarai, what about your tips? What do you think?

Well, I think that really helped to address her issue with not feeling like her garments are good enough to last for a really long time. I'd like to just give her some practical ideas for the waste issue and feeling like she is wasting a lot of fabric while she's learning.

One thing that I would really recommend if you feel that way, is to try using secondhand fabric or even sheets or linens that you can get at the thrift store. You can find some really, really good fabric that way and you're really helping to reduce waste by using something that's secondhand. You also save some money by doing that. I mean, sheets have an enormous amount of fabric and they're often really high quality cotton a lot of the time and you can even find linen sheets sometimes. I've mentioned this a couple of times. I have some old linen sheets sitting in a box in my garage that I'm going to one day repurpose. So I think this is a great way to go if you really feel that about the actual amount of fabric waste.

I think also one thing you can do to make yourself feel better is finding ways to reuse garments that you don't think that you'll have forever.

So whether that's cutting a dress into a skirt maybe later on, or even taking it apart and reusing the fabric, or taking it apart and using it as scraps to stuff a pillow or something like that, I think that can also really help. If you have some go to ways to make sure that anything that you create that isn't up to your standards or if you change your mind about it, or it's just not what you want anymore that you feel good about the way that you're disposing of it. Whether that's donating it somewhere or reusing it in some way, that's actually going to be practical for you. So those are my ideas, but this is a really great question, Natalie, and I think it has, as you can tell by the number of ideas and tips we had, I think it has a lot of nuance to it. I think there's a lot of different ways to approach this when you're a beginner, both from the skill-building side of things and the waste reduction side of things. So it's a really good question. So if you have an icebreaker that you want to ask on a future episode, if you're a member, go to and that'll bring you to a thread on our community where you can leave your idea for a future icebreaker and we would love to hear from you and use it on a future episode.

All right, so today we are talking about sustainable sewing. I think that a lot of us turn to sewing as this way to disengage from fast fashion and all of the environmental impacts that come along with it. And even though sewing is a lot better alternative, that doesn't mean that it's perfect and it doesn't mean that it's without its impact. And that's why we're always trying to find new ways to create just more sustainable sewing practices and reduce our overall sewing waste. Seamwork actually recently became a certified B Corp. Sarai, do you want to talk about that? Do you want to talk about what a B Corp is?

Yeah. So if you're not familiar with the B Corp certification, it is an independent certification for for-profit companies that are dedicated to using business as a force for good.

So the way that works is there's an independent organization called B Lab and they vet organizations through a rigorous process. It took us close to two years to get through this entire process. And it involves testing, it involves auditing, it involves a lot of documentation. And in the end, what it is is a verification that you're meeting social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability standards that they've set forth. So unlike a traditional corporation, a B Corp is actually legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on all stakeholders. So that's customers, workers, the community and the environment. And we actually have this now written into our legal documents that this is a requirement for our company. And so that process of becoming B Corp certified, which was a really, really educational process, it gave us a lot of different ways, in the process of trying to meet those standards, a lot of different ways to improve and find ways that we could do things better and meet those standards.

So for me, that was one of the things that really drew me to B Corp certification was getting a better understanding of how we could do better and where we might be falling short and where we could make the biggest impact. And that's something that we learned through this process. So we've made a lot of changes on all those stakeholders that I mentioned, customers, workers, communities and the environment. We made changes to hopefully create better impacts on all of those groups.

But I want to talk a little bit about the environmental side of things since that's what we're talking about today. So some of the things that we've done to create a more sustainable sewing room in particular are we wanted to cut down paper waste. So that's one of the things that we wanted to do. We still use a lot of paper, but we used a lot of paper because we're always printing patterns in order to create prototypes, in order to do fittings and actually create our patterns. So we have a plotter in our office and we're just constantly printing patterns. So one of the things that we did to help reduce paper waste is we got and we mounted a projector.

So now we can do projector sewing in our sewing room and that actually saves a ton of paper because you're projecting the pattern directly onto the fabric and using that to cut rather than having to print and reprint the pattern over and over again. So that's been really cool. It's been a really interesting process learning about that. And if that's something that you're interested in, we have a whole podcast episode about projector sewing so we'll link to that in the show notes.

We also started to weigh and track our fabric waste. So our goal is to reduce that by half. And we basically take all of the fabric waste from our sewing room because again, we're creating prototypes all the time and before we dispose of it in any way, whether that's donating it or throwing it out, whatever we need to do with it, we make sure that we're tracking where that waste is going. So that's another thing that we do.

One of the ways that we're reducing that fabric waste is that we are creating more wearable fit samples so that those fit samples, instead of going into the landfill, they can actually be donated to a local charity that we work with so that they can be used again.

And so we make them in such a way that they are finished. They have nice fabric, they have all the zippers are finished, everything is done and it looks like a regular garment and it's a little bit of extra work on our part, but it makes sure that those fit samples can be used for people who need them.

And then the other thing that we do to reduce waste is recycling fabric or donating it to local artists and makers that can actually use it so that's another thing that we do to make sure that that fabric is not going into the landfill, if at all possible. So those are some of the changes that we've made in our sewing room. And those are things you could do as well in your own sewing room at home. It does have a bigger impact with the amount of sewing that we do, but I think we can do it at any level, really. So maybe that's provided a little bit of inspiration for you in your own home.

So that kind of brings us to the tips. And the tips that we have for you today, again, come from the Seamwork community.

And there are some really, really awesome tips in here that we're going to talk about. So the first thing that I'm going to mention is the idea of maintaining the clothing that you have. We've got some good tips about just maintaining the clothing that you already have. So one of the ways you can do that is to get creative with alterations so that you can save garments that don't quite fit. So here's a suggestion from Barb.

Barb says, “I've saved tons of clothes over the years that did not fit. And now I'm looking for ways to add fabric so they fit, or removing the turtleneck collar that is too tight and creating a new neckline. Think of it as learning to sew on old clothes. If you mess it up, you do not waste money on fabric if it worked, great.” So that's a really great tip from Barb about making alterations to garments that don't quite work right now.

And then the next tip is from Marcia, and it's about laundering your clothing so that you can extend its life. And Marcia says, “We hear that frequent washing of clothes causes them to wear more quickly, even with careful washing. I try to wear clothes at least twice before washing and try to hang them up, put them away carefully to avoid wrinkling so that they can be worn again. Less washing means saving water, and water shortages are a problem in places throughout the world. When I can, I use the clothesline for drying, saving on energy.” So that's a really great tip from Marcia.

So those are all about maintaining the clothing you have, which is really, really important. If you want a more sustainable sewing practice.

The next set of tips is about saving your scraps. And this is my favorite because I have some guilt about throwing away fabric. I don't like to throw away fabric. I tend to keep a lot of scraps, and if you like me, struggle with what to do with all those scraps. We have some ideas for you.

So the first one is from, I'm sorry if I butcher the pronunciation of your name, Bronhey. I think that might be how your name is pronounced. “Playing Tetris to fit the pattern pieces on as little fabric as possible and leaving the biggest scraps, always hoping what's left will be enough for another project."

So I think that's a really good point that might go overlooked is when you're actually laying out the fabric, really Tetris-ing thing in there so that you have big scraps left over. I think that's a really good tip.

I was just going to say that I think that something that people take for granted with cutting layouts is that cutting layouts are designed for size ranges. So the cutting layout might be for 60 inch wide fabric for sizes twelve through 18. If you're the smallest size in that range, then it's very likely that you're going to be able to fit it in a little bit more efficiently. Or even if your fabric is just an inch or two wider than the fabric that is suggested, that you're going to have a lot of play there. So I think breaking the rules, knowingly in that way can be really helpful.

Yes, I totally agree. I'm always looking for ways to save on fabric when I'm laying out my pattern pieces because like you said, I think most of the time you can save at least a little bit of fabric, sometimes a substantial amount of fabric if you play around with the placement, get things right up against each other when you can. When you're cutting, if you're using a rotary cutter, not going too far beyond the boundary of the actual pattern piece as you're cutting so that you can get things right up there, you can save a lot of fabric that way.

And then if you are saving those larger scraps that way, or you just have larger scraps, you can save those for smaller projects.

So Nikki suggests you can use accessories like the Drew headband or the Graham tie or even make patch pockets with your larger scraps. I think it's a great way to use up those bigger pieces that you have. One of the things that we're doing right now as a team is we're making a quilt from our own scraps. So we're making a Wonky Log Cabin quilt using scraps and we're doing it together with the so for good events that we're doing right now as this is being recorded. And we're going to donate that quilt.

So that's something that you even if you're not much of a quilter. I'm not really a big quilter. I've done some quilting, but this has actually gotten me thinking a lot more about how to use my scraps for quilting and it's something I want to do more of. So that's another thing that you can do if you're looking for ways to use up those scraps and then if you have small scraps. So if you have really small scraps that you don't know what to do with, actually some of those can be used for quilting too. Some of the scraps that I'm using for this quilt are quite small, but if you have small things that you don't see a use for, or maybe they're not good for things like quilting or patchwork, then you can also use them as stuffing. So Nikki also suggests Boot Buddies, which are essentially these stuffed tubes that are used to help your boots keep their shape when you aren't wearing them, which is a really cool idea. And Elaine uses hers to stuff pillows. And she even suggests making a tailor's ham and a seam roll from your scraps, which I think is very intriguing because you can make it look however you want. I've never made a tailor’s ham or seam roll, but I kind of want to now.

I've always wanted a tailor's ham that looks like an actual ham.

A ham? Yeah. I'm not sure how you would do that, though, other than I don't know. I was thinking, could you paint it? But no, you wouldn't want to paint it.

Probably not.

I guess you could get it printed at Spoonflower or something like that. But then that would defeat the point of view.

Maybe not.

Sheena has a really good tip. She uses long strips of fabric to tie plants like tomatoes to steaks in her garden. I really like that idea. I think knit fabric works particularly well for things like this because it stretches so that as your plant grows, it doesn't chafe against the fabric. So I think that's a really, really good idea. And Elaine says she also uses a rag bag, and this helps to keep things out of the landfill, but also allows her to reduce single waste paper products like paper towels. So you could just use your leftover fabrics for rags.

This is maybe a not sustainable example for me that I wish I had done differently. But when I was refinishing my dresser, I have this dresser that has been passed down from my great great grandmother, and I refinished it a couple of years ago. And I needed rags, lint-free rags for part of the process. And I ended up buying some. And when I got them, they were just cut up T-shirts. I was like, oh, I could have just used my own fabric scraps for this. So I think having a place for your rags, I think T-shirt type fabric, knit fabric is great for rags but also woven's work, too.

So that's another really good tip.

All right, bringing us some more tips. The next batch of tips is all about thinking more about things before you toss them. I think it's really easy to just, like, chuck things in the waistbin and then forget about it. But taking a little pause and thinking a little bit more critically before you do that. Elaine suggests, we have a lot of great tips from Elaine. Thanks, Elaine. She suggests looking for local places that accept fabric donations. She donates hers to a local library that hosts children's craft events, which is really great. I know sometimes preschools and even daycares also accept things like that.

You can also look for textile recycling programs. Lots of larger retailers like H & M, which is really, they do nasty things for the environment, but they do have a textile recycling program, and you can look for things more locally as well. I think this is a place where the Seamwork community is really great because you can connect to people in your community and then see what they're doing with their fabric waste and you might get some good ideas and as a pleasant byproduct end up helping someone in your community who could actually use what you do not have use for.

Our next batch of tips is considering how you shop. Giovana says that she's selective about the patterns that she sews and focuses on items she'll wear most often. She also only buys fabric when she is ready to sew, meaning that she does not keep a stash, which I'm very impressed by. She says that Design Your Wardrobe really helps here as well, which I definitely recommend. I know in my personal sewing that following a program like Design Your Wardrobe to plan my sewing helps me to sew less impulsive things. And a lot of the times the impulsive things, not always, but a lot of times ends up being the things that I just don't wear as often.

The next tip is to shop small. Marcia says this is a quote “I'm trying to support the small quilt stores here, mostly women owned, even though they sell very little fabric that is suitable for the kinds of patterns I'm using. But who doesn't love a good notion?” Amen. “And I think that having garment sewist frequent quilt stores has shows a sewing solidarity and support for these important economic engines in our community, but also has a side effect of encouraging the stores to carry a larger variety of fabrics suitable for garment sewing."

Yes, definitely. If those stores don't know that we as garment sewers exist in their community and are willing to spend money, then they have absolutely no motivation to carry the types of things we need. And in my experience, I love our local fabric stores, and I feel like they definitely have their ear to the ground when it comes to what their community members want. And supporting them by shopping there, even if it's just for interfacing and thread and buttons is a great thing to do. You can even pop into local—I find that a lot of times yarn shops have really great buttons. So that's like another hot tip. If you don't have a fabric store in your community, maybe you have a yarn shop and you can go get some pretty groovy looking buttons there.

Yeah, that is true. They often do have really great buttons. I unfortunately don't have a yarn shop or a fabric shop other than Joann in my local town, but that's okay. I can drive to Portland and support those local businesses, which I do. So that's a really good thing to do. And I agree that supporting those local quilt shops is really helpful for kind of spreading the word about garment sewing. I've been in this business for 13 or 14 years, and I remember at the beginning when we were doing mostly paper patterns, I went to a trade show and it was almost entirely quilt shops there. And every single one of them was really interested in garment sewing, but really hesitant about carrying too much garment fabric because they didn't know how many garment sewers were in their community. And I think if they only knew how many people were interested in garment sewing, it would be helpful for them and for us, garment sewers. So definitely support your local shops.

Definitely. And I think that quilt fabrics, quilting cottons have come a really long way and are a lot better quality than they used to be. Just higher thread count and a better hand. And I am not one of those people who is anti-quilting cotton for garments. I think that sometimes it is totally appropriate. So you might be surprised by what you find.

Yeah, that's definitely true. And a lot of the manufacturers who do quilting cottons are making more and more garment fabric as well. Things like lawns that are not that different from quilting cotton. So there's a lot there that I think it's a little bit of a tangent, but I think it's a really great tip from Marcia.

All right, well, I'm going to recap real quick the four main things that we covered here. We have a lot of tips from the community. I'm not going to go over each of them, but the four main things we covered were, first of all, maintaining the clothing you have. So making sure that you are keeping your clothing in shape, that it will last for years and years to come, that's a very big way to be sustainable.

Save your scraps. So finding ways to use your scraps, both large and small, can be really helpful in cutting down on waste, considering how you shop, including what kinds of patterns you buy, how much you're actually going to wear them, where you buy your fabric and how much fabric you buy is another really good tip.

And to think before you toss. So if you are thinking about getting rid of something, finding ways to either recycle or find somebody who's going to be able to reuse it is another really good way to cut down on your fabric waste.

So those are the four main things that we touched on today. And if you want to learn more about this, we have an article called Is Your Fabric Sustainable? Learn about the good, the bad and how to make an informed switch. By Michelle Brown Calistro and also three ways to replace disposables in your bathroom, featuring the free flow underwear pattern so you can make the switch with these easy projects to help reduce single use items in your bathroom by Ellie Rivkin and five ways to replace disposables in your kitchen. So those are ways you can create easy projects to help reduce single use items in your kitchen that's also by Ellie Rivkin.

And you can also keep an eye out for an upcoming interview that we have planned with Zoe from Check Your Thread podcast. And if you aren't familiar with this awesome show, it is all about sewing more sustainably, so stay tuned for more on that.

That's going to be coming soon, and I'm really excited about that. And then I wanted to mention something that Haley mentioned earlier when we were sharing some initial tips for those of you who are more beginners or you're just more interested in fit in general.

But Haley mentioned the Fit Journal, and that's a great way to waste less and just have more sewing wins in your life. So our Fit Journal walks you through a simple fitting process that helps demystify getting the fit that you want, and it includes worksheets for taking and comparing measurements, choosing your size, and then making adjustments. And the really cool thing is that when you use it over time, it really helps you to find your fit. So it's available for free at

And if you like this episode again, please leave us a review. We would love to hear from you. You can leave a review on Apple podcasts or on Spotify. Or if the podcast platform that you use has a way to leave reviews or ratings, we would super appreciate it. We love hearing from you guys, and those reviews and ratings really help other people to find the show, so it's very much appreciated.

And that does it for us today. I'm Sarai.

And I'm Haley.

And this is Seamwork Radio.

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