How to sew more eco-friendly

Have you ever wondered how you can make your sewing more eco-friendly without going all-in and eliminating every single fabric that’s not 100% organic in your fabric stash?

You’re not alone. 

Even if it’s considerably less impact than fast fashion manufacturing, the fabric we’re using when sewing isn’t very eco-friendly.  Pesticides, water consumption, toxins for growing crops, and the energy and chemicals used to produce the fabric. Garment making is not for the faint-hearted as the textile industry is one of the world’s largest polluters. 

But we still need to get dressed, right? So is it possible to do only a little bit of eco-sewing, just to get started? 

Common tips

Look for eco-sewing tips online and you will usually find:

  • Mend worn garments like socks and jeans and wear them a few months longer.
  • Upcycle a garment into something new like a pillowcase, pot-holder or pattern weights. 
  • Wash less often using an eco detergent and low temp water.
  • Save leftover fabric scraps and make a pincushion or a scrunchie.

 

These are all terrific tips, but what about when you want to sew a brand new garment?

hemp fiber
Hemp yarn

Finding fabric

Not long ago the only organic fabric on the market was hemp and jute and despite them being great from an eco perspective, they’re not nice to wear close to your skin (imagine wearing a doormat).

You may think it’s difficult finding eco-fabrics, but nowadays there’s a relatively large selection in fabric stores both off- and online and the selection is constantly growing.

It’s not as hard as it seams. 

However, it can be tricky to know what fabrics are OK and what all of the standards terminology and label abbreviations stand for. And, are all eco-fabrics equal from an environmental perspective? 

Don’t worry, you don’t have to be an expert. Some basic knowledge will get you a long way, so read along and you’ll have it in a couple of minutes.

A positive impact

Sewing your own clothing is already a greener way to go compared to the garment factories producing hundreds or even thousands of the same garments, oftentimes only to be dumped as land-fill when they’re not bought by the consumer. 

The impact you’re making when sewing e.g. a shirt is almost non-existent in comparison due to the fact that you’re buying and using the exact amount of fabric you need for your garment. 

Eco-friendly fabric can be pricey but the environmental, ethical, and health impact justifies the cost. Following the fabric’s recommended washing instructions also make your garments last longer.

green bamboo
Bamboo

Fabrics to look for

5 eco-fabrics that are easy to find in any fabric store which considers sustainability an important topic.

  1. Modal – made of wood pulp, use it instead of viscose/rayon among other
  2. Lyocell – made of wood pulp,  use it instead of non-certified cotton, among other
  3. Cupro – made of cotton linter, sometimes called “vegan silk” and is perfect for shirts
  4. Bamboo fabric – a common replacement for french terry but also often mixed with other much less eco-friendly fibers like viscose, check the product description before buying
  5. Cork fabric – a sturdier fabric suitable for bags and pouches.

Are all eco-fabrics equal?

The short answer is: No.

Firstly, consider the different aspects of “eco” in fabric production: 

Environmental impact

E.g. how crops are grown, if pesticides and herbicides are used and if production residues and the final product is biodegradable

Ethical production

E.g. how it affects the workers involved in the process, both humanitarian and environmentally

Toxin-free or a “closed-loop” production

I.e. if the chemicals used can be extracted and the water reused

Secondly, know there are different concepts and decide which one appeals to you:

Reclaimed fabric

Saved from being dumped in landfills and re-sold as yardage

Recycled fabric

Made out of other things e.g. pet bottles made into fleece fabric

Certified fabric

Ethically and/or environmentally guaranteed, de-ciphered further down

As you can see, these aspects and concepts are interlinked and a bit tricky to separate from each other. 

So how do you know what to choose?

Well, the easiest way is to choose fabrics that have already been tested, evaluated, and is following a standard.

cork
Cork

Certificates and standards

There are many standards and certificates for the textile industry to follow if they want to classify their work and products as “eco”.

A label with any one of the standards and certifications listed below guarantees a high-quality production processes and safety standards with significant attention to both the environment and worker’s health.

But they all represent a slightly different angle.

Here’s a brief description of the most common ones (click the links to visit their websites and get the complete definitions):

Certificates 

OEKO-TEX STANDARD 100, means that the fabric (or product) is tested for harmful substances and confirms that it is safe both for humans and the environment.

Fairtrade, is an internationally agreed certification standard for working conditions, living wages, and workers’ rights.

GOTS, is the global processing standard for organic fibers and limits the use of toxic bleaches, dyes, and other chemical inputs during the production process.

Other standards (not only used for textiles)

  • UNI EN ISO: 9001:2008 (for quality)
  • UNI EN ISO 14001:2004 (for the environment) 
  • BS OHSAS 18001:2007 (for health and safety) 

Most fabric stores, both physical and online, have a selection of certified eco-fabrics so they’re fairly easy to find. Buy one and you’re as certain as you can get that you’re working with the real eco deal.

What's next?

There are lots of initiatives to find new and better ways to produce and process fabric and to minimize the impact on both humans and our planet.

There are also some cool innovation going on to come up with new raw materials for fabrics and some are invented already. How about sewing with banana peel fabric, mushroom vegan leather or milk protein jersey? 

These fabrics actually already exist and are available in the market today, but they are rare and quite expensive.

mushrooms
Mushrooms (maybe not these exact) functions as raw material for leather like fabric

Your choices matter

I hope this post has brought you insights so you can feel more confident taking a step towards more eco-friendly sewing ahead. 

You’re maybe thinking that one sewist making a single garment won’t have any effect on our earth. 

I argue the opposite. 

Just like tiny drops of water can carve out a gigantic cave in a mountain over time we as sewists can have massive impact on the well being of our planet, one tiny garment at a time. So go ahead and make your mark.

Sew great

Leave a Reply

Share this with a friend