Sewing is a wonderful hobby, and learning to sew can be a great way to support sustainable living. However, it's important to ensure the materials we use come from environmentally friendly sources. Otherwise, we risk bumping up against many of the same issues presented by the fast-fashion industry such as waste, pollution, and human rights concerns.
Lately, I have been doing a lot more sewing. In the past, I’ve made small things like blankets and pillows, but recently I’ve been tackling more difficult challenges, like sewing garments for my family and myself. I genuinely believe that sewing garments and household items makes a powerful statement against the wasteful practices of fast fashion. It also helps to build an appreciation for the work that goes into creating the clothes we wear.
However, I don’t think that the altruism of sewing our own items gives us a carte blanche to buy whatever cheap and easy fabric is out there. I’ve been working hard to ensure that the majority of the materials I use come from sustainable sources, choosing materials using the guidelines outlined in my introductory post in this series on Sustainable Crafting.
For this post, I will discuss options for sourcing sustainable fabric, thread, and other sewing tools.
As anyone who has even dipped a toe into sewing knows, there are a huge variety of fabrics out there made from a plethora of different fibers. For our purposes today, I’m going to lump all fabrics into three categories: natural fibers (cotton, hemp, silk, linen, etc...), synthetic (polyester, acrylic, spandex, etc…), and semi-synthetic fibers (rayon, modal, lyocell). In this post, we'll discuss the merits of each type of fabric, and ways to acquire each sustainably.
Natural Fabrics & Notions
I try to opt for natural materials whenever possible. When produced correctly, these materials create far fewer environmental impacts, and because they are biodegradable, they ultimately produce less waste and pollutants than objects made from synthetic fibers, which won’t break down naturally and can end up harming our oceans, forests, and waterways.
When selecting natural fabrics, I look first for GOTS-certified fabrics. To achieve GOTS (Global Organic Textiles) certification, materials must adhere to strict growing practices. They must also adhere to high standards for social responsibility during production and refrain from using any harmful chemicals during manufacturing. Basically, the producer must adhere to sustainable practices from seed to final product. Purchasing GOTS-certified fabric and thread is the best way to ensure the materials for your endeavors have the smallest environmental impact. However, GOTS certified fabric can be harder to find--you probably won’t find it walking into your local JoAnn Fabrics--and it can be more on the pricey side.
You may also find materials that are OKEO-Tex certified. OKEO-Tex certification verifies that no harmful chemicals were used during processing or production, but they don’t certify anything about the growing process...so you know that the end product will be safe for you and your family, but the origins may be a bit murky. OKEO-Tex certification isn’t as rigorous as GOTS certification, but fabrics produced this way are still a far cry better than conventionally produced fabrics.
Any of these certifications and guidelines apply to sewing thread and notions. While synthetic polyester thread is often a “go-to” thread because it is strong and durable, I have had good luck using high-quality, 100% cotton to sew garments, Gutterman 100% cotton sewing thread can be found at most mainstream craft stores. If ordering online, Organic Cotton Plus & many Etsy shops sell cotton thread on wooden spools, so you don’t have to worry about leftover plastic from your spent spools.
For embroidery, 100% linen embroidery thread & silk embroidery thread both deliver excellent results. For quilt and blanket batting, I recommend 100% organic cotton or 100% wool batting instead of synthetic batting.
I also recommend using natural materials for buttons, zippers, and other notions whenever possible. Wooden buttons are easy to find in most craft stores and more specialized buttons made from shell, jade, and other natural materials can be found online. Rather than purchasing polyester and plastic zippers, look for zippers made from cotton and metal.
Synthetic fabrics are composed of fibers made from man-made compounds. These are made into fabrics like polyester, nylon, acetate, and acrylic. While these materials have some desirable qualities (stretchiness, moisture, wicking, etc…) they also come with steep environmental consequences--both during production and at the end of their wearable life cycle. Huge amounts of carbon are released during the manufacturing process, and plastic-based materials such as polyester and nylon end up in rivers, lakes, oceans, and waterways in the form of microplastics, resulting in detrimental effects on our aquatic ecosystems. And of course, many of these materials are treated with chemicals to keep them from wrinkling or shrinking (some of those “desirable” qualities mentioned above), and those chemicals can also have negative health impacts for the wearer and the environment. These chemicals can include anything from lead to formaldehyde, and while the levels traces of these chemicals left on garments and fabrics are generally considered “safe”, their use seems risky and unnecessary, and their production still results in huge amounts of waste and runoff in much higher concentrations.
Thankfully, recycled fabrics are becoming easier to come by. Both natural fibers (such as wool and cotton) can be recycled as can many synthetic fibers such as polyester and nylon. Purchased recycled material helps to keep synthetic fibers out of landfills and waterways while reducing the demand for newly made synthetic fibers (and all of their negative impacts). Of course, recycled synthetics still will not biodegrade at the end of their life cycle, so it is important to repurpose and repurpose items made from these materials and then safely dispose of them at the end of their life cycle through a program such as TerraCycle’s textile recycling program (this practice goes for all textiles, not just for synthetics).
Recycled thread is also getting easier to come by. Gutterman Sew-All Eco Thread is available in many places online including Etsy, and I've even found it at my local JoAnn Fabrics.
Semi-synthetic fibers occupy a sort of grey area between fully natural fibers and fully man-made fibers. They’re technically made from entirely natural materials (such as wood cellulose or bamboo) but they’re processed in a way that the end result is a truly man-made product. You might be thinking, “Wait... cotton fabric is also processed and fashioned into a man-made end result…” This is true, but products like cotton, linen, silk, and wool are processed in such a way that the end product is still clearly composed of the original material (cotton and wool are spun into thread, but that thread is still absolutely cotton or wool). Semi-synthetic fibers are made by isolating one chemical or element of the original material--such as wood cellulose--and then that component is processed into something almost entirely new. However, unlike fully synthetic fabrics, these semi-synthetic fabrics are fully biodegradable.
The three big semi-synthetic fabrics are viscose (aka rayon), modal, and lyocell. While these three fabrics are all using cellulose (usually from bamboo, pine trees, or beech trees) there are major differences in their manufacturing processes. Before going into the specifics of how each of these materials is manufactured, I’ll go ahead and give away the ending here by telling you that Lyocell is produced the most sustainably of the three.
Viscose/Rayon is produced by heavily treating pure plant cellulose with chemicals to transform it into the end product we’re used to seeing. So while the source materials are technically natural, the end product is far from anything we would find in nature. Unfortunately, during Rayon production, the chemicals used are discarded as waste, resulting in a lot of pollution and waste.
Modal is made in a very similar way to Rayon. However, the production methods for modal are much more sustainable. The cellulose is derived from beechwood, which is more sustainable to grow. Additionally, fewer chemicals are used and less waste is produced during the Modal production process. Indeed, much of the world’s model is produced by Lenzing, which has developed a closed-loop system to continuously recapture and reuse the water and chemical solvents used to produce fabric, and they also work hard to ensure the beechwood they use to produce their fabric is So while those chemicals are still being used, they are no longer on the fabrics by the time they hit the consumer market, nor are those chemicals released as waste.
Lyocell is the latest generation of these biodegradable semi-synthetic fabrics. It also is made from plant cellulose (usually wood), but all Lyocell is created using a closed-loop system, much like Lenzing Modal. The most recognizable brand of Lyocell is Tencel, and I have to say, my personal experiences with Tencel (both with pre-made garments and for sewing) have been nothing but positive. It’s a wonderful fabric to wear and to work with. Because the chemicals and water used in the process are recovered, production of this fabric produces virtually no waste, and the land used to grow the trees used in production is not suitable for other types of agriculture, meaning they are not taking the place of food-producing spaces. All in all, Lyocell fabrics are amazingly sustainable. They are also becoming increasingly easy to find, even at mass-market craft stores like JoAnn’s.
A Note on Deadstock Fabrics:
Deadstock fabrics are leftover commercial fabrics that often end up in a landfill if they are not used or sold. These fabrics are surprisingly controversial. On the surface, it seems like using up these to-be discarded fabrics is a noble and eco-conscious purchase. However, viewed through another lens, it can also be argued that creating a market for deadstock fabric encourages the industry to continue to oversupply, over-purchase, and create waste rather than moderating production to more closely meet demand. Additionally, if the fabric was made in factories with poor human rights and environmental track records, then buying up the deadstock also does little to address these issues. In short, deadstock fabric is a grey area, and it is worthwhile to investigate the deadstock fabric supplier to ensure they aren’t simply “greenwashing” the products they sell. While I think it is important to prioritize other sustainable fabric sources first (i.e.: fabrics that are produced sustainably in the first place) turning to deadstock fabrics can help keep these fabrics from the landfill, and they can also be a good way to find designer fabrics at more affordable prices.
Sometimes vintage fabrics are lumped in with Deadstock Fabrics. However, I would argue that purchasing truly vintage fabrics is more sustainable than purchasing newer deadstock fabrics, as vintage fabrics are not part of the current overproduction/waste cycle.
Where to Buy:
As demand for sustainable fabrics and sewing notions grows, they are becoming easier to find. And while they are more expensive than cheaply made cotton and polyester fabrics, prices continue to come down as production grows. And of course, using better quality fabrics improves your end results.
Etsy: It almost goes without saying that Etsy is one of the best places to get sustainable fabric, thread, and notions. There is a huge variety of options on the site, including GOTS certified and OKEO-Tex certified natural fabrics, sustainable semi-synthetics such as Lenzing Modal and Lyocell, vintage fabrics, thread, and sewing notions. Etsy is also one of the best places to get recycled fabric by the yard, as many online suppliers of recycled fabrics have minimum orders of 100 meters or more.
Organic Cotton Plus: While there isn’t quite as large a variety to choose from as you would find on Etsy, Organic Cotton Plus has a wonderful selection of sustainable fabrics and notions, including many GOTS Certified selections. They also sell vegetable-based dyes, natural batting by the pound, and undyed materials. Because the site is dedicated solely to fabric and fiber arts, it is easier to navigate to whatever you’re looking for. Also unlike Etsy where you may need to check out from multiple "shops" and navigate different shipping policies, everything from Organic Cotton Plus will be coming from a single store. While largely dedicated to true natural materials, this store also carries some nice lyocell blends. I highly recommend this site to find any of your sewing needs, from thread to batting to fabric
FabScrap: Fabscrap sells deadstock fabrics by the yard and also sells “Yard Packs” and “Scrap Packs”. These packs include a “surprise” selection of different fabrics in the same color family (though you can choose between natural and synthetic fibers). This can be a fun way to push your creativity! FabScrap also collects fabric and recycles it. While you can order their fabric from anywhere with no minimum yardage, you do need to live near one of their warehouses to recycle with them.
Big Box Stores: Big Box Stores like JoAnn Fabrics are not necessarily known for sustainability. However, they are the only non-online option for many sewists. Let’s face it, buying online may open a lot of opportunities to find products not available locally, it’s not always ideal to purchase fabric without being able to see the colors and touch it in person first. Thankfully, sustainable fabrics are becoming easier to find at these stores. I found some beautiful Lyocell fabric that I used to make a frilly romper for my daughter and a light Lyocell denim blend to make some summer overalls for my son at our local JoAnn’s.
Thrift Stores: Some thrift stores actually take donations of old fabric. Even if your thrift store doesn’t carry actual fabric, they may carry used garments you can use to salvage the fabric and transform it into something else.
Your Local Craft Store: When all else fails, see if you can buy local. If your local craft store doesn’t currently carry sustainable fabrics, they may be able to special order it for you.
I know that the search for sustainable fabric and sewing supplies can leave you simultaneously excited, hopeful, and frustrated beyond all reason. It can be a bit more difficult to find fabrics in your price range or to source them locally. Fabric, like all things, is subject to the laws of supply and demand. We won’t get the supply unless we create the demand. However, the more we come together to create demand for these sorts of products, the easier it will be to find these products on the mainstream market.