Welcome Ruth Singer who is going to discuss Eco Sewing today. Ruth Singer is the author of Sew Eco, sewing sustainable and re-used materials and Sew it Up, a modern manual of practical and decorative sewing (called The Sewing Bible in US / Canada). Ruth is a textile artist and designer, creating one-off exhibition pieces using her large stash of sustainable and vintage fabrics. She also writes and designs projects for magazines and books, and teaches extensively in the UK. You can find more on www.ruthsinger.com. All images © Ruth Singer from Sew Eco.
There’s nothing new about eco crafting – sewing with old clothes, scraps and reclaimed fabrics has a long tradition. Until the 20th century, fabrics and garments were so expensive that nothing was wasted. From Victorian second-hand clothes markets to wartime Make Do and Mend, clothes and domestic textiles have been recycled, remade, revamped and otherwise made new again for centuries.
In the past recycling was purely an economic issue; saving money and being efficient with what limited materials were available. Now things are different and recycling is as much about ethics and sustainability as it is about saving money. The combined benefits of saving your money and saving the planet is rather hard to ignore – so green crafting is the new way to go.
We are overwhelmed with cheap, often imported fabrics and clothes – unlike our Victorian ancestors, and it can be hard to resist the lure of the new, shiny, colourful and exciting fabrics and materials. Clothes are pretty much disposable these days – as they are so cheap and so often out of fashion within a year. Unlike people in the past, we have the option to make ethical and green choices too – and so we should, to help reduce textile waste (around 1 million tonnes in the UK alone) and to support sustainable design, manufacture and production of ethical textiles. Conventional cotton production uses huge amounts of water, energy and pesticides which all have impacts on the planet and people. Transporting textiles around the world also has huge implications and can mean your t-shirt has an enormous carbon footprint before you even put it in the tumble dryer (the sure-fire route to a huge carbon clothes-print).
Just the same as you think about where your food comes from, think about where your clothes come from. Shopping ethically for fair-trade or organic clothes is a great way to start making a change in your home. Crafting your own is a brilliant way of reducing your consumption, making a political statement about corporate strangleholds on the textile trade and taking control of your own wardrobe. But is making it yourself necessarily green? Let’s have a look at the issues:
What is the fabric made of? Natural = good, right? Not necessarily… Conventionally-produced cotton growing and processing uses large quantities of precious energy and water and can be treated with potentially harmful chemicals. Don’t fancy that?
Think about using organic cotton instead, or at least fair-trade where the farmers are making a living wage from their crop. Yes it is more expensive, yes it comes in a smaller range of colours and patterns, but perhaps you could buy less, and buy better without it being the end of the world. Be creative. Buy what you need to make a fabulous garment or quilt that you will keep forever. Hemp is also a great alternative to cotton and can be really soft and fine just like linen and is very sustainable. Lots of small-scale printers now use organic fabrics too.
Look at www.fairtradefabrics.co.uk or for classic cotton ticking try www.ianmankin.co.uk. Near Sea Naturals have an extensive range of sustainable fabrics including organic cottons produced in the US. Umbrella Prints in Australia produce gorgeous hand-printed organic cotton/hemp fabrics. [Leave a comment with any other sources for organic fabrics that you know of and can recommend.]
Wool is pretty amazing stuff, there’s no argument that it is a sustainable source, there’s no danger of us running out of sheep anytime soon. Wool is breathable, compostable, takes dyes easily and has, for thousands of years, clothed humans comfortably and safely. Some people are concerned about animal welfare issues, while others question the chemicals used in sheep-farming and in wool cleaning, processing and fabric production. But even with those issues (which are being addressed by organic sheep-breeders and small producers) wool is still a thorny issue, particularly in Europe. Most of the wool we can buy here has come from Australia and New Zealand where fine-quality Merino is abundant. Great if you are from that side of the world, but for us in Europe, surely that wool has travelled an awfully long way to come to a part of the world that has a lot of its own sheep? Locally-produced fabrics are part of the mix of sewing eco. Ardalanish Isle of Mull Weavers create amazing organic wool in Scotland. Harris tweed is a classic Scottish wool fabric. [Recommend local wool manufacturers in your region.]
Silk is a really thorny issue. It is sustainable, but not if you are a silkworm, being killed off for your cocoon. Alternatives such as peace or vegetarian silk are available, where the silkworm has been allowed to live out it’s natural life cycle. Peace Silk is available from greenunion.co.uk.
What about synthetics like nylon, polyester, acrylic made from dwindling oil supplies? Synthetics have drawbacks – breathable, natural fibres are generally popular with crafters for good reasons. However, synthetics have their place in the eco world because they are easy to clean and need less ironing thereby saving energy in the home. Their production uses much less water than natural materials, so in some ways they are more. But oil is pretty much finite and aren’t there better uses for it than fancy pants?
What about new eco-fibres? Bamboo is often touted as the new, green sustainable fabric. It is lovely stuff, almost silky in texture, breathable and easy to sew and commonly available as jersey knit for t-shirts. Bamboo fabric mostly comes from China, and it travels a long way to Western markets. Also the production of cellulose-based fabrics (like rayon and viscose) use strong solvents in the processing which some feel counteracts the green-ness of the fabric. Research the sources you find to satisfy yourself that the productionis as green as it can be.
Bamboo fabrics are available from www.wellcultivated.co.uk
So really, there’s no easy answer to what is a completely eco fabric. It depends what your priorities are, what you want to make and where you live. So where next? Personally I will always advocate recycling, using vintage, being crafty and clever with what we have already got, rather than using new. It takes time to develop a good stash of reclaimed fabrics. Using vintage can be limiting and frustrating when we just want that right blue to go with the our new shoes. But look at the restrictions green-crafting imposes creatively. Amazing 19th century patchworks would not have existed if stitchers hadn’t had to be creative with what they had. Use that long-history and creative energy to craft with existing resources and limit your new purchases to fabrics which have a streak of green to them. You will feel all the better for it.
Vintage fabrics can be purchased on ebay, vintage clothes shops, antique markets and from specialist online dealers. Always check for flaws and damage and make sure you watch out for moths in silk or wool. Donna Flower has a beautiful range of vintage fabrics.