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How-to

Sew Sustainably and Help the Planet

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This Earth Day, you may be thinking about how to sew sustainably because, like many of us, you know that fashion and the processes that create some of our favorite fabrics, dyes, and clothes can harm the environment. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to reuse, repurpose, and recycle in your sewing room. Below are some sustainable sewing ideas to incorporate into current and future projects.

Consider upcycling

The Upcycle Challenge

Upcycling isn’t a new phenomenon, but it has caught on recently as sewers and makers alike work to limit their carbon footprint. What is upcycling? It’s the method of taking a garment and making it into something new and better, rather than tossing or recycling it (by cutting a worn-out T-shirt into rags, for example). In 2020, Threads sponsored the Upcycle Challenge in which the Threads digital ambassadors competed to turn a preworn men’s suit from passé to “Yes, please.” Find inspiration from their creations, and then challenge yourself. What do you have hanging in the closet that you can rework into something new?

 

Inspiration for restyling garments

Threads authors share ideas for turning unworn clothes into pieces full of personal style.

Jeans-to-jacket project

Teacher and designer Mary Ray used a couple of pairs of nicely worn jeans to create a unique and stylish jacket. “Besides encouraging sustainability in fashion—an idea that sewers have always upheld—upcycling is just plain fun,” she says. “It’s challenging to think beyond the pattern, work with limited fabric, and figure out design and construction details as you go. Repurposing is an interesting way to develop your sewing and planning skills and to see unique projects unfold before you.”

Most people can easily find the materials needed for this project in their closets, or at a local thrift or consignment shop. The tutorial will guide you through planning, cutting, and piecing the jacket for a one-of-a-kind look that is also on trend. (But when are jean jackets out of style, right?)

 

Piece multiple sweaters for a new look

Teacher and local American Sewing Guild leader Andrea Schewe constructed two new sweaters from five old and out-of-style versions, See Threads #212, Dec. 2020/Jan. 2021 for her instructions. “I love to remake preworn sweaters, and especially to combine multiple knit garments into a single, one-of-a-kind piece,” Andrea says. “Most sweaters contain at least two textures, and often more. Plain stockinette, ribbing, and other decorative knit patterns offer a range of interesting fabrics that can be repurposed in unexpected ways. Look at the knit’s wrong side, too, to find surface patterns that coordinate with the right side.”

Andrea illustrates how to use a pattern to construct a new sweater and describes a method for designing on the fly. For both, Andrea walks through potential pitfalls, and offers tips and guidance to help give an upcycled sweater the shape you want.

 

Restyle unworn garments

Shirley Adams “Restyle Unworn Garments” details multiple ways to repurpose garments into custom totes, shoulder bags, and clutches. Be inspired by Shirley’s ingenuity. Restyling your garments may enable you to free your imagination. Piece multiple pieces together for a patchwork look, or use unusual elements to embellish the front of a new purse.

“If you’re a devoted sewer like me, it’s likely that your wardrobe is full of unique garments you’ve crafted, using fine fabrics and time-consuming techniques,” Shirley says. “As wonderful as these clothes are, they don’t stay in style forever—or maybe they don’t fit your current figure or lifestyle. Though you can’t wear them, you also can’t bear to part with them. What’s the solution?

“My answer combines conservation and innovation in equal parts. I design handbags that take full advantage of what’s special in a garment: the fabric, the embellishment, or a nifty design detail.”  

Sew a no-waste design

Zero-waste sundress 

If you can’t repurpose or upcycle an older garment, you can still sew sustainably using a no-waste design. This sundress from Mechiel Whitmore does just that. Less waste generated, means less that goes into landfills, and less harm caused to the earth.

“This is a design method used by zero-waste advocates, who seek to eliminate discarded fabric from garment factories,” Mechiel says. “It’s a fun puzzle to solve because, to eliminate waste, all the pattern pieces in your design have to abut on the fabric.”

A design that is pieced together with no waste helps reduce the amount of detritus going to landfills.

Work with home décor textiles

Table and bed linens, as well as other soft furnishings, are readily available in thrift stores and are inexpensive. Alternatively, you may uncover vintage textiles in your own home that could find new life as garments or other decorator pieces.

Make a tablecloth curtain

Rather than throwing old items away, consider using them for a needed item. In this project, from the Threads editors, a vintage tablecloth becomes a curtain. The two layers join only at the top, which makes them come together more quickly, and gives them, a light, breezy quality.

But why stop there? A curtain could easily become a table runner; an old picnic blanket could be turned into a pillow case. Armed with a pattern and a little ingenuity, you can easily repurpose your home textiles into new forms.

A vintage tablecloth found new life as a double-layered panel for a window.

 

From tea towel to top

Digital Ambassador Becky Fulgoni is an ace at sourcing fabrics from unusual places. She can turn a linen napkin into a beautiful warm-weather blouse, or a scarf into eveningwear. “Among my all-time favorite sources of unexpected fabrics are souvenir tea towels,” she says. “I have no idea what you actually do with tea towels, but I love turning them into summery tops.”

What is wonderful about Becky’s projects is that each is a lesson in how to look at the items not as they are, but at what they could be. She sees the potential in tea towels, tablecloths, or bed linens, and then turns them into stylish and original garments.

 

tea towel turned into a sleeveless top
Tea towels can be an at-home fabric source for creating garments, like this simple sleeveless top.

 

There are so many ways to reuse fabrics in new and interesting ways to ensure we aren’t creating more waste than our planet can handle. See some additional ideas below.

A blanket made from Mom’s sweaters

Linen napkins to summer shirt and other top ideas

Mask-making scraps to work of art

What ways do you try to limit your carbon footprint? Tell us in the comments below.

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