Sewing Meditations, Week 2: Ethics and Sustainability

Whew, this is a huge topic! To be honest, I’m a bit nervous to be posting about this, since it’s something I’m only just begun to think about, and I consider myself a total novice in this arena. However, I also think it’s a vitally important subject, both for the longevity of our sewing community as well as for our own emotional well-being. In just the short time that I’ve been sewing and blogging, I’ve noticed a marked increase in posts about sustainability and ethical resourcing, so it’s clearly something y’all are thinking a lot about, too. So, as I take a step back for Lent, I thought it would be good to follow up last week’s topic of “more vs. less” with a discussion about how to be more mindful in our consumer habits when we do choose to buy something.

In my mind, this whole issue of “ethical resourcing” falls into two categories: environmental sustainability and fair working conditions for factory employees. So, basically, there’s a “planet” side and a “people” side of the matter – and both are important. And, to me, both of these issues fall under the broader concept of stewardship. Now, to those of you who are church-goers, this is a terribly church-y word, but just hear me out for a minute. Stewardship is, quite simply, about using our resources wisely. Those resources could be anything – time, money, food, fabric, even our bodies!

In the olden days, “stewards” were caretakers – they oversaw the proper management of farms, vineyards, property, etc. Today, we have the tremendous power and responsibility to be our own stewards. We have a great deal of resources at our disposal, and how we make use of them strongly affects our overall feeling of contentment and well-being.

Just typing that makes me start to feel the weight of that responsibility – oof! Good thing we have an entire lifetime to get this stuff figured out! So, with all that said, I wanted to just jot down a few ideas about how we can begin to work towards this goal, and also list a few places for further reading on the topic.

  1. One easy way to start thinking about good stewardship of our sewing resources is to support our small, local shops instead of the “big box stores.” Of course, this isn’t always possible depending on our geographic location and what particular items we need. However, in general, I try to support my friends in small businesses (special shout out to Grey’s Fabric!)
  2. It can be difficult to tell what fabrics have been produced under ethical conditions, both in terms of environmental impact and fair labor. However, more information is becoming available, and here are a few articles and bloggers I’ve been reading recently that have been helpful:

-the fashion blog Birds of a Thread. Although this is mostly a fashion blog, the author talks a lot about which companies have policies about ethical resourcing, and how to find clothing that has been fairly made. And she sews, too!

-the current issue of Seamwork has a great article on sustainable lingerie sourcing, which includes a lot of helpful information that can apply to other sewing as well.

Birch Fabrics and American Made Brand are two places to find sustainable, ethically made fabric. (I found both of these sites through the Modern Sewciety podcasts!)

  1. Reusing and recycling old fabrics is another great way to think about ethical sourcing! Zoe of So, Zo, What do you Know, Portia of Makery, and Suzannah of Create, Enjoy are some great examples of seamstresses who either refashion or use old clothes for fabric in new garments. This cuts down on waste, and also provides a fun sewing challenge!

Now, as I said at the beginning of this post, I’m only just beginning to scratch the surface thinking about this. So lest I become too preachy here (which is NOT my goal!), let me be the first to say that I have a very long way to go towards good stewardship of my sewing resources! In fact, a big part of why I am posting on this topic is to ask for your advice. Is this a topic you think a lot about? How do you go about finding supplies that have been produced ethically and sustainably? What are you top tips for those of us just starting down this road? I would love to hear about your experiences!

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3 thoughts on “Sewing Meditations, Week 2: Ethics and Sustainability

  1. What I do, and I know everyone that is trying to create in a more sustainable fashion does it a little differently, but I tend to only buy fabric that has been discarded. There is a ton of fabric that people just give away to charity shops. Fabric that hasn’t been touched since someone bought it, brought it home and then forgot about it or fabric that is even still on the bolt. I once got a whole bolt of black felt that way. If I need new or specific fabric for some purpose I tend to try and buy it from a local shop we have that sells discounted textiles and is locally owned.

  2. I think this is a really tough issue for those of us who sew. As you say, it’s difficult to know the working conditions our fabrics were made in, and I honestly have little idea of the environmental impact of producing fabrics. I believe I’ve read that the rayon we all love so much is actually kind of rough on the environment because it requires so much processing and so many chemicals to turn the plant fiber into fabric. We also have incredible amounts of waste as people who don’t have the economies of scale that mass producers have. Every time I make a new pattern, I make a whole garment that I can’t even wear to test fit. I try to reuse my muslin fabrics as much as possible, make wearable muslins when I think the fit will be pretty good, and only muslin the portion of a garment I want to test for fit (bodice only instead of whole dress, for example). But it still creates a lot of waste that I don’t have a use for.

  3. It really is a difficult balance! I’m one of those who finds it impossible to shop small and local for sewing supplies, because Joann’s is literally the only option in my state for anything that isn’t home decor. That means I do often resort to shopping online. So for me, I try to support smaller online businesses and independent pattern designers, buy natural/sustainable fibers when I can (I do have to resort to synthetics/blends for things like yarn and coat fabrics, since I’m allergic to wool), and make wearable muslins so I don’t have to waste my time or my fabric making things that will just get thrown away. Refashioning is also fun! And this year especially, I’m trying to focus as much as I can on using the fabrics I have, rather than buying new. (Except for the cloth diapers I’m in the process of sewing, because I really didn’t have anything on hand that was good for that!)

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