Jen Gale found her sanity learning to sew a few months after the arrival of the first of her two sons. She quickly discovered the joys of recycling old things into new and, in 2013, her family spent a whole year Buying Nothing New! Jen is now a passionate advocate of “Making Do and Mending,” and blogs and writes about how to live a normal life more sustainably at My Make Do and Mend Life. Read Jen’s thoughts about conscious crafting, and how to incorporate more pre-loved and sustainable fabric choices in your sewing…

You can also find Jen on Instagram (@makeandmendlife) where she posts a picture and sustainable living tip every day in her #365WaystoChangetheWorld challenge.

For more on organic and sustainable fabrics, see these posts: Organic + Sustainable Fabrics: Everything You Need to Know!, Slow Sewing: Organic Cotton Farming Part One + Part Two with Gina Pantastico of Cloud9 Fabrics

I’m guessing everyone here loves to sew. You may like to do lots of other crafts as well, as it seems rare to finder a crafter who limits themselves to just one craft once they have unleashed their inner creative! I’m guessing that at least 99% of us have a stash of fabric and crafting supplies, neatly lined up in tidy rows, or untidily spilling out all over the floor (I’ll leave you to guess which category mine falls into).

Jen’s Fabric

The lure of pretty fabric and cute haberdashery is a strong one, and how often have we all bought fabric with no idea of what we might actually make with it… Just because we have to, because it’s so pretty or so funky?

When I first learned to sew the delights of the sewing store knew no bounds. I was like a kid in a sweet shop, amazed and delighted at the array of cute and colorful prints; everything from vintage maps to Hello Kitty– and even Star Wars– comes in fabric form!

A few years ago, my family and I spent a year buying nothing new, and this totally changed not only only how I shopped, but how I see my place in the world.

As the year went on my shopping habits changed, and subtly my attitude began to shift too. Almost without knowing it, I was learning so much about the impact of our shopping habits on the planet. I was tuning into articles about fast fashion, zero waste and conscious consumption, that I might previously have just passed over. It slowly dawned on me that every time we are buying something, we are making a statement about the kind of world we want to live in, whether we are aware of this or not.

Jen wearing a skirt she made from an old curtain!

During our year of Buying Nothing New, the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing over 1000 people and injuring thousands more. This bought the world of fast fashion and the conditions that many garment makers are forced to work in to the world’s attention. It forced many people to confront some of these issues for possibly the first time. I was shocked and saddened at the tale that unfolded after the factory collapse, but somehow assumed that I was absolved of any responsibility as I had opted out of fast fashion when we started our Buy Nothing New year. But of course, I was wrong.

When I stopped to think about it, I realized the exploitation of workers doesn’t just happen at the clothing factory. Farmers producing the cotton, people manufacturing the fabric, and dyeing the fabric are all points in the supply chain where corners can be cut and savings can be made. This often happens at the expense of the workers, and the environment.

Everything we buy has an impact, both on the people who have made it, and on the environment; fabric is not exempt from this.

Jen in a dress from an old sheet.

For years I think I smugly assumed that as I was making my own things, I was somehow removed from these issues. It took me longer than perhaps it should have to join up the dots, and realize that even these raw materials can have a detrimental effect on the planet. Cotton is the second-most polluting industry, after petrochemicals. It can take more than 20,000 liters of water to produce just 1 kg of cotton, and cotton production accounts for 16% of all the insecticide used worldwide.

In the same way as there seem to be many human sacrifices in far off places so that we can benefit from cheap “disposable” clothes, the same can apply to cheap (or even not so cheap) fabric too. It would seem that “fast fabric” can have similar impacts to “fast fashion.”

Suddenly, I started to see fabric in a whole new light. As pretty as the fabrics in the haberdashers were, I wanted to find a way to be able to sew, and to create, more sustainably. I didn’t want to think my choices– my “need” for a certain fabric– were choices that were creating a demand for unsustainable products, and for supply chains that exploit the people who work in them. I started to look around for more sustainable alternatives and, thankfully, there are many.

Vintage/Pre-loved/Second-hand Fabric:
Sometimes it can take a little bit of thinking outside the box to see the potential, but things like people’s old curtains, and old duvet covers and sheets, all provide large amounts of fabric. Oftentimes these fabrics are in really funky, retro prints and often for far less than even cheap, new fabric. Good places to look are:

  • Vintage shops and fairs
  • Thrift stores
  • Car boot sales
  • Swap and sale sites on Facebook
  • Freecycle
  • eBay and similar sites

Sustainable Fabric:
There are more and more sustainable fabric lines being developed, using organic and fair trade cottons, often with gorgeous prints.

I am based in the UK, so am more familiar with the online options here, but here are a few great names to look for:

  • Birch Organic Fabrics: Birch has a huge range of beautiful cotton prints and other fabrics such as fleece as well, all produced sustainably and using low impact dyes.
  • Monaluna: Gorgeous prints, and a great range of organic cotton knit fabrics too.
  • Cloud 9 Fabrics: 100% organic cotton, low impact dyes, and a commitment to ethical and responsible practices at their mills, as well as gorgeous prints. What more could you ask for?!
  • Amy Butler has a small but growing organic range available, with her signature style and colors.
  • Robert Kaufman has a Green STYLE range that, whilst not organic, does come with Oeko-Tex certification, which ensures that no harmful chemicals were used in the production, processing or finishing of the fabrics.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my stash and I am still a total sucker for a pretty print. But I think that as with anything we buy, craft supplies should be bought and used mindfully, deliberately and consciously. It comes down to the old adage of “Buy less, buy better.” I want to buy with an awareness of the kind of world we vote for when we part with our money.