This week I really want to chat about zero-waste fashion. Not because it is becoming trendy, or the hip thing to talk about, but because I really want to help raise awareness about what zero-waste fashion really is, and why it is so important that the world as a whole understands why it is important.
So lets start with the basics first. (There are the occasional affiliate links in this post, highlighted with an *. If you click through to check out those links, it won’t cost you anything more, but will eventually help me with my morning coffee addiction. Cos that’s important. To me.) 😉
Definition Of Zero-waste Fashion
Zero-waste fashion. What does it REALLY mean?
A simple definition using an online dictionary would suggest the following:
Zero = No quantity, Nil, Nada, Nothing
Waste = (of a material, substance or by-product) eliminated or discarded as no longer useful or required after the completion of a process.
My explanation of zero-waste fashion then would be:
The process of discarding nothing in the creation of fashion.
Fabric Consumption Facts
A fact that many people aren’t aware of is that there is over 400 billion square metres of fabric produced per year. I’m just going to write that again, because the number doesn’t make sense to me. FOUR HUNDRED BILLION square metres.
What is that number? I mean, I can comprehend four hundred. The term ‘billion’ also make sense. But FOUR HUNDRED BILLION SQUARE METRES???
How is it possible that the world we live in, is producing that much fabric, every year?
Where is this 400,000,000,000 m2 of fabric being produced? Who are the people creating it? Weaving it? Knitting it?
A bigger question might be, where does all of that 400,000,000,000 m2 of fabric end up?
That, I don’t have the answer to. Yet.
Fabric Waste Per Year
What I do have, are other numbers for you and I to consider.
I can tell you that the percentage of fabric discarded during the cutting process is 15%
I can work that out as 400,000,000,000 ÷ 100 x 15 = 60,000,000,000 m2.
Does that number make sense? Hell no. How many of us deal in numbers of that size? Let’s break it down further…
15% of 400 billion is 60 billion square metres of fabric being wasted per year.
Again, pretty obscure right?
Switzerland And Wales
To get our heads around just how much fabric is wasted every year, we’ll think in terms of countries. Because visualising it in that way, will really help our brain to understand the numbers better.
60 billion m2 = 60,000 km2
Switzerland is 41,285 km2 in size.
Wales 20,761km2 in size.
Add the two of them together and you have your answer…
If you laid out that 60 billion square metres of fabric waste on the ground, you’d have enough to keep the land mass of both Switzerland and Wales all toasty and warm. And that’s just ONE YEAR worth of fabric waste.
So how can we work with fabric in a way that isn’t so wasteful?
Zero-waste Fashion As Puzzles
When I think about zero-waste fashion, I like to think of it in relation to jigsaw puzzles. We’ve all done jigsaws right? Some of us love them, and some of you reading this will hate them. I loved them as a kid, and I think the puzzle aspect of zero-waste fashion plays off that childhood love of mine. You see, thinking about how to use fabric in a way that isn’t wasteful is like creating your own jigsaw puzzle.
History Of Zerowaste Fashion
It is my belief that zero-waste fashion has always been a part of fashion, and not just a ‘trend’. When I look back through one of my favourite books – Max Tilke’s ‘Costume Patterns and Designs’ – I am blown away by how much evidence is contained within that points to an historical zero-waste approach to fashion.
The book is an encyclopaedia of ‘costume patterns and dress designs of nearly every nation from Antiquity to Modern Times’.
Max Tilke wrote in the 1920s that ‘Garments of the earliest epochs are the most simply cut and show the fewest seams’.
And he provides plenty of examples within the book as proof of this zero-waste approach to fashion.
An African Tobe
There is the Tobe from Africa depicted in the book; and this is the only place I have been able to find such an example as the Tobe seems to have never existed if you go by what is available on the internet!
A tobe is a type of traditional dress, worn in Africa. Tobes consist of cotton strips that are at most 3” wide, and are then sewn together. The lower section of the tobe has flare added by using ‘wedge-like insertions’. A little like what we know as godets.
I have researched online, and it is IMPOSSIBLE to find reference to a tobe from Africa so we will trust Max Tilke’s description for now.
Ferda from Nubia
Along with the Tobe there is also another early example; the Ferda from Nubia.
Nubia was ‘home to some of Africa’s earliest kingdoms’ so we are going back some time with this garment. (Being that this is a website dedicated to fashion creation and not history, please see this link for more information on the history of Nubia: https://oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits/history-ancient-nubia).
The Ferda is a long piece of fabric used to create a draped garment. The middle of the piece of fabric is attached at the back of the body. The sides of the fabric are then drawn underneath the armpits to the front of the body and thrown over the opposite shoulder. You can get an idea from this image.
There are also trousers from Korea which are created using simple shapes. These shapes will have been easy to cut from an existing length of fabric and are most likely zero waste also.
In 2014 I visited Athens for the first time. The statues in The Agora greatly inspired me. All that draped fabric captured in stone! I took endless photos, dreaming of a time when I would have time and space to create a Greek collection. Alas, that has not yet happened!
However, from the photos we can imagine that the approach was also zero waste at that time. Take a piece of fabric, drape it around the body in interesting ways and use rope, buckles and brooches to constrain the fabric where required.
And of course, all that fabric being used to swathe the body would be perfect for refashioning later on when areas wore thin.
You can see from the sculptures that the use of pleats, and folds allowed for different silhouettes of the garments that were being worn. And that is something to bear in mind today, when we are considering zerowaste fashion.
All of the examples given so far explore shape in relation to zero-waste fashion. Interestingly enough, on my mission to make this post as thorough as possible, I didn’t come across a single zero-waste fashion brand that used shape and cutting techniques as a way to minimise waste.
In fact, the only fashion brand that I could locate was Tonlé – who use a mix of two zero-waste approaches; ‘using 100% of the given material’ as well as ‘generating garments from remnant materials’.
The Future Of Zero-waste Fashion
There are now many students exploring and experimenting with zero-waste fashion design – my Instagram feed is filled with people working their way through the process and sharing their findings. And truth be told, this is something that would tempt me to do an MA, but for the financial commitment!
One of my favourite newcomers when it comes to zerowaste design is Mylene L’Orguilloux from Milan AV JC. You can see her work here and in fact, she makes her zero-waste patterns freely available to ‘steal, improve and share’ here.
Zero-waste Fashion Book
‘Zero Waste Fashion Design’ – This beautiful book by Holly McQuillan and Timo Rissanen takes a deeper look at zero-waste fashion design, for anyone excited to try it out.
There are plenty of examples contained within that explore the use of shape within the zero-waste techniques. And shape really is key. Think of those jigsaw puzzles I mentioned earlier.
An image is broken up into multiple pieces, which are shaped. In the case of young children, that image may be broken up by the use of gently flowing curved lines, so that it is easier for the child to put the puzzle together.
If the child is older, and has a greater ability to problem solve then the puzzles will have more defined shaped that need to be locked together to form the overall image.
And then you get to adult puzzles. The 5000 piece puzzle. Where each piece is tiny, almost uniform in shape and size.
Zero-waste Fashion Jigsaws
I have a lot of fun thinking in ‘zero-waste fashion’ ways. I measure up a section of fabric I have stashed away and I input those measurements into Illustrator, the computer programme I use.
I then think about the outcome I want to have, and important measurements related to my body, and then I set to work.
Creating a puzzle on the computer screen. Which is then printed out in paper, and tested. Notes are made, thoughts are recorded, and then modifications are made.
It isn’t always successful but it is fun, and great for eliminating some of the fabric waste that happens in our world.
Now isn’t the time to walk you through the process of creating your on zero-waste fashion patterns, but I plan to next week!
Zero-Waste Fashion Via Fabric Manipulation
For me, another very important aspect of zero-waste fashion is the use of fabric manipulation to make the puzzle work. When a designed line in the puzzle is a little too long to connect to the matching line, fabric manipulation can be pivotal in suppressing the fabric to make the puzzle work.
The use of the following techniques can all work to make a design zero waste:
- Pin tucks
Then there is the excess. When you have cut into the fabric and realise you have a few sections left over with nowhere to go, how do you use them in such a way that the design is still zero-waste?
I know not everyone is a fan of detailed embellished looks. For many people, simple and minimal are the key requirements when making your own clothes.
For those people, using the excess to face sections, or create garment closures or hidden details can work well.
For those of us who love a little embellishment, we can have many more options. Experimenting with different ways to manipulate the fabric and apply that to the garment is another idea of fun for me.
During the zero-waste fashion dress workshop, one attendee Veronika decided to pin tuck her excess fabric into oversized pockets. They looked amazing and were a great way to use up excess fabric in order to keep the garment ‘zero-waste’.
And I have to admit, it was one of my favourite outcomes on the day.
Above photo courtesy of Offset Warehouse
There are so many books available on different fabric manipulation techniques, many stocked in local libraries too. My favourite one being ‘The Art of Manipulating Fabric’.
There is never a reason to not experiment and try something new. After all, isn’t part of making our own clothes the possibility of standing out from the crowd? Of looking and feeling unique in a world of everyone looking the same?
That’s a big reason why I became a fashion designer and creative pattern cutter. It is a huge reason why my university tutor told me I was a ‘textiles designer, not a fashion designer’. My love and appreciation of the way we can work with fabric to achieve a unique and distinct look is part of the designer I am. How much will it influence you and your zero-waste fashion endeavours?
See you next week for a look at how I create zero-waste fashion patterns using Adobe Illustrator.
Eve Tokens (aka The Creative Curator) is a fashion designer, creative pattern cutter and sewing pattern designer.
Eve graduated with a 2:1 in Fashion Design from the University of The Creative Arts in the UK, has a BTEC diploma in Creative Pattern Cutting, a Foundation Degree in Art & Design from Wimbledon College of Art and gained extensive experience in the fashion industry by interning and freelancing for London based fashion brands – Hardy Amies, Roland Mouret, Peter Pilotto and others.
As well as running her own small sustainable fashion brand, Eve has more than 25 years experience sewing and making clothes for herself and family members.
Saturday 29th of May 2021
Thank u soo much u explained this technique the way too good its really useful.... keep going...
Monday 7th of October 2019
Thank you so much. Inspiring article. Very eager to know the sustainable fashion techniques. I'm assigned as person in charge in Class of Sew & Craft- IP Pekanbaru- Indonesia. Could you please where I can get ebook about the techniques? Thaks in advance.
Monday 5th of August 2019
eh the fashion industry generates gigantic waste, which could be used after all. it's good to see that this problem is publicized because when we do not have to do something about it now. you should talk about the problem all the time, but also about solutions. for example, having your favorite clothing, which is destroyed - do we have to throw it away? - no, we can change it, or give it back where someone will do it for us. decisions are important and good that you write about it.
Monday 5th of August 2019
I saw my mistake "you should talk about the problem all the time, but also about solutions" I mean - WE should ;)
Friday 26th of May 2017
Interesting read. Zero-waste patterns are hard to find. Another good way of trying to have a minimal fabric lost is before buying fabric to make a garment is doing a lay-out of the different pattern pieces to cut as economically as possible. Doing refashions are another way to reduce fabric waste. Besides those two options there's also the re-use of discarded clothes. I've seen some documentaries about the making new fabrics from discarded clothes and using it to make new clothes.
Wednesday 31st of May 2017
Thanks Sonja! I just uploaded a podcast / blog post about sustainable fashion techniques, and I did mention refashioning / up cycling! Could you possible link up the documentary you mention please? Would be great for me and others to see and be inspired by! :)