Zero Waste Sewing

From the purchases we make to the sewing patterns we use, reducing waste in your sewing practice is possible. Read on to learn more about zero waste sewing patterns, which use 100% of fabric yardage with no scraps or waste.

There are many ways to reduce waste in your sewing room: using scraps creatively, buying items without packaging, using old fabric, thinking before we buy new things, and using what we already have. Zero waste sewing patterns are one alternative to consider, and the options for these kinds of sewing patterns continue to grow. With a cutting layout that resembles a giant jigsaw puzzle, zero waste sewing patterns generate no scraps.

Zero waste sewing pattern

My fascination with zero waste patterns started in 2016 when I chance upon an essay about it written by Holly McQuillan, and then I read Zero Waste Fashion Design by McQuillan/Rissanen, which had just come out. I already knew how to make patterns: I trained as a patternmaker in 1990/91 and worked as a patternmaker and clothing cutter in the industry. I now live in rural Australia with my family but still enjoy making patterns. I wondered if a zero waste pattern would be difficult to create because as well as ensuring good fit and appearance, there’s the extra challenge of using 100% of the fabric. When I tried it, I discovered the process was fun and far more interesting than making regular patterns, and I immediately clicked with it.

I blush when I think about how much waste I’ve created in my career. Typically, there’s 15 percent fabric waste in clothing manufacturing, but sometimes there’s more. Designs with fewer, large pattern pieces tend to create more waste because there are fewer little pieces to fill in the gaps. Larger sizes also create more waste for the same reason. The responsibility to dispose of the fabric scraps belongs to the factory, not the brand they’re making for. Most fabric waste ends up in landfills, some is burned and a little is recycled. Worldwide, there are millions of square meters of fabric being wasted daily. Additionally, it’s estimated that 60 percent of the waste is synthetic (that is, forms of plastic).

Patternmaking Considerations

Zero waste patterns design out the waste. It takes longer to make a pattern this way but it’s very rewarding. The pattern’s curved lines nest into each other, with the concave parts matching the convex ones. My early experiments with zero waste patterns included zero waste jeans, shorts, leggings, pajama bottoms, a wrap skirt, and more. I got better as I went along. The more zero waste patterns I made, the more my brain seemed to switch into the puzzle-solving mode to think of solutions. I’ve since tried out other designers’ patterns for scrubs, underpants, bras, and trousers. I hadn’t thought things like underpants were possible to make zero waste until this year!

The process for making a zero waste pattern is different from how we normally design and make patterns. Normally, a garment starts with a designer’s sketch, description, or photo. That sketch is then interpreted into a pattern, all the sizes are made, then a cutting layout is developed. With zero waste patterns, all these things happen at the same time. No one knows exactly what the design will be until the pattern is finished. Sometimes the style will vary slightly between sizes. This is one of the things that makes zero waste so exciting. With zero waste, patternmaking is used as the design tool.

There are lots of ways to go about making a zero waste pattern, just as there are with regular patterns, and the process depends on the type of garment and the patternmaker. Some people like to drape fabric shapes on a mannequin and see what emerges, some use computers, some draw their layouts on graph paper, some like to work in half scale, and so on. I’m a flat patternmaker (who’s not really good at draping), and I prefer to work with cloth and paper rather than make patterns on-screen. I draw a possible cutting layout in my sketchbook and then draw it straight onto the fabric, using a basic block as a guide to sizing. I pin it together to try on and check the fit, then go from there.

There’s no specialized software for making zero waste patterns. Software for regular patterns isn’t suitable, because the patternmaking, size grading, and layout functions are all separate. Some designers use CLO3D or Illustrator, or, like me, make patterns manually. I do use regular patternmaking software if the zero waste pattern only comes in one size (for example, for accessories).

Fabric Yield

Do zero waste patterns use more fabric than regular patterns? This is something often heard, and fabric yield is a subject that’s been discussed at length. Should we be trying to use less fabric? Certainly, historic zero waste patterns (for example, kimonos, caftans, the main part of saris, etc.) aren’t necessarily economical on fabric; Many are voluminous and showcase fabulous textiles, displaying the skill of the weaver. With modern zero waste patterns, the results vary. My own experience reveals that most are very economical on fabric, some with significant savings of up to 25 percent or more, giving a very compelling reason for pursuing zero waste in the fashion industry.

The obvious benefit of zero waste patterns is, of course, no scraps. At the beginning of 2020, I decided I would only make zero waste patterns from now on. The following year I reviewed how much scrap fabric I was generating. In fact, I was still creating scraps, but they were all of the rectangular useable type. They were the ends of pieces of fabric I already had, or where I’d bought fabric online and had to buy in quarter meter increments. Remnants are only waste if we don’t use them, but these are all very useable.

Using a Zero Waste Sewing Pattern

If you’d like to try making a zero waste garment, there are several designers that you’ll want to check out. Some are free/open-source, and some are available from independent designers. They all have their own aesthetic and ways of achieving zero waste.

Zero waste patterns are quite different to use. Many are drawn straight onto the fabric, saving paper as well. The pattern pieces can be unusual shapes, and the construction might be unorthodox. Cutting time is often quicker since one cut will separate two pieces, but you have to be accurate!

Many people comment that using a zero waste pattern is a very satisfying sewing experience.

There are few relatively modern zero waste sewing patterns available; I estimate there are somewhere between 100 and 200, but likely closer to 100. As patternmakers get used to this way of making patterns and get better and better at it, we will see more patterns and interesting garments.

It’s possible to adapt a pattern you already have to zero waste. Spread out the fabric and position the big pieces first, just as you normally would when doing a cutting layout. You’ll be able to see which garment areas you can adjust and which ones are “non-negotiable.” Review the small areas left. These remaining spaces are where you’ll cut the garment’s details, and creativity here will often inspire the design. You might be able to add pockets, change the shape of any facings, make tabs, epaulets, ties, etc. Make sure you lay out all the pieces you’ll need to complete the garment because you can’t just cut them out later. The really important thing is not to have fixed expectations of the outcome. Instead, be prepared for something new. While making a garment with zero waste is a worthy goal, it shouldn’t be at the expense of fit and appearance. If there’s a choice between zero waste and a better fit, always pick fit. You might end up with a layout that’s almost zero waste, or you might be able to improve on it in the future.

Zero waste will continue to grow with innovation and experimentation. It’s a small part of the bigger picture of using our resources wisely, taking care of the environment, and valuing fabric and clothes.

Zero Waste Sewing Pattern Designers

Consider these designers as you experiment with zero waste patterns.

Zero waste sewing designers
Right to left: Maynard Dress from Elbe Textiles, Envelope Dress from Cris Wood Sews, Gather Dress from Birgitta Helmersson

Milan AV-JC: Read more about zero waste design from an industry consultant, plus seven free zero waste patterns. @milanavjc

Goldfinch Limited: Sustainable textile studio with a focus on reclaimed/upcycled textiles, with a small but growing range of zero waste patterns.

Schnittchen Patterns: Independent sewing pattern brand from Germany, with two free zero waste patterns to try. @schnittchenpatterns

Elbe Textiles: Zero waste Maynard Dress, plus a free zero waste robe pattern. @elbe_textiles

Thread Faction: A collection of zero waste sewing patterns for children, with plenty of great mix ‘n’ match looks. @lizatthreadfaction

Cris Wood Sews: Zero waste patterns including the popular Envelope Dress, custom-sized and written with beginners in mind. @criswoodsews

Pattern Union: Find the zero waste Edith smock, a top or dress with lots of options. @patternunion

Make/Use: Open-source, zero waste patterns to make, modify, and experiment with.

Zero Waste Wardrop: A zero waste project with free patterns to build an entire women’s wardrobe. The website is in Finnish. @zerowastewardrobe

Birgitta Helmerson: Zero waste patterns and RTW with a comfortable vibe and cool Swedish esthetic. @birgittahelmersson

Tissuni: Find the “Little Green Dress,” an open-source, low-cost zero waste pattern that can also be purchased. @titsuni

Zero Waste Design Online: An international community of home sewers, academics, fashion designers, and researchers. (@zwdo_collective)

We talked about zero waste sewing on the Sew & Tell podcast — have a listen!

Sew & Tell podcast, episode 74 — Zero Waste Sewing

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