Inside The Fabric We Sew With : Being More Mindful

One of the reasons I started sewing my own wardrobe in 2010 was the result of a trip I took to Thailand. I saw a garment factory there, and learned that many popular brands were producing in Thailand, so I started doing some research into third world sweatshops. To learn more about the fast fashion industry, and how it’s completely changed the fashion industry and consumerism in the past twenty years, start by reading Overdressed and watching the documentary The True Cost.

There’s no doubt that making our own clothing is a great way to say no to the mass consumerism in our culture, essentially saying no to the global fashion machine that exploits third world garment workers while that machine produces an annual 1.2 trillion dollar revenue. (source) But pollution from textile mills alone, not including garment factories, is responsible for huge amounts of poisons being released into the water sources of the countries producing them.

So what about the fabric that we sew with? Is it coming from some of those offending mills and are we adding to the problem when we buy it? Fabric we buy with our 40 per cent off coupons at Jo Anns. Cheap fabrics that sell for two bucks a yard in the garment industry. The fabrics that many of us have bought too much of, just read my last post and comments, this is a common problem for sewists, and sit unused in our sewing rooms. Apparently our culture’s consumerism is deeply ingrained in us, and even though we’re making our own clothing and that’s a political statement against over consumption in and of itself, the urge to consume and collect is deeply ingrained.

Bangladesh-master675Purple water from a Bangladeshi textile mill. source

I’m going to try to be more aware of where my fabric comes from in the future. If you would like to be too, here are a few tips to be more mindful of our fabric consumption.

      • ASK where the fabrics you sew with are made. If the retailer doesn’t know, you can always shoot an email to the company and ask. If you are in the shop, you might find the information on the bolt. Google labor practices and textile mill pollution in those countries to learn more.
      • Try to buy fabric second hand instead of new. Some of the most beautiful fabrics I own were bought at estate sales and the flea market. Most of those fabrics come from a  time when most fabrics were still milled domestically. Plus, I’m buying a little history and I like to think the original owner of the fabric would be glad someone is using up the hoard she left behind.Which brings me to the slightly morbid thought of, do YOU really want to lay all this fabric hoard on your kids when you die? Go to Estate to find estate sales in your area.
      • Don’t jump on the bandwagon every time your favorite fabric manufacturer comes out with a new line of designs. You thought that fabric you bought that’s sitting in your sewing closet was pretty awesome two years ago when you bought it, so why not use that up first? You don’t need to be the first one to buy the new designs.
      • Don’t fall for all the online hype about the latest patterns and fabrics. Remember, many of those bloggers have received those products for free, including myself on occasion, and the post is really just free advertising for the companies selling the patterns and fabrics. With a few tweaks you can most likely use a pattern you already have to get a similar look to one of the new and shiny PDF’s.
      • Look into sewing with fabrics that meet the (GOTS) Standard or are made from certified organic cotton. From the GOTS site: The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) was developed through collaboration by leading standard setters with the aim of defining requirements that are recognized world-wide and that ensure the organic status of textiles from harvesting of the raw materials through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing all the way to labeling in order to provide credible assurance to the consumer. Yes, they’re more expensive, but if your not buying tons of other fabric you never use, then that’s fine.
      • Slow down on your sewing. You and your kids don’t need a new dress or outfit every week. Seriously, you don’t.  I know some bloggers seem to sew at a dizzying pace, and I’m not sure how they do it. But don’t feel pressure to do the same. Personally,when I sew that much , my life and home start to fall apart.
      •  Consider using some of your unloved fabric to sew for charity. Little Dresses For Africa. They send handmade dresses to children in need. chances are a little girl somewhere will just love the fabric you weren’t so crazy about. Better yet, use one of your favorite fabrics instead! I’m starting a program at my kids school this fall where we’ll be sewing dresses for this organization as part of a community project.

Here is an article on textile mills and water pollution on the Ecotextiles site.

To read some shocking statistics on the textile and fashion industries from 2012, read this article.

NY Times article on Bangladesh’s textile mill pollution problems.

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  1. Michelle M. says

    I’m so glad you wrote this! I’ll check out the sources you’ve linked to. All the fabric I use for muslins is second-hand, and up cycling hand-me-downs is one of my favorite ways to reuse fabric, too. Unfortunately one of the effects of “fast fashion” is that it’s harder to find quality clothing worth up cycling – either in thrift stores or through hand-me-downs.

    In Asheville we had a local clothing store that produced gorgeous knit organic fabrics locally with which to make their clothes. Twice a year they’d open their warehouse and sell ends and directly off the rolls for affordable prices. It was incredible!

    Thank you for discussing this topic!

    • says

      Weren’t there tons of mills in that area a long time ago? I know a lot of furniture was made in north Carolina at one time, too. My father in law was a furniture company executive there in the 60’s.

  2. says

    You thank for writing a post on this topic. I too have realized that sewing your own clothes is only a small step in combatting consumer waste and labor abuse in textile/garment factories. I am also astounded at the prolificness of manic “sewists” on social media, and wonder how often, if ever, do they wear many of the garments they have sewn. I am also surprised at the size of the fabric “stashes” posted social media. I have had a lifelong habit of never having a stash more than two or three projects deep, but I now realize I am probably in a small minority.

  3. says

    Very interesting read. And you are totally right! As a children’s clothes designer and maker I am very conscious of these issues. And I firmly believe in quality and not quantity. I make most of my own children’s clothes but I reuse their fabrics too once they have outgrown into new clothes for them, find other uses. Great food for thought!

  4. Barb Lewis says

    Thanks Justine….you have given me such validation for my thoughts. Thank you for the attached information that you also gave us. I will read it as well. I worked at Rosie’s in San Diego years ago and still have that stash, an entire room full of bins…and of course I added to it over the years. The quilting world is also awash in the *latest greatest* fabric styles and colors. My stash is more traditional and now I like the modern look…just can’t bring myself to spend more money..and I have a lot less fabric money now than I ever did before…AND fabric cost has more than doubled in the last 20yrs. It is a world that keeps us crazy to spend.
    I think what I need to do now is to pull out my old rusty garment skills and get back to work.
    Thanks Justine, it is been lovely to watch your thought patterns change over the years. I used to wonder how you could do all that you did and write it all down for others to see online. Its nice to know that you have found a quieter place to be. Thank you again for what you do. Love those beautiful babies as much as you can:)
    Barb in Ventura

  5. says

    Hi Justine,
    You are really posting some very important topics for the sewing community. I am really feeling that consumerism creeping into my sewing. I am just concluding a trip to New England and purchased some fabric but am working on being more mindful in my purchases. I won’t buy clothes made in certain countries but have not started asking where the fabrics I buy are made. I will start now – thanks to you! I also did not know about the sewing for kids in Africa and will look into that for sure. You are really putting your blog site to great use address some very important issues and I for one appreciate it!

    • says

      Thank you for your support! I’ve been feeling like i’ve been losing some of the original reasons why i started sewing in the first place, and need to take a step back to examine why.

  6. Heather says

    Wonderful post!! There are times when a new fabric line comes out and I get that “have to have that” feeling and I’m very tempted. Usually my bank account is what forces me to wait but then I’m glad because once I see it blasted all over facebook on every other dress posted, I realize I don’t want it. I’ve never been the trendy type and would prefer my daughter also not be. I also don’t want her to think she needs a closet overflowing in clothes just because I can make them. Whether it’s bought new, used, or homemade, too much is just too much, ya know.
    And I love finding fabric in thrift shops! I probably shouldn’t share this 😉 but the Bargain Box Assistance League thrift store on Main, just past Ventura High, sometimes has some great stuff!!

  7. Jane Coombs says

    This is the best post ever about textile consumption. I read Overdressed about five years ago and recently saw The True Cost on Netflix. I met a lady at a big yard sale in Canada who travels to Africa every few months to buy second hand clothes to sell in Canada.What a misuse of petrol.
    I heard the Kenyan government is going to stop the importing of used clothes because they have no textile industry. Where is this all going?
    Read the book and see the movie. And thanks for your concern.

  8. Cassandra says

    Agreed. We also need to remember this with all our purchases. From household goods, food and more. Every time you visit a dollar store or Walmart you support these factories in foreign countries which destroys the environment and promotes poverty. It’s a reality check most shrug their shoulders instead of heeding the consequences. Sad

    • says

      True! i just went camping and was so tempted to buy new gear because it’s so inexpensive these days as it’s made in other cheaper countries now, but the old stuff I have already is mush better quality and works great after 20 years.

  9. says

    You are so, so right. Our western desire for more is plain greed and that greed has a terrible cost in the third world and to the environment. If your post causes just a few people to stop and think and not buy another T-shirt or another length of cheap fabric it will have been worthwhile. A small pebble can cause bigger and bigger ripples.

  10. says

    I read this post and just watched the True Cost; I feel guilty now :( But it is not just cheap things that are made in the foreign countries these days. And just knowing the country of origin does not really tell you the conditions of factories and workers. I do wish more things are made in the U.S., where things can be regulated better. I read that the cost of making things in China has dramatically increased in the last 10 years, it is no longer much cheaper to have made things there.(but it is still much cheaper in India) I like that Jo-Ann sells made in the U.S. fabrics, but the selections are limited. I would love to see more organics options too.

  11. says

    Thank you for all the info.. I appreciate it.. I will check it out. I am trying to slow down and stop all the excessive fabric hoarding.. Have a great day.

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