Is Making Your Own Clothes Sustainable?

March 12, 2022

Sewing studio with a large white table in the foreground and sewing machines in the background

When you make your own clothes, you know you’re using fair labor by default. But what about the rest of the process, from the equipment to fabrics?

Here are my thoughts as a sustainable fashion blogger and beginner sewist.

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Equipment

To make your own clothes, you’ll probably need a sewing machine. Unfortunately, a lot of modern sewing machines aren’t made to last, especially the cheaper mini machines. I tried sewing on my family’s 10-year-old Shark Euro Pro X mini machine and wasted hours trying to get it to work. Even my sewing instructor tried and couldn’t get it to stitch properly.

I ended up paying for sewing studio time to use their machines before investing in my own. I recommend doing this to give sewing a whirl first! I paid $10/hour in Boston. Some shops or orgs might also let you rent machines.

When you’re ready to buy your own machine, many sewists will recommend vintage machines, as they were built with metal parts instead of plastic ones, and are usually fairly affordable. That said, these older machines are a lot simpler and may not have all the features you want.

If you’re looking for a new machine, the brands Janome, Juki, Bernina, and Brother all have good reputations. I was told by several sewists to stay away from new Singer sewing machines, but others have told me they’ve had good experiences. 

I personally wanted to buy a vintage Kenmore or Singer, but ultimately went with a new Janome. (I went down a rabbit hole researching machines, so here are the sewing machine models I seriously considered).

Fabrics

pile of neatly folded earthy and warm fabrics with a peach background
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels

Most of the fabrics available in big box craft stores aren’t traceable, so it’s unclear whether they were made in safe factories by workers paid a living wage. We also don’t know anything about the dyes or chemicals used in production, which may not be environmentally friendly.

Many of the fabrics are also synthetics, which take hundreds of years to break down and shed microplastics each time they’re washed. Some common synthetics include:

  • polyester
  • nylon
  • acrylic
  • rayon/viscose (semi-synthetics)

Of course, sometimes stretchy sythentic fabrics are needed for particular pieces, such as activewear and plus size clothing. But, craft stores carry a disproportionate amount of synthetics or blended fabrics (mix of natural + synthetic).

So, what are more sustainable fabric options? They include:

  • organic cotton
  • linen
  • hemp
  • TENCEL
  • recycled materials

These tend to be harder to find in stores, and if they are available, they’re often significantly pricier. It is sometimes possible to find quality organic fabrics on Etsy, but you should buy from a reputable seller since Etsy is full of mass-produced items.

The lowest impact fabrics are secondhand, and luckily many stores sell thrifted or secondhand fabric at a lower price. You can also repurpose thrifted pieces like bedsheets or existing clothing. I’ve seen knitters and crocheters unravel sweaters back into yarn!

I also personally like to see what can be upcycled from the clothing I already have that I no longer wear. I recently turned an old high school orchestra shirt into a detachable collar.

white oversized detachable collar on a white table with a box of sewing supplies

Deadstock fabrics have also become popular among brands and some fabric shops. Deadstock usually refers to surplus fabrics from fabric mills or brands, so by using deadstock, you’re potentially saving fabric from landfills. That said, the term isn’t well-regulated, and some mills may overproduce on purpose to sell as deadstock later.

If you’re looking for true deadstock online, these sites are reputable:

  • Fabscrap is a non-profit that collects fabric scraps and surplus from NYC companies, and resells them at low prices.
  • Fabcycle is a Canadian organization that works with Vancouver businesses to collect unwanted fabric and scraps. 

You can also look for local shops and orgs with deadstock. 

One other thing to keep in mind is that most thread is synthetic, but it is possible to find organic cotton thread in-stores and online (Etsy again has a decent selection). 

Styles + Use

A lot of the popular clothing DIYs are for trendy pieces, which go out of style quickly. Before making something, it may be worth asking whether you plan to wear the clothing for years and years, even after it’s no longer trendy. 

Some sewists enjoy making clothing not meant for everyday wear though, such as period costumes or formal dresses. They enjoy the process of making clothing and don’t really care about the utility of the piece. 

It’s always more “sustainable” if the clothing is ultimately worn, so you might consider loaning or renting out any special pieces, if you’re comfortable doing so. 

But, I’m also not going to criticize people who make clothing as a hobby. I encourage you to source low-impact fabrics if you can, and wear what you make, but making clothing is an art in itself—just the way painting or pottery are.

Everyone has hobbies that aren’t necessarily eco-friendly. I’m a marathoner and I run races each year that use thousands of disposable cups at aid stations, and hand out medals and mass-produced shirts (though I have been emailing races I do to see if they’ll make shirts optional in the future). Every hobby has an impact, from traveling to gaming to even streaming music.

Ultimately, making your own clothes is going to be a relatively small impact because you can’t produce as much as fast fashion companies as an individual. But, there are still ways to be more mindful, and I hope you’ll consider them!

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About Me

About Me

I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it). I also try to advocate for the planet & its people.
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