Crafting with fabric is traditionally seen as a sustainable, environmentally friendly alternative to the consumption of mass produced goods, and whilst the traditions do indeed have a low environmental impact – reusing domestic fabrics from dresses and soft furnishings to create new garments and furnishings – the rise in popularity of hand sewing has generated a whole new industry geared to providing fabrics specifically for crafting.
Whilst there is nothing intrinsically wrong about this, it is worth taking a moment to consider the impacts of this industry on the environment. Cotton is one of the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crops due to its heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers – a large number of which are known or suspected carcinogens – and also due to its heavy use of water. In the conversion process from cotton seed to fabric, many hazardous materials are added to the cotton and the waste generated from the various processing, chemical cleaning, dyeing and finishing activities results in wastewater with toxic residues leaching into the acquatic environment. Given that 99% of all cotton farmers, producing 75% of the world’s cotton, an already vulnerable region is bearing the environmental impact of this industry.
I have made a conscious choice not to use new materials in my work, choosing my fabrics from recycled clothing and vintage fabrics, but do I really expect everyone to give up their beautiful printed cottons?
No, not really, but I do believe it is possible to be aware of the impact of the cotton industry, and take this into consideration when choosing fabrics for crafting projects.
So, what are the alternatives?
- Choose organic cotton – look for organic cotton, if cotton must be used. It is so versatile and available in so many different weights and patterns, and well worth the slightly higher price. There are any number of good suppliers of organic cottons, both printed and untreated, for example: Greenfibres and OrganicCotton.
- Choose alternative fabrics: there is a growing range of environmentally friendly alternatives to cotton – hemp, linen, silk, bamboo, wool, soya and tencel ( a modern fibre extracted from wood pulp). Always look for organic and/or fair trade products, since these are most likely to use less chemicals in production and have a smaller impact on third-world producers. Eco Earth Fabrics and British Made Eco both have comprehensive ranges.
- Choose eco-friendly dyes – there are some surprisingly unhealthy ingredients in many dyes: synthetic dyes and the mordants used for fixing them often contain reproductive or developmental toxins, mutagens and endocrine disruptors. Low impact dyes and vegetable dyes are a good alternative – look for the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 in Europe for low-impact dyes. Companies like Q Collection, Mod Green Pod and the Cradle-to-Cradle certified offerings from Climatex and Victor Innovatex are also good choices. There is not the vast range of patterns available, but maybe it’s an incentive to look into dyeing and printing your own fabric and yarns?!
- Choose Vintage fabrics – vintage is anything over 20 years old, though it’s most commonly associated with the 1940’s-1970’s. Obviously, there are restrictions on the quantity of any given fabric available, but if it’s viewed as a creativity challenge, it just adds to the fun and satisfaction of the project. If you don’t have the time to search out vintage at markets, charity shops and ebay, there are a number of suppliers out there who have done the hard work for you, but be prepared to pay more than you would if you’d sourced it yourself. The Vintage Fabric Market, Rag Rescue and Spinsters Emporium are amongst my favourites.
- Choose recycled fabrics – a huge amount of clothing and remnants end up in landfill, and the length of time fabric – particularly synethetics – take to biodegrade, and the associated leaching of chemicals from dyes and fabric treatments has a huge environmental impact. Instead of throwing out old clothes, deconstruct and save garments for crafting projects … once you get into this, you’ll find that friends and family start offering you first refusal on all their unwanted garments before they bin them! Childrens clothes are particularly wonderful for crafting with, and you get the benefit of all those memories tied up in the fabrics and textures. Befriend your local interior decorator or soft furnishings/curtain maker, and you have a source of samples and remnant – many of them designer – available that would otherwise go to landfill. Again, the quantities available of a given fabric present a challenge, but even if limited quantities are mixed in with a conventional fabric, the overall environmental impact of the piece is reduced. The big bonus is that these fabrics are effectively either free or very low cost.
- Choose low-impact threads, yarns, trimmings and notions – the same processes are used in the manufacture and dyeing of threads and yarns as in fabrics, so be aware of your choices here. Ebay, charity shops, freecycle and markets are good sources of vintage and unwanted collections of threads, yarns, trimmings and notions, and there is a growing range of low-impact choices available from mainstream suppliers. Texere Yarns offers a large range of environmentally friendly and low-impact dyed and untreated yarns for almost every fibre craft imaginable.
Take a peek at my gallery and my shop for some examples of pieces created using only recycled and/or vintage fabrics and yarns, costume jewellery and other found objects – there is no compromise on either quality or aesthetics in choosing the green alternative.