Today’s post is by Jennifer, a Simple Year reader who blogs at www.sortingbuttons.com. She is working on decluttering her home with the KonMari method and pursuing more zero waste practices, as well as exploring her love of sewing, handcraft, and homemaking.
Sewing is one of my passions, and I was an eager dressmaker long before I ever heard of zero waste. But since adopting more zero waste habits in our home, my sewing hobby has found new life. I’ve come to love practical projects, because they are less demanding than dressmaking, they are easier to fit into my schedule now, and they allow me to make what I can’t usually buy: useful (usually beautiful!) everyday items from repurposed materials.
Today I want to share some inspiration for very basic sewing projects that fit with a zero waste life. All of these projects are achievable by beginner or intermediate sewists; with some sewing experience, you could probably figure them out on your own without help. I’ll link to tutorials when I can, and I’ll share many items that I’ve made myself.
What do I mean by ‘zero waste sewing’? First, they are mostly useful items: some of these projects replace disposable items around the house and can help you start out with zero waste on a tight budget; others serve a useful purpose and can replace an item you might otherwise buy. All of them are also suitable for using secondhand fabric, old textiles (like sheets or worn clothes), or scraps from other projects. Some would also make unusual gifts.
Reusable cloth, cloth, cloth!
Many disposable paper products around the house can be replaced with squares or rectangles of cloth. For example:
- Cloths to replace paper towels
- Small cloths to use for removing makeup (replacing cotton rounds)
- Baby wipes
- Toilet wipes, a.k.a. family cloth (to replace toilet paper)
- Cleaning cloths
All of these can be made in the size you wish. For napkins you might want a more substantially woven cotton or linen. For the other cloths, a thinner cotton, and especially cotton flannel, may work best: you need something absorbent which can handle frequent laundering. At thrift stores (or in your own closet), plain cotton sheets or flannel sheets are the most economical source of fabric like this; do check the label to make sure it’s 100% cotton, though. For cute flannel patterns, look for pajamas, or look at men’s (and some women’s) flannel shirts for traditional plaids. Some cloths – like cleaning cloths – might work well with terrycloth, so look for old towels for this purpose.
Here are some of the reusable cloths I’ve made for different purposes: the top two are flannel wipes made from an old sheet, bottom right is a wipe cut from old pajamas, bottom center is a rag from an old washcloth (cut in half with zigzagged edges), and bottom left is a napkin made from an old sheet.
For the quickest project, you could cut squares with pinking shears to avoid sewing at all (this is what I did for our baby wipe cloths). You can serge the edges, if you have access to a serger. I have also tried just sewing a straight stitch all around, 1/4 inch from the edge, to prevent extreme raveling. The most durable and elegant finish is a traditional turned-up hem, which is what I used on the napkin. A good tutorial (to make a cloth napkin) is available here: http://glass-beach.blogspot.com/2009/05/tutorial-hemming-cloth-napkins.html
It takes a while to make a whole stash of these cloths, but my advice is this: put on a movie or favorite show, get a drink and a snack, and sit and sew, sew, sew.
On the same principle as the cloths above, you can make wrapping cloths for wrapping gifts – or indeed wrapping anything. I made one from some leftover Christmas fabric, cutting a 29″ square and hemming it, like a napkin, with a 1/2 inch hem.
Inspired by Japanese Furoshiki wrapping, I tried wrapping a couple of books as if they were a gift, and the cloth made for a rather elegant presentation, I think. The quilting cotton worked well because it was stiff enough to hold its shape. If you’re buying thrifted fabric, I’d recommend looking at sheets or tablecloths, because obviously you need a large piece of fabric. You might also have luck using a large skirt as long as it had very few seams. And of course you could just use a big square scarf without any sewing required!
My mom suggested that a set of wrapping cloths, with coordinating ribbons, would make a good gift.
Making zipper pouches is one of my favorite things to do with leftover fabric scraps, especially of fabrics I really love, like those left from making dresses. I made mine based on the pattern and instructions in this wonderful free Craftsy course: https://www.craftsy.com/sewing/classes/bag-making-basics-reversible-tote-zipper-pouch/35612
The Craftsy course gives a good video tutorial for making zipper bags that are the size of a pencil case, and includes printed instructions and measurements to make the pattern. We have these bags all over our house to hold baby toys, cosmetics, sewing notions, or small accessories, and I use them for organizing bags when I travel. What about using one to stash hankies or some cloth pads in your handbag? If you have a habit of grabbing plastic zip-top bags to store small things, try these as a cloth alternative.
Drawstring bags for bulk items
Zero waste 101…make some bags for bulk shopping! An old cotton sheet with a tight weave is good for this, so that things like flour don’t ‘pouf’ out. Vintage hankies make good fabric for small spice bags. Linen is a traditional fabric for food storage bags, if you can find it; you might try looking for table linens or women’s skirts. While you’re at it, bags of this type, in different sizes and fabrics, can be useful storing toys, or protecting off-season clothing (or shoes or leather bags). My bulk bags are made from an old sheet, with a variety of old ribbons and plain cotton string as the drawstrings.
If you made a fancier fabric choice, drawstring bags of this style would also make good gift bags.
A tutorial for the style of bag I made is here: http://www.skiptomylou.org/a-drawstring-bag-tutorial/
Shopping for fabric at thrift stores (and at home)
You can always buy new fabric from a local store for your projects, but the thrift store is now my first choice for buying fabric for practical projects. Secondhand and leftover fabric is thrifty, and you may already have plenty of potential fabric sources at home. Especially in the case of worn items, you can reappropriate their remaining fabric for a useful second life.
In my experience, the best strategy for finding good fabrics at thrift stores is to train your hand and your eye to recognise what you’re looking for, and skim the racks quickly – with your eyes and by running your hand along the racks of clothing to feel each fabric – with a specific search in mind: ‘Thin cotton in a neutral color’, for example. My local Goodwill is huge, and I can easily get sidetracked or overwhelmed; but if I search purposefully with a narrow filter, I can usually determine quickly whether they have what I want. When buying clothing to use for fabric, start in the larger sizes, which will give you more for your money, and look for boxy, simple garment shapes to yield the most usable fabric.
I hope this has been helpful for you! I would love to hear if you have made any projects like this, or have other ideas of your own.