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Zero Waste Sewing: 8 top tips for using your fabric scraps

300,000 tonnes of textile waste ends up in household black bins every year. Less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing at the end of its life.

Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability report 2019, UK Environmental Audit Committee.

Fabric is wasted as soon as a length of fabric is cut to make three dimensional clothing. The recent ‘Fixing Fashion’ report from the UK Environmental Committee states that 300,000 tonnes of textiles are sent to landfill every year. This includes unwanted clothes and unused fabric. It is important to stick to pattern layouts to ensure the nap, print and design of the fabric is in the same direction on the finished item. No matter how inventive we are with our pattern, fabric scraps are left over in all shapes and sizes. Here are my top tips on how to use these scraps.

Tote Bag

A good sized over the shoulder bag, handy for shopping and avoiding using a plastic bag. Perfect to use up larger pieces of scrap fabric. Cut two rectangles measuring 40 x 43.5cm. Sew around 3 sides (right sides of the fabric together, 1.5cm seam allowance). Overlock or zig zag the raw edges. Hem the top of the bag by folding over the edge to the wrong side of the bag by 1cm then again by another 2cm. Top stitch close to the edge. Make straps by cutting scraps of fabric measuring 60 x 8cm. Fold over the long edge by 1cm and press (right side over to wrong side). Repeat on the other side and repeat on the other strap. Fold in half longways and press. Stitch as close to the edges as possible. Overlock or zig zag the raw edges on the short end. Lay the body of the bag flat and find the centre point. Mark with a pin. Measure 7cm from one side of the centre line and mark with a pin.Place the outside edge of the strap on this pin marker and pin in place repeat for the other end of this same strap. Turn the bag over and repeat with the other strap. Sew these in place by stitching in a square close to the edge of the bag and down to the top stitch hem line. Repeat for all 4 ends then press to finish. Have some fun mixing patterns and colours of smaller pieces into a patchwork effect. Layer with ribbon and buttons for a truly eclectic look.

Zipper Bag

Versatile and fun to make, these were the first products I made for my Etsy shop. A bit more complicated than the tote bag but a great way to use up smaller pieces of fabric. You’ll need a 7″ zip for this project. Cut four rectangles measuring 25 x 19cm. Use contrasting fabrics or create a patchwork effect. Cut another rectangle measuring 8 x 6cm. Fold this piece in half longways and press. Place the folded edge at the bottom end of the zip, as close to the metal edge as possible. Stitch a small square (1cm x 1cm) to secure the fabric to the zip. Trim the edge parallel to the zip leaving about 1cm overhang each side. Use the remainder strip of fabric at the top of the zip. With the zipper at the top pin in place. Then open the zipper slightly before stitching a square the same as the bottom of the zip. Take one of larger rectangles, fold over the long edge by 1cm and press. Repeat for the other 3 pieces. Choose which two pieces you want as the front of the bag. Using a zipper foot, stitch the folded long edge (outside of bag) along one side of the zip. The two fabric ends that were sewn over the zip should be equal distance to the edge of the bag. Line up the second piece of outer fabric so it matches with the one you have just stitched. Line up the folded long edge to the other side of the zip. Ensure both right sides of the fabric are on the right side of the zip. Once you have finished this step, open the zip by a quarter. Place the right sides of the rectangles together and pin in place. Stitch around the 3 edges (not the top with the zip). Turn the right side out and press. Take the remaining two rectangles and stitch both pieces together, right sides together. Do not stitch the long top edge, leave this open. Keep the wrong side of the fabric on the outside, this is the bag’s lining. Place the lining inside the zipped outer bag. Line up the side seams. Pin in place with the top edge of the lining hiding the fabric edge of the zip. Hand stitch in place using small stitches so they are not noticeable on the outside. Press and use to store all sorts of interesting Knick knacks.

Cushions

No need to stick to a boring old square cushion, there are all shapes and sizes of cushion fillers available. Or make your own filler (see below). Same rule applies as the tote bag – if there is not enough fabric, then patchwork pieces together. If it is a small cushion I often don’t make a fastening. Place the right sides of the fabric together. Stitch around all four edges using a 1.5cm seam allowance. Leave a 10cm gap along one edge. Press, folding in the open edge so it is in line with the sewn edge. Push in the cushion filler or add scrap fabric filling. Hand stitch the opening by lining up the two pressed edges. Use an overstitch in a matching thread.

Clothes Patches

Jeans, jumpers, coats – they get a lot of wear! Become a ‘visible mender’ and add a contrast patch over holes. Using a simple overstitch or try the popular Japanese Boro technique. When patching clothes it is important to match the construction of the fabrics. E.g. use jersey to patch stretch fabrics, use woven to patch woven. Match the weight of the fabric as much as possible too. Using a heavy weight fabric to patch a lightweight fabric such as chiffon or tana lawn will cause too much stress and cause more holes. To make a patch, cut a piece bigger than the hole by about 1cm or to the preferred size to make a statement. Using an overlocker or zig zag stitch, finish the edge of the patch so it doesn’t fray. Safety pin in place over the hole making sure it isn’t too tight for movement (e.g. on elbows and knees). Stitch in place using an over stitch, blanket stitch or running stitch (Boro). I host a workshop with my friend Eleanor called Fast Fashion Therapy in East London. We teach people to mend their clothes rather than throwing them away.

Drawstring Bag

A drawstring bag is perfect to carry around essentials such as women’s sanitary products, phone charger, all those store points cards. Cut a length of fabric measuring 20 x 27cm. Fold the piece of fabric in half so the two short edges align, ensuring right sides are together. Sew down the long edge using a 1.5 seam allowance. Repeat on the other side but leave a 3cm gap at the top (raw edge). Keep on the wrong side of the fabric, turn over the top edge by 1cm – right side to wrong, then press. Fold over by another 2cm and press. Pin in place then top stitch close to the bottom edge of the hem. There should be an opening on one side at the top of the bag. Measure a 20cm length of cord. Secure a large safety pin to one end of the cord. Insert the safety pin into the channel that you have created with the hem at the top of the bag. Keep pushing the fabric back over the cord until it comes out of the other end. Make sure you keep hold of the other end of the cord so it doesn’t get lost in the channel. Thread through a plastic toggle if you have one but don’t worry if not, just tie the ends of the cord together. I’ve made larger versions of this bag and lined with waterproof fabric. I use them for my wet swimming costume, shoes when I’m travelling, my headphones and all sorts. Or maybe make an extra large bag from several scraps to keep your scrap pieces in.

Lanyards

We are getting to the smaller pieces of fabric that are more difficult to be inventive with. Lanyards for security passes can be so boring – A quick easy project, secret santa gift for your colleagues and brighten up the office! I cut fastenings off old lanyards, bags, anything I think I can reuse. Measure around your neck to where you want the lanyard to finish, add an extra 3cm. Cut a length of fabric to this length x 4cm wide. Fold over the long edge right side to wrong side by 0.5cm and press as you go (minding your fingers, plastic tweezers are useful for this job). Repeat on the other edge. Fold the fabric in half aligning the folded edges together. Stitch along this edge getting as close to the edge as possible. Take one short edge and thread through the D-ring of the lanyard. Fold over both raw edges by 1cm and press. Then place them flat together so they overlap by another 2cm. Secure in place by sewing in a square. Use the hook to secure your security pass or keys.

Fabric Twine

Cintia from My Poppet Makes in Australia has come up with this ingenious way to use the smallest of fabric scraps. A warning that it is time consuming and one to do with your favourite podcast on the go. I think it is worth the effort to create bright coloured twine to use in other sewing projects: Thread through triangles of fabric to create bunting, use to wrap gifts, thread through drawstring bag from the above step. Click here for full instructions from My Poppet.

Stuffing

When it gets to the point where the scraps are so small no amount of inspiration is going to create a new useful item from fabric scraps. I shred them with fabric scissors as small as possible and keep them in a lidded box. Also useful for old socks and tights that are past darning. Keep topping up the box for a ready made supply of stuffing. Use for cushions of all sizes, small crafting projects such as Christmas decorations.

I’ll add diagrams and photos to this post soon to enhance the instructions. I’m currently developing a range of patterns designed to use up scrap pieces of fabrics, helping you be a sewing zero waste hero. Please sign up for my newsletter to be the first to know when they will be released.