Sustainable Supplies for Textiles Crafts
Warning: this blog encourages hoarding.
If you're reading this, you've probably been seduced by the thrills of craft supplies shopping: the overwhelming range of colours, patterns, and possibilities mostly at invitingly negligibly low prices (especially when compared with the cost of buying the clothes fully-made), usually offering free delivery if you buy three times as much as you originally intended. We've all been there.
When you make your own clothes, accessories, or homeware it's nice to know that your item hasn't been constructed in a sweatshop on the other side of the world but the story does not end there by any means and impulse-buying your crafts supplies is not as far away from fast fashion and you may think.
Finding sustainable crafts supplies involves two considerations: where it comes from and where it's going.
Where it comes from
Choose sustainable fibres and materials
The textiles industry is guilty of too many environmental and social sins for me to list here and are one of the greatest threats to sustainable consumerism today. Even if your fabric or yarn does not contain synthetic fibres derived from fossil fuels, the crop which produced it may have been grown on land cleared by deforestation using pesticides and fertilisers harmful to the ecosystem by farmers not paid a fair wage. The processing, bleaching, and dyeing of the fibres may result in further pollution and harm to the community. Certain crops such as cotton or materials derived from animals require a huge amount of resources to produce enough fabric for one garment - I've seen estimates for the water required to produce a T-shirt range from 7,000 to 20,000. Like all consumer goods, textiles also consume resources in their transportation and packaging.
While it is near impossible to trace most of these factors it's worth looking to have a look around for brands that have a transparent and genuine sustainability record and/or produce their materials local to you. Buy organic where possible and use fibres that are also known to be less resource-consuming such as hemp, linen, or bamboo. I've written more about this on my sustainable costuming blog but to be honest, everything I know about this area has come from this book by The Great British Sewing Bee.
Recycled cotton or synthetic yarns and fabrics are easy to come by, although I find can be limited in colours and since recycling is still pretty resource-intensive I don't usually go for this option. Minerva Crafts has a small number of ‘Earth Friendly’ filters on fabrics and LoveCrafts has a range of budget-friendly recycled yarns sections.
This is my preferred sourcing means because it's cheaper and less guilt-inducing than buying from green brands but it's not one to do in a rush or if you're concerned about people thinking you're weird. The idea is to basically always be on the lookout for things that could become crafts in the future. For instance, I kept a double duvet cover I had with a huge rip in and turned it into a painting apron and still had loads left to be useful as plain cotton lining (I used it for all the face masks I made). Generally, sheets can become all manner of things: when I was making scrubs for the NHS with For the Love of Scrubs, many people collected sheets from their neighbours to make scrubs when the pandemic started to deplete the nation's stock of new polycotton. Be creative with what you have lying around at home: last year I also turned some old curtains into a dog crate cover and cushion! If you're going to recycle clothes make sure to save any buttons or zips, which are easy to store and last forever, or even fabric.
eBay is my go-to crafts site and the 'used' filter has found me so many bargains. Search 'used' listings for unwanted fabric, yarns, buttons, zips, or tools like knitting needles or crochet hooks. These things are often sold in bundles being unloaded when people are moving house or finishing projects and are usually cheaper than buying new. You can also search online for ’offcut’, 'deadstock', or ‘remnant‘ fabric to get leftovers from other crafters, costumiers, or manufacturers. Of course, you can also flip this and sell your usable remnants - speaking as someone who used to design for theatre, you'd be surprised who wants your random textiles waste!
You may be lucky enough to find some yarns, patterns, and tools in charity shops which can be useful for smaller projects.
You could also trade spare supplies with any other crafting friends or in any online communities you're a part of, although I realise this requires have very specific kinds of friends so maybe you can find a local Facebook group.
Many people have written way more informed blogs about this if you want to learn more about how to do it, but this is great fun, super cheap, and ideal for small fabric or yarn crafts which you don't expect to put through many washes. In short, it involves boiling natural fabric (like cotton) with plants, avoiding the use of harmful chemical dyes. I've tried it with spinach, blueberries, red and white onion skins, and turmeric and got varying results. Recently I bought some remnant calico from eBay and have been dyeing squares of it for embroidery. Bonus points for reducing food waste!
Where its going
Planning, preparation, and practice
I should have put this first because by the far the best way to make your life more sustainable in all areas is to reduce. Pick your projects wisely: don't bother making something if you think it'll just end up in landfill in a year (does your Dad really need a crocheted beer bottle holder?) or something that is so far beyond your ability level that you will probably just botch it and chuck it. Find things that you will enjoy for years to come, practice the skills you'll need for it, and pick high-quality materials which won't go out of style. Take the time to ensure quality by pre-washing fabric, test-swatching yarn, and ensuring that any clothing items will properly fit the person they're intended for. Ideally choose things which you already have the supplies for, for example, knitting patterns for needles you already have, or sewing patterns that will use up some of the fabrics in your existing stash. When sewing, I like to cut out and lay out my pieces to measure exactly how much fabric I will need (rather than just taking the lengths off the packet) and it's worth finding somewhere where you can buy the exact length you need rather than having to round up by metre. Don't be tempted to buy loads of stuff you don't need in case it comes in handy one day - no one needs 5 different kinds of rainbow yarn in their stash.
Choose non-plastic, biodegradable materials
Most people don't think of fabric, yarns, or thread as being plastic, but most of the cheapest and most common textiles contain synthetic fibres such as nylon, polyester, or rayon and will not break down in landfill. However, many natural materials like leather, cotton, or wool have other sustainability issues so think about what compromises you're willing to make. For your tools and finishes, think about choosing knitting needles made out of sustainably sourced wood or coconut shell buttons.
Make every scrap count
Your scraps are a valuable part of your stash so be creative! Many of my saved scraps have become pencil cases and face masks, and even my tiniest fabric and yarn scraps get put in a bag to be stuffing for cushions or maybe one day a tailor's ham.
Sadly, all of these approaches are much more time-consuming than loading up your LoveCrafts cart and you will never be able to tick every box. Howe crafting is a slow pursuit and if we wanted to not think about the impact and get that instant gratification we would just buy the thing from Amazon. Make mindful sourcing part of the process and take pride in bringing all the elements together to make something truly unique.
I’ve also written a slightly more clothes-specific sustainable costume blog for Staging Change.