Hands on insights on waste free fashion for everybody dressed

My formative journey to waste-free fashion and what’s in it for you.

5 reasons to go for zero waste clothing.

fashion collection spread

|aporeei collection zero| 2019, photo credit: Tatiana+Karol

I am in the business of designing external coverings for human bodies. Another way of saying I’m in fashion. We all wear these fabric shells for protection, yet it is merely their practical side. Clothes mean different things to different people, yet it seems fair to say that they point to something beyond the palpable and immediate, thus touching on the emotional. Fashion exploits this psychological field with designers crafting products meant to trigger desires for later fulfillment in consumption of goods. Design itself can be better or worse, yet this text will not expand on taste but rather touch on implications of production that is serving “progress” in a capitalistic frame, understood as increase of profits at any cost. It will offer therefore a personal insight into a philosophy of making that may be just hitting the sweet spot between aesthetic demands and sustainability. So by the time of your next fashion craving, you might choose to go for styles made in a waste-free way.

Now, let's focus on the end result - a piece of clothing and on the “how” side of the making. It all starts with a design idea. Yet to realize the idea aesthetically and assure desired look and fit one needs patterns.

So what’s wrong with conventional patterns?

Let’s say we want to design a dress. Once the design is set in sketch, it gets translated into pattern pieces that represent parts of a garment. They serve as a template for tracing onto fabric for subsequent cutting and assembling. Garment’s design directly influences patterns and their efficiency when it comes to fabric use and cost of manufacturing. Patterns predispose therefore the cost of the garment. The less cutting and assembling is required, the cheaper the production. A standard t-shirt for instance comprises 4 pattern pieces. Their layout on fabric is calculated to maximize the yield, yet due to their various shapes full usage can’t ever be assured.

t-shirt patterns

|t-shirt pattern pieces| 2021, credited: personal

Most of the “garment shapes” we wear today are cut and sewn in such a way. So things that look somewhat familiar to you are most probably made in a conventional way, as this standardized making has a common aesthetics. This is the prevailing production model for most fashion brands. As waste is already calculated in the price of the product, we indirectly pay for it and support it too. Even with optimized, computer aided marker plans* (organized layouts of patterns on the fabric) conventional pattern cutting is still wasteful, as it accounts for around 15% of off cuts. When we add up the numbers, with ongoing overproduction of clothes, it becomes clear that this pre-consumption waste has serious environmental impact. When taking it from concept to materialization, resources are put on the line. One can obviously manage these production-related off cuts, e.g.recycle them to new yarn or weave carpets but wait, how about not generating them in the first place?

While sustainability is on the lips of nearly every fashion brand out there, we are dealing with rather complex problem. It’s a learning process for everyone, yet oftentimes smaller entities, brands, individual makers and communities seem to adopt responsible mindsets more agilely then large fashion players. Big brands are changing under consumer pressure, yet, they have more work to do due to their size alone. Zero waste fashion is one of such careful practices with potentially disruptive impact if adopted in the right context. It is not a new idea as utilizing every bit of a fabric is as old as first clothes worn by humans. Ancient Greek dresses were lengths of fabric with no cutting draped on the body. Following wikipedia we read that “near zero-waste garments include Kimono, Sari, Chiton and many other traditional folk costumes”. Thing is, textiles were precious and rare back in the day. In my belief, the zero waste method restores the lost value of fabric in a symbolic and practical dimension.

Give me zero waste

The method has a helpful self-evident name referring to various techniques, materials and technologies of production that lead to waste free garments. Efforts to make items of clothing with little or no textile waste lay within a broader sustainable fashion movement. Typically, the whole surface of the fabric will be used for a garment therefore requiring unconventional patterns. Yet zero waste is much more than just a clever arrangement of pattern pieces or solving a riddle like jigsaw puzzles. What could be perceived as limitation may as well turn out to be a playful challenge. A desired style is being developed within these limitations resulting in novel designs and assembly schemes. Consequently, it can be presumed that zero waste has an inherent slowness to it, in contrast to traditional making. One arising from a studious cutting, sewing and most of all of understanding what one is doing. This “mindful” practice is subversive in its silent rejection of the tireless pace of fashion. I venture to say that making zero free garments is an act of defiance towards systemic overproduction within the fashion industry.

From my experience, somewhat acute focus and sharp spatial imagination is required to model a 3d garment in 2d flat fabric without losing a bit of it. What’s particularly special to me about this approach to making is the way it enables makers to be truly present with every cut they make. It’s like an upgrade from auto-pilot to deep work for a creative brain. However, I find it vital not to think of it in a dogmatic way, as yet another set of rules to abide by, but rather as an opportunity to grow one’s craft in a meaningful direction.

artwork made of fabric with cut outs from cutting a garment. negative of a garment

Artwork by Marion Baruch |La ritirata, 2019, gabardine, 142x150 cm| accessed via Galerie Urs Meile    

As malpractices of the Anthropocene get wider scrutiny, an urge to minimize waste rises. There’s more and more brands that sell and incorporate zero waste garments into their collections. The likes of Study NY and tonlé are great examples of businesses that lead the way for more humane and purposeful fashion upholding the values of waste-free making.

One can think of zero waste as both a mindset and a place to belong. Common efforts of makers, educators and enthusiasts of any size keep the community growing. An amazing initiative has popped out amidst the pandemics, and I am very excited about what these women are doing:  Zero Waste Design Online. Their platform is like a nest that a dispersed community needed to grow further together.

Another example is DECODE by Danielle Elsener, a system for completely waste-free garments and a place providing learning tools for anyone interested in the method. Also, my dear friends from ELLIOTT GAGLIARDI recently released their first waste free shirt made of antique bed sheets. 

This philosophy of making seems to go hand in hand with open source developments in fashion stemming from shared ideas of accessibility and transparency. Another exciting initiative is a platform called make/use offering free downloadable zero waste patterns for own making, thus encouraging self-reliance and creativity in consumers. Or recently released Open Source Fashion Cookbook with “recipes” for making cool clothes with step-by-step illustrations from six contemporary fashion brands who shared their original designs.

In my belief, these examples testify to a rising climate favorable to democratization of sustainable and ethical fashion. Lastly, it seems that all these people have something in common. For them, design is about utilizing all available resources and providing functional solutions for customers. They take responsibility for their waste and make their practices transparent. Timo Rissanen, designer and educator writes in his practice-based PhD on zero waste fashion design: “Zero-waste fashion design cannot function within conventional fashion industry hierarchies. Equally, it can facilitate rethinking these hierarchies.” Here’s why it’s worth doing it.

5 Whys

There’s a whole lot that could be reduced, reused and recycled when creating garments. In the end we want to positively enjoy clothes without our joy getting spoiled by a sense of guilt. If you wanna see more conscious developments in fashion, focus on amplifying brands and individuals you believe in. It’s not easy to weed out green bullshit yet educating yourself on zero waste fashion may get you more sensitized on how fashion items are produced and sourced. Build your critical muscle by allowing scepticism to be your guide.

So how will you know if it’s zero waste? Well, let me put it this way, you almost certainly won’t find it in fast fashion stores nor in big retailers with highly commercial brands. You need to make a choice to support small manufacturers, micro brands and independent designers. They are out there making an effort to secure different business models without compromising ethical values. Zero waste is an affirmative design practice addressing positively the challenges on social, ecological and political spectrum. 

When buying clothes ask yourself a question “What value do I seek to gain from this choice?” You may be sure that by endorsing zero waste makers you will hit a few sustainability bonus points and most probably get that good feeling of doing the right thing.

|5whys| 2021, credited: personal

First waste-free trousers

Trained in pattern cutting and sewing, I know how to design, cut and assemble a garment correctly. All well and pretty in accordance with industry standards. Yet following the conservative scheme proved more hindering than helping. When I first arrived at fashion school with little training in pattern making, I felt anxious and doubtful while navigating the intricacies of lines, darts and points on pattern. It honestly felt oppressive. Thankfully I was encouraged to develop my own way around it which eventually led to a major artistic breakthrough. My patterns were based on body contours, all weird and curved. These wavy, soft lines are now translated into wearable garments for my own brand- aporeei

Sustainability has always been central to my practice. Yet being a designer feels quite paradoxical as what ‘we’ do is never neutral, even if we move to a purely digital realm. For me, it's about getting more conscious everyday. 

Last year I released my first waste free trousers made of organic cotton jersey. Their simple shape is cut out of fabric with no special attention to optimize the usage. From this relaxed standpoint pattern cutting turned out to be an opportunity rather than an obstacle. The zero waste effect came almost effortlessly as I patched the offcuts over the trouser’s legs. This spontaneous placement of patches is a playful way of vivifying the garment while providing reinforcement in strategic areas of tear and pressure. Offcuts retain their initial function as a fabric while becoming an ornament. Patchworking scraps was captivating in its degree of uncertainty and artistic freedom. It is my hope that my experimentation will add up to the pool of good design practices and inspire others to try it. Layering offcuts seem to work well for jerseys and other lightweight fabrics.


zero waste trousers scheme showing process of making

|Wasteno trousers making process| 2020, credited: personal

I cut the majority of garments by hand, so I am in touch with every piece of fabric. Zero waste remains a meditative evasion for me. While cutting a garment in a conventional way, I still strive to make the most of the textiles. All scraps are kept until they’ve been used in bags under the table. 

Power message

To wrap it up, let me quote my favorite designer, educator and lecturer - Victor Papanek. Words from his Design for the Real World book ring startlingly accurate today. (…) by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed”. As a designer I have responsibility on my shoulders, yet, in our free market economy you can make a choice to decrease the demand for flimsy products and make conscious choices. Let’s decouple fashion design from continuous pressure of growth!

jersey trousers with digital jeans pattern

|Wasteno jersey trousers| 2020, via aporeei  

To fellow makers and to myself - starting is key! It doesn't need to be perfect.There’s no dogma, no need to comply with rules. Let’s take it step by step to more purposeful, self-reliant and free making. I believe a designer's role is also the one of facilitator, therefore feel free to conjure up your own patched up zero waste garment!

This text is to empower both consumers and makers in self-reliance and creative independence, reaffirming small - scale interventions, use and reuse of materials and greater confidence in action taking.