Welcome to the first post in our new eco-friendly quilt series Sustainable Quilting 101: Fabric and Batting Scraps! After I wrote about how I organize my fabric, the most frequently asked question was, “How do you organize your scraps?”
The short answer—I don’t. I get rid of them. But I do that in a sustainable way that I’m excited to teach you about today! Pull up a chair, grab your notebook and pencil, and get ready to take notes. (There will be no quiz at the end, thank goodness.)
If you’re a scrappy quilter by nature and love those little bits of fabric, that’s great! Keep on doing what you're doing. I’m so happy you’re here because you’ll still find lots of useful sustainability tips.
But if you’re not a scrappy quilter (like me) and feel like you’re slowly being consumed by a giant blob of fabric scraps that you feel too guilty to throw away (also sometimes like me), I’m here with some solutions. We’ll learn tips from an expert in the quilt industry about ways to quilt sustainably. Let’s reduce, reuse, repurpose, and quilt sustainably together!
You Might Also Like...
Get the Summer Haze quilt pattern here—the perfect pattern for beginners interested in scrap quilting!
Sustainable Quilting: Which Scraps to Keep
For scrappy quilters, tiny pieces of fabric leftover from other projects are precious. These quilters have a magical way of envisioning how every little piece of fabric can be used for future projects.
I am not a scrappy quilter. I rarely use the tiny pieces of fabric leftover from my projects. So how do I decide what scraps to keep? Here are some things to consider:
- Size: Think about an average size of fabric you’d cut, and only save scraps that are bigger than that. Maybe that scrap is 4" on one side, or 6". Maybe it’s even 1"! Whatever the size, be consistent and stick to it.
- Sentimentality: Is this a special fabric? Maybe it’s a little bit of a loved one’s shirt, or a fabric you used to make a baby quilt. If you feel an emotional pull to the fabric, you might want to keep it around in case you can make another small, scrappy project to match your original quilt.
- Reuse: Take some time to really think about the chances that you’ll reuse a fabric scrap in a future project. Are you keeping that scrap out of the guilt we can have when putting fabric in the trash? Or are you keeping it because you really intend to use it again? Is it out of print fabric by your favorite designer? What ideas do you have to use it in future projects?
However you decide which scraps to keep is ok! There are no rules here—pick a system that feels good for you, or invent a system all your own. Reuse is what I think about. I have a very small sewing room and a house with limited storage space. That means I just can’t keep every piece of fabric that comes across my cutting table.
I keep the scraps that pass my reuse test in one small bin, and I try to evaluate what's in it regularly. After a couple months pass, I often realize I won’t use the scraps I decided to keep after all. So, what do I do with those unwanted scraps?
Composting Fabric Scraps
Huh? What? Isn’t that for food? *scratches head inquisitively*
Yes, composting is for food. But it’s also for fabric and batting scraps! In fact, it’s how I get rid of my scraps sustainably! I interviewed Steven Heeley from Our Sustainable Journey (my local food scrap pickup service) about what composting is and how to do it with fabric and batting scraps.
So what exactly is composting? “We think of it as creating nutrients from waste. The waste breaks down over time and releases the nutrients that were locked away,” Steven said. “When items are put in landfills, they break down over time, but those nutrients aren't released because landfills have liners that prevent anything from leaking out, even if it's the good stuff like food scraps and natural fibers.”
Steven explained that when you compost fabric, it gets eaten by microorganisms and bacteria and becomes fertilizer for local farms and his own garden. Essentially your lovely fabrics are becoming a tasty snack, then helping to grow more food and plants—that’s pretty cool!
If you start to compost scraps, the most important thing to know is that synthetic materials cannot be composted. So only put your cotton, linen, wool, silk, or other natural fabrics in your compost bin! “Essentially, our rule of thumb is that if it was once alive, it can be composted,” Steven said.
Here are my three easy steps for fabric composting!
Step 1: Start Composting Food (If You Haven’t Already)
If you’re already composting food scraps, skip to step 2. But if you’re completely new to this, I’m going to make it as easy as it was for my family to start.
First, find a composting program near you. Steven suggests search terms like “compost services” or “food scrap programs” plus your town. He also suggests learning more through the US Composting Council. Most likely, you’ll be provided with a bucket you can keep outside (mine is in my garage) and a schedule for when to put it outside for pickup. My five-gallon bucket is collected every two weeks and it costs under $10 for each pickup.
If you want to compost food, you also might want a small and cute kitchen compost bin so you don’t have to walk outside every time you want to add something to your compost bucket. Here is my kitchen compost bin, which is about the size of a toaster. Don’t worry—it has a filter so you can’t smell anything!
When our small kitchen bin is full, we take it out to our big compost bucket outside. My family only started doing this last year, so trust me when I say that getting set up to compost is much easier than it seems.
Note: Always be sure to follow the composting directions provided by the service you use since not all things can be composted.
Quick Tips on What To Compost
Before adding fabric or batting scraps to your compost, reach out to your local composting service to make sure they accept them.
Besides avoiding adding synthetic fibers to your compost, you'll want to be cautious with dyes and prints. Composters talk about dyes often. Steven compares discussions around fabric dyes to dyes in newspaper or cardboard, noting that they all break down and go through the compost well.
Patty from Create and Sustain (we'll hear more from her soon) adds, "The majority of damage from synthetic dyes come from the actual production process, but some dyes can be toxic so cut around any heavily printed areas, like a t-shirt logo or graphic, and don’t put those in the compost pile."
She adds, "Additionally, if the fabric is heavily printed you should find another way to repurpose or recycle it. Fabric recycling sites are becoming more readily available and if there isn’t one nearby you can opt to use your scraps as filling for pillows or other stuffed items you make."
Both Steven and Patty say that dye in compost is an unregulated area, so if you use a compost service, make sure to ask.
Step 2: Shred The Fabric
I have a rope bowl in my sewing room where I keep all my scraps for composting. Once my bowl is full, I shred them into even smaller pieces with my rotary cutter before putting them in the compost bin. Remember that your scraps must be 100% natural—no synthetics allowed! Shredding your fabric can speed up the composting process so this is a helpful step.
Tip: Flip your cutting mat over when you shred fabric. Self-healing cutting mats are great, but they don’t self-heal forever and you’ll be making all kinds of unusual zig-zag cuts. You can also use a rotary cutter blade that's already dull or used for this to avoid dulling new blades.
Step 3: Put The Shredded Fabric In Your Compost Bucket
You’re done! That's it! You’ve returned your fabric to the earth and helped local farms and gardens grow more food and plants. And you also have the prettiest compost in town!
If composting isn’t your idea of a great time, or if you’d prefer to try out other steps towards quilting sustainably before taking the dive to compost, keep reading for more tips!
Go Green! Small Changes Make a Big Difference
Create and Sustain is a budding organization in the quilt world. Launched in April 2021, Create and Sustain has big goals to help the quilt industry and individual quilters prioritize sustainability. They are actively growing an online directory of sustainable shops and businesses. Additionally, they are explaining the different tiers of sustainability in the textiles industry, sharing articles and information so quilters can make informed sustainable decisions, and highlighting more sustainable fiber artists.
I asked Patty Murphy from Create and Sustain to fill me in on her best suggestions for hobbyists to make sustainable choices. And holy moly did I learn a lot!
“One of the biggest challenges I see on the hobbyist level is overconsumption and, therefore, waste,” said Patty. “We have scraps with no home, scraps in the trash, excess packaging on products, de-stashing events, and one big contributor to waste, in my opinion, is the fear of making a mistake.” Remember that every mistake is a learning experience, and there will always be more fabric!
So what can you do to practice sustainable quilting? “I think the most important thing hobbyists can do is be mindful of what and how much they buy, but smaller changes make a difference, too,” Patty said. “Make and take a bag to the quilt shop so you don't use a plastic or paper bag," she said.
"Support your local quilt shop if you have one. Unplug your iron and machine when you aren't sewing. Install LED lights in your sewing space. Get creative with what you have before you head out and buy more. Mend.”
The Nine R’s in Sustainable Sewing
Do you remember the three R’s—reduce, reuse, and recycle? Well, turns out there are actually NINE R’s! Here are the nine R’s that Create and Sustain recommends applying to quilting, sewing, and crafting:
- Rethink your choices
- Refuse single-use
- Reduce consumption
- Reuse everything
- Repair before you replace
- Repurpose and reinvent
- Refurbish old items
- Recycle last
“Only 9% of what goes into the recycle bin is actually recycled,” Patty said. She encourages quilters to consider the other eight R’s before putting any scrap material in a recycling bin.
“If we buy less we'll have fewer scraps,” Patty said. “But recognizing that even the thriftiest quilter has scraps, I recommend composting them, using them as filler in stuffed animals or animal beds, donating them to local school art departments or theaters, testing your improv skills, and sewing scraps together for the ultimate scrap quilt!”
Click here to learn how to turn four classic Suzy Quilts patterns into scrappy quilts!
How Will You Quilt Sustainably?
Are you planning to try out composting your fabric? Or maybe a slight reevaluation on buying fabric? If you have more sustainability suggestions or if you would like us to deep dive into a specific issue on this topic, let us know in the comments!
There's so much more to learn about sustainable quilting. Even in terms of fabric and batting scraps, we've only just scratched the surface! Follow Create and Sustain for more tips, and stay tuned for more articles on sustainable quilting!
Whatever you choose to do, go forth and quilt in a more eco-friendly way today, even if you only make one small change!
46 thoughts on “Sustainable Quilting 101: Scraps & Batting”
Scraps too little for me to use become practice bits – like when I replace a needle to make sure it’s sewing ok. Or they become leaders so no bulk on the ends of quilt pieces. Zipper end covers, or threaded through zipper heads to make them easier to grab. If too small for that then shredded and used as stuffing in things. I’ve also read that some sewists will shred them and put them in small animal cages but I’m unsure if that’s a good practice or not.
Great uses of scraps! I’ll look into the animal cages—I know we don’t want animals to eat too much fabric because it can cause obstructions (ask my towel-eating dog how I know), so I think that’s one consideration!
Bernadette Banner is a historical clothing YouTube and she uses “cabbage” to stuff items and I was blown away at how well it works. I hate polyester stuffing because of its tendency to clump and make items forever lumpy and of course it’s longevity on the planet. I love the idea of using cotton and wool to stuff items.
I’m surprised you can compost fabric. You certainly can’t where I live—Toronto Canada. I understood that cotton survives for centuries! In recent years cotton rope has been discovered that was more than 1000 years old. I guess cutting into smaller pieces is important. And I didn’t know insects would eat it. I think careful buying is key.
Hey Sandra! Before I started working at Suzy Quilts, I worked as a museum curator specializing in textiles, including at an anthropology museum for six years. For just a little context about how long textiles last, they are actually among the rarest archaeological finds, and textiles dating as old as you mention are most often the result of being found in dry locations where they were undisturbed. And once they enter a museum environment, it’s our job to make sure they are preserved and last for generations. In a compost bin, it’s super moist and there are insects in there specifically to eat what’s put in there, so they go fast! Insect damage is a really common danger to textiles as well since natural textiles and dyes are full of nutrients that insects love to gobble up. Plus compost bins are rotated frequently, which moves the contents around. In my research, I found that most people who compost natural fibers say it can take about six months! And definitely check your local regulations before trying to compost anything, even different types of food—the rules are different everywhere! 🙂 Probably more information than you were looking for, but I get so excited to talk about textiles!
This is such an important aspect of being a quilter or sewist! It’s the only way forward in protecting our planet, so thanks for this. I live in NYC and have been able to take my scraps to FabScrap (they’re also in Philadelphia). They turn natural fibers into shoddy that can be used for other purposes. They also sell fabric from big businesses they’ve saved from going to landfills. I try to buy primarily from them – I’ve made 2 quilts and many clothes using their fabric!
What a great resource to have near you! Some local communities also have scrap exchanges for quilters that are also open to school teachers and community art centers. Those are great too!
How fun to shop there with pieces from big businesses!
What a great article. I have scraps. I tried a dog bed but they just ball up when washed. Stuffed toys will be next. I have never thought about it but going forth will try to be better! Thank you..
I bet your stuffed toys will be so cute! Have fun making them!
There are also (few) fabric companies who make organic fabrics. I hope to see more of this in the future as well as certified sustainable like you can find in clothing.
Thanks for researching and writing the article and for raising awareness. All artists and crafters, no matter the medium, should be concerned about how the materials used in their work affect the earth and the health of their families. I am always concerned about how much I send to the landfill. I have a very large compost pile which has been in use for years and is used to enrich the soil in our vegetable garden. However, I have never put fabric in the compost pile — my biggest concern would be the toxicity of any dyes used in the making of those fabrics, even if it is 100% cotton, and how those residues might affect the soil and vegetables I grow to feed our family. I think maybe undyed cottons could safely be experimented with? But any sorts of dyes (unless natural) could do more harm than good. Any insights you can share on how the dyes in fabrics should or shouldn’t be composted would be helpful. Looking forward to more articles on sustainability. And thanks for pointing out the rest of the R’s.
Hi Kathleen! We added some great information about dyes under the heading “Quick Tips on What To Compost” that should help! I love that you have your own compost—that’s incredible!
Birds love thread! I recently emptied a very busy little birdhouse in front of my kitchen window and found all sorts of threads in the nest. Seems that house wrens love pretty decor for their home the same as we do.
They sure do love thread! I’ve read that when offering nesting materials to birds, it’s best to make sure they are natural materials as well, no synthetic threads. But that’s something I want to learn more about!
I use them to make pet pillows for my local human society. I’m not sure if they get reused or if they are given with a rescued pet. Makes me happy to give comfort to animals in need.
That’s so sweet. Shelter animals need so much love and giving them a soft place to rest is a great gift! I’ve heard that some shelters prefer cots for their animals, so for other quilters reading the comments, it’s best to check with your local shelter before making beds just in case!
What about the dyes that are used for fabric? Toxic?
Excellent question! We’ve added some information about that under the heading “Quick Tips on What To Compost” that will help explain dyes!
My friend and I both have large stashes. Instead of buying fabric, if I don’t have it in my stash, I shop her stash and give versa. We haven’t had to buy fabric in three years
That is just the cutest! I love that this gives you a reason to see each other as well. It adds such a nice layer of meaning to a quilt when you use fabric from a friend!
Such a great post. I found a local composting farm near me that offers pick up on bicycles. Although I suspect I’m a little too far for them to pick up, they offer drop off as well and I’m thrilled to have a local source. We are trying to compost at home but we are terrible at it. My husband never turns it nor does it keep dried leaves nearby and I have shoulder and hand issues that preclude me from doing it. We eat a lot of fresh fruit and veggies so our compost pile is always large even though we avoid adding anything except fruits and veggies and egg shells. I’m. thrilled to be able to compost more things as a commercial site.
My family would never be good compost caretakers either! We’re stretched thin with our toddler and work, so we were just as happy to find a local composting service!
Is the ink used to dye fabric not bad for compost?
That’s a great question! We added some info to the post about that under the heading “Quick Tips on What To Compost” that dives into dyes!
I am going to make my scraps into “crumb rolls.” Sew all my reds together, all my blues, etc. This will keep them organized, tidy, and ready to use in a crumb quilt or as a replacement for a color I need in another pattern.
That’s an excellent idea! I just love how scrappy quilters can see any piece of fabric working in a quilt!
Thank you so much. I love your ideas. I was motivated to go through my scraps and purchased the Shine pattern. I am using scraps to make some baby quilts to donate to the families that lost everything in the fire near Boulder CO. My son was one of the firefighters fighting the fire and now I have a way to help those that need things to comfort them.
What a thoughtful and meaningful way to use your scraps. Those quilts will bring so much comfort to people who desperately need it.
This is making me think- I have a pouf that I keep having to refill with the small foam pellets. Seems like I could start using bits of batting and small scraps to stuff it in spots. Those pellets are forever needed to be replaced because they compress but this might solve two problems. I’ll bet I’m not the only one on this thread with a pouf!
That’s an excellent idea! I once saw a video of a rug maker who made a pouf and filled it with 30 pounds of fabric scraps!
Good article on sorting what scraps to keep (guilt! …having depression-era parents #eyeroll) and about composting fabric. Last summer I fed and stirred my 1st make-shift compost bin and had some soil to add to our garden. I lacked in the “dry” ingredients but fabric shreds would be beneficial.
I’ve never even thought that there are composting services and that you pay for them to pick it up. But if you don’t have a use, it cuts down on regular trash bags, and keeps 1 more task off your plate.
I find it so helpful to use a composting service! With a toddler, I don’t have the time to care for my own compost, so it’s been great sending mine off!
We have a sewing group that will take your scraps to use for the stuffing in dog/cat beds. They are then donated to shelters and rescues. So check around and see if your local shelter or rescues have someone that can use the scraps!
That’s an excellent option, and definitely important to reach out to shelters to see if they accept beds or toys made with scraps first!
Great idea for scraps! I would never have thought about composting! A sewing buddy volunteers at a dog shelter. She gives me pillowcases and I fill them up with my scraps. I sew up the end when it is full and give it back. The dog shelter uses them for dog beds.
I’ve loved seeing how many people use their scraps this way! Definitely important to reach out to a shelter first to make sure they accept beds made like this since some prefer cots for ease of cleaning. But this is a lovely solution for shelters that accept scrap beds!
I have witnessed over the years the ‘repurposing’ of my prayer flags in my garden by the squirrels. By repurposing, I mean destruction. They seem to enjoy the dyed and printed cotton pieces, so why not leave my true discard scraps for them? The fabric scraps I left outside didn’t go into the food scrap compost; the creatures took off with them. I’d love to see those nests!
I was looking for a web site for washing a quilt to send to my grandson. I just made him a new quilt and thought someone out there would have great way to explain quilt care. And then I was blown away with scrap knowledge for composting. I’m sending this site to all my quilting friends. Thank you thank you
H&M will take those unwanted, unusable textiles.
I read somewhere to tape open a flannel pillowcase at the end of your sewing table and throw all fabric clippings and scraps in it. When it is full, sew closed and a dog or cat bed is complete for shelter/rescue donation or for your own pet, etc. Thought that was a great idea too!
Definitely a nice idea too, Susan! Be sure to call and check that your local shelters accept beds made using fabric scraps before making them though since some prefer animals to sleep on cots that are easier to wash!
Wow, I’ve never heard of composting fabric before! Very interesting.
Definitely a good option! Make sure to check your local composting rules or with your composting service if you use one before adding scraps to your compost. My service takes it and I love it!
I love this post! I give my son-in-law fabric scraps for his garden. He uses it like mulch, and his plants are surrounded by colorful, weed free fabric scraps even before the plants have blossoms!
I also put thin scraps in our trees, and birds use them when building their nests. I love seeing these laced among the twigs and grasses, little bird quilts snuggling up to the new babies!
With your updated web site, this post is so easy to find!
I trained in textile designer and taught it on a degree course for many years; now in retirement I have taken up quilting again, but worry increasingly about the environmental aspects. When I started quilting, it was to use up scraps from making clothes and household items, now we go out and buy special quilting fabric, which is a huge industry. The growing of cotton is one of the most poluting crops in the world; it uses masses of harmful chemicals and dyes in its production, as well as far more water than any other crop. Here in the UK we do have fabric recycling collection points (it used to be collected at the roadside in one place I lived) but most of that seems to get sent abroad for processing, hardly sustainable. Compost it – not heard of that here, would worry about the amount of chemicals going into the ground and affecting the soil and water table. Mostly, I would advise, as I did with my students – buy as little as possible for job, the more you buy the more chemicals have been used somewhere in the world. Buy organic cotton fabric if you can, it still can be printed, but is less harmful to the world. Use every scrap, that is, use for stuffing toys, pillows, even use for inventive wadding methods (experiment!) with tied quilts and so on. Use production methods that reduce waste – we have got into bad habits as quilters, prioritizing convenience over everything else, that has to stop for the worlds sake. So many quick cutting or sewing methods are wasteful of fabrics. Slow down, make fewer quilts with more care and concern, life is not a race. Use for rag rugs, have friends who do this, also investigate other fibres, am experimenting with bamboo fabric at present, more sustainable as grown without chemicals or much water and much softer too, also breaks down to be more inert. Think about what you do, your hobby should be something creative, not something that is helping global warming and the destruction of the world.