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!
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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!