Some thoughts on waste

Hey there! This post was originally published on blog over a year ago. I’ve decided to revisit for several reasons: I was asked about it in a podcast (have a listen to Clothes Making Mavens!), I’m planning to relaunch Kintsugi this year or early next year with a collection of one-of-a-kind kimono remakes only, mostly with zero waste.

The problem of waste has been in the center of my mind since I started sewing. How could I create beautiful garments and at the same time generate so many offcuts, often of unusable dimensions?

The war on scraps is real. Pillow stuffing anyone?
The war on scraps is real. Pillow stuffing anyone?

Despite having started to sew my clothes to be more mindful and sustainable in my fashion choices, I quickly understood that sewing is not the most environmentally friendly practice. Blame it on my love for style lines (or the fact that style lines are the only visual interest for someone that only wears black), but the beginning of my sewing journey was far from sustainable. Yes, I only use natural material and mostly rely on scrap-bin finds or offcuts, only occasionally buying actual yardage, but my output was what I would now call bordering obsession. Certain items I made thinking they were cute turned out to be not flattering or just not working from my lifestyle. I experimented with shapes, techniques, textures, fabrics. In hindsight, this was a very good experience, since I learned a lot both technically and when it comes to my personal style. On the other hand, the waste I generate was taking away all the joy from sewing.

I tried many supposedly scrap-busting techniques (shoutout to Shauni and her #sewingleftovers), but many, MANY beeswax cloths, tea towels, coasters, stuffed toys for all the kids I know (and sometimes don’t, hahah!), and Ida Clutches later I was still not satisfied.

I came to the conclusion that waste had to be tackled at the design stage, and not downstream by the consumer/sewist. By this I mean at the pattern drafting level. This concept is also very much present in the environmentally-conscious community: take recycling, for example. It is now very clear to many activists that corporations should address the problem of waste, instead of leaving the burden of recycling to the end consumer (not that separating your trash is a burden, but you get the point). Big companies have a history of making consumers feel bad about their choices, telling us all the things we should do to reduce our carbon footprint. By all means, those actions are also important, but a carbon tax would do more.

Seeing such Kimono begs the question: art to wear?

At the same time, over the years I have accumulated several kimono, often too small, just because seeing them in the recycling shop made me very sad. Indeed, I was feeling もったいない (mottainai), a Japanese word that conveys the sadness generated by the sight of waste.

Now, my fascination with Wafuku (Japanese clothing) is kind of complex. Of course, I appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship which goes into making them, the different fabrics used (every tiny region has its own…imagine my joy every time I travel), the patterns, and especially the history behind it. I wear kimono regularly, to functions of my temple, to the theatre, or to exhibitions. All my items are second hand and often gifts from friends, and I cherish them dearly, as they are full with history and stories.

Teaching myself to wear kimono correctly, I learned how to sew one as well. I very soon discovered, to my great astonishment/admiration, that the kimono is the original zero-waste pattern, since it is made by cutting an entire bolt of fabric in differently shaped rectangles, and then assembling it. It is also intrinsically “slow fashion”, since often kimono are passed down the generations, and even cut up to make children’s kimono or other garments as well as small novelty items.

An example of how a kimono is made. The bolt (top image) is folded in an expert manner, cut in specific places based on the size of the person to dress, and assembled. Extra fabric is tucked at the seams.

At the same time, I discovered several zero waste patter makers, such as Milan AV-JC and Elbe Textile, for whom I pattern tested the new Maynard dress (which deserves a whole post and review just on itself, because it’s magnificent). Suddenly, I realized I was not alone in my quest to reduce the waste at the design stage! I do recommend checking Milan AV-JC’s blog, as she explains how zero-waste design takes place in a very straightforward and easy manner.

The positively futuristic Maynard dress by Elbe Textiles is a completely zero waste design…and I made it out of old sheets!
The positively futuristic Maynard dress by Elbe Textiles is a completely zero waste design…and I made it out of old sheets! Don’t ask me who on earth had black linen sheets though.

Now comes my “Aha!” moment: combining kimono upcycling AND zero waste all in one! As I mentioned, refashioning old Japanese clothing is not exactly a brand new idea, but where I differ is in the fact that I want to use ALL of the kimono: all the pieces, all the lining, without cutting the different panels that make the kimono, simply taking them apart and reassembling them into modern silhouettes.

Over he years I’ve made several upcycled garments, including this Acton Dress which is possibly my favorite make even. BUT I still ended up with some scraps (mostly due to the several moth holes in the kimono) I didn’t know how to use. Refashions are fun and good, but this is not enough for me.

This mission is very close to my heart for several reasons. It pains me to see all these beautiful kimono ready to become wall stuffings, and I avoid every the tiniest scrap from becoming said stuffing. In addition, I think kimono (and Japanese textiles in general) are such beautiful works of art that people should be able to appreciate it and wear them. By remaking one kimono into often more practical items, the history behind it is preserved and transmitted in a form which is accessible to a wide range of people. I by no means invented this concept, on the contrary! The idea of repurposing old Kimono is integral part of Kimono and Japanese cultures. As person who is taking part in both these cultural spaces, and also sews, I feel compelled to show my own personal take on these important principles.

A sweet boatneck shirt make from a red and black kimono.

Do you guys want to read more about zero waste? Is the concept of Mottainai something you’d like to hear about? Let me know in the comments!

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