Sustainability is More Than Using Your Scraps

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We all know the story of quilts being born out of necessity. Savvy women took clothing and other textiles that were no longer useful and created utilitarian bed coverings. Quilts for luxury and art came later but to this day it remains true that the need for warmth and rest are among the most basic rights that every human has, and quilts fulfill that need. Bundling oneself in a quilt is cathartic. It’s Grandma wrapping herself in a hug around you, knowing a loved one is safe in the room next to yours; it’s good wishes for a happy life together, and bittersweet goodbyes at funerals.

Antique quilt top by an unknown maker. Photographs by Patty Murphy.


Quilting is our therapy. It grounds us. Time spent choosing fabrics and making quilts brings us joy. The visual and tactile experience of walking into a quilt shop elicits happiness and cutting into fabric to make something useful and beautiful is an eagerly anticipated event. Inevitably, once the quilt is made, we always have scraps. Quilters are well known to be frugal with the tiniest pieces of fabric, yet they are also known to be some of the most generous, caring makers with both their time and their hearts. We are a welcoming community with a diverse population, and this is certain: when there is a call for help, when we share a great need, makers listen, jump in, and move mountains.


In 2015 the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The goals are intertwined and designed to provide a roadmap so we, as a global society, can build a better, more sustainable world for everyone. In three broad categories, the goals are Environmental, Economic, and Social. 

Tote bag made by Jennie Priven.


You are likely wondering why this is even important. What does this have to do with quilting? And what does sustainable really mean? As makers, we need to start thinking about ways we can be more sustainable – how can we continue to live on this planet, do the things we love and keep Earth intact and healthy for generations to come? This is where that roadmap enters the picture.


Being sustainable is more than just using all your scraps and recycling, though you should definitely keep doing those things. But do you ever think about the bigger picture? How and where is this fabric grown: under what conditions, is it safe for workers, are people being paid fair wages, do they have access to clean water and education? Do the workers live in poverty or are they forced labor? These questions fall under the 17 SDGs and we should consider the answers every time we make a purchase. If you don’t know the answer, then research. If a company has nothing to hide, it will be transparent with its practices, and we should demand that the products we know and love are being made in a manner that will help build a better world for all.


In addition to asking yourself those bigger-picture questions, taking steps towards really being sustainable means we should think about the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. Step one is to reduce what we consume. This is where it gets really personal. Think long and hard about purchases: do I really need this? We all want the new fabric (believe me, we do!), but do we need it? If you don’t really need it, consider not making a purchase or consider using reorderable materials. And, if you do need it, ask yourself if you have something comparable in your stash that can be used instead of buying something new. And of course, if it’s the thing to make your quilt or project shine, then get it, and use it.


If you cannot reduce consumption, then you can re-use items. Think Ball jars full of buttons on Mom’s sewing room shelf, cookie tins to store hand sewing items, or using strips of fabric to make twine. We’re makers. We are really good at reusing things!


The last step is to recycle. There is a reason it’s the third of the three R’s as it’s the least impactful, and only 9% of what is put into the recycling bin is actually recycled! The first two steps are crucial to decrease your footprint. First, you reduce. Then you reuse. Then you recycle.

Antique pillow and quilt by unknown makers.


So how you can apply what you do in your life to help with the UN SDGs and sustainability as a whole? Well, aside from pondering when and how things are made and the conditions in which they are made or if you really need it, we have a few suggestions to help you get started (or continue if you are already doing these things).

  1. Unplug your sewing machine and other electronics when not in use. Electronics still pull energy even when they are turned off!
  2. Use energy-efficient LED lights where possible and turn the lights off when you leave a room.
  3. Opt for ground shipping and order multiple items in a package. Slower shipping reduces your carbon footprint because items aren’t overnighted on a plane.
  4. Reuse packaging and gift wrap.
  5. Use the tiniest of scraps to make pet beds for local shelters or fill stuffed animals.
  6. Leftover batting can be used for smaller projects or sewn together to create what we all lovingly know as frankenbatting.
  7. Ask any local schools or art studios if they can use the scraps.
  8. Buy less and sew your stash.
  9. Consider how to re-use items – maybe that old dress shirt would make a great low-value background piece? Perhaps go to your local thrift store to see what fabrics and garments you can find to use in your next project.
  10. Create better. There are so many tutorials on the web to teach you how to make cloth napkins, paper towels, cotton pads, and other cloth items around your house.
  11. Cut up old t-shirts and use them as cleaning rags.
  12. When possible, buy PDF patterns or patterns without a plastic sleeve.
  13. Use old quilts as batting for a new quilt.


The biggest decision you can make about living a more sustainable life, whether you are brand new to this or you are a pro at all things green, is to start. You simply have to begin. You won’t be perfect, and change isn’t easy, but if you take one small step, then incorporate another when you are ready, you can do this and together, we can all make a difference. After all, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.


Create and Sustain would be honored to start this journey with you.