On Becoming a Zero-Waste Textile Artist

16 February 2022

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When I explained the low-waste lifestyle to my ninety-seven-year-old father-in-law, he said, “Low-waste was a natural way of life for us in the 1930s.”

He’s right.

My parents and grandparents also lived a low-waste lifestyle out of economic necessity.

When I was a kid, every home had an expandable, wooden sewing case or, at the very least, a pipe tobacco tin filled with needles and thread. Newly sewn repairs held the vanilla tobacco scent of the tin’s former contents. Glass jars and shoe boxes of mismatched buttons, pins, elastic, and zippers were like treasure chests for a curious little girl born in the 1960s.

In 1972 my father taught me how to hand sew the fallen hem on my long fleece nightgown, extending its life until I outgrew it and it became a hand-me-down. I still knot the end of the thread the way my dad taught me.

Related: Artist Marite Kuus on textile reuse in patchwork.

The 1970s were all about arts and crafts. We made our own Barbie clothes with leftover fabric and our jeans were plastered with handmade happy faces and peace sign patches. We lived a low-waste life due to economics and material availability.

When the global economic flood gates opened in the 1980s, fast fashion and inexpensive textiles allowed us to earn, spend, and pursue the “good life” of excess. Although the influence of “Knots Landing”-style big-shoulder-pad fashion tugged on my pastel dresses and Madonna-inspired lace gloves, I was still a hippie at heart.

Brooding anti-establishmentarianism of Pearl Jam and Nirvana tapped me on the shoulder in the 1990s and I was again reminded of my bohemian roots. I began pursuing a low-waste lifestyle with intention.

In the 1990s, I began teaching art. Although arts and craft supplies were plentiful, I still enjoyed the challenge of low-waste practices. Economics was less of a concern when buying textile supplies; however, the ills of the fast fashions created a decade earlier began to plague our environment when most people weren’t paying attention. The true price of low-cost fast fashion is the pollution of the water and soil in China and India where the majority of textiles are produced.

The chemicals used in fabric dying are making people sick. Low wages exploit workers, who are mainly women and children. Toxic fume-emitting landfills in third world countries are overflowing with the excesses of first world fashion. Fast fashion and overabundance hurts both people and our environment.

I wanted to turn my low-waste lifestyle into a zero-waste lifestyle. It seemed a necessary action for the world we now live in.

Then Covid-19 hit, and supply chain challenges shook us up a bit. As an art teacher scrambling to convert in-person, hands-on classes to Zoom, zero-waste became a necessity. Art supplies were hard to find. We had to use all sorts of unintended materials for tools and art supplies. Yogurt containers became embroidery hoops, chopsticks became dowels, curtains, sheets, and tablecloths became quilt fabric. On many occasions in 2020 and 2021, embroidery floss took the place of sewing thread and visa versa.

Being committed to a zero-waste textile art practice was going to be a challenge. I added “zero-waste textile artist” to my website and social media bio so that I would be held accountable to the lifestyle. Now, I am deep into the zero-waste for all aspects of my life. From meal planning to freecycling chicken coops online. I quickly adopted the philosophy of using what I already have for textile projects. I started at home by going through my clothes and linens for textile supplies. Then I had my husband and son do the same.

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If I needed something that I didn’t already have, I posted my needs on a Facebook Freecycle Group, looked through Facebook Marketplace, Kijiji, and sent an email blast to friends and family. If that failed, and I wasn’t able to source free materials, I would shop at Goodwill, The Salvation Army, Value Village, or other charity shops and second-hand stores. Sheets, tablecloths, and drapes provided dozens of meters of high-quality fabric. Deconstructed clothing, purses, and tote bags filled my studio shelves with second-hand fabrics, buttons, beads, clips, findings, zippers, notions, snaps, fasteners, and closures. Once I was well stocked with sheets, I was able to use natural dyeing techniques to alter colours and textures. I learned how to dye fabric using rusted paint cans and vegetable scraps. Zero-waste doesn’t end with fabric and notions—I save every thread and the smallest pieces of scrap fabric for trapunto blocks that will be featured in the 2022 Zero-Waste Textile Challenge on Instagram (#ZeroWasteBlockOfTheMonth2022).

(Trapunto [Italian for “to quilt”] is a quilting technique that makes puffy, 3-D effects on fabric.)

Now, my biggest challenges are storage, and trying to convince my family that I’m not a packrat (I am a packrat). Being a zero-waste artist challenges me to be organized, thoughtful, and work within limits.

One hundred years ago my father-in-law’s mother saved fabric scraps, buttons, and lace because these materials were expensive, useful, and it saved them money. I save useful things to keep them in circulation so that they don’t end up in landfills. I will never be a minimalist, but I am the next best thing: I am a Zero-Waste Textile Artist.

All images by Sandra Clarke

Copyright © Sandra Clarke except as indicated.

About Sandra Clarke

Sandra Clarke, has been untangling skeins of yarn + making useful shiny things for over 30 years. Born in the colourful, celtic, Montreal neighbourhood of Griffintown, + educated in Montreal, New York, Winnipeg, Vancouver + Toronto, helped Sandra develop her eclectic style. Her textile + fibre arts + courses include; embroidery, weaving, spinning, sewing, felting + knitting. On the shiny arts side, she creates + teaches; fused glass, beaded trees of life, jewelry + button making. Her art can be seen regularly in boutiques, galleries, + online. Sandra's ecology themed colouring books can be found on Amazon + in her courses. She teaches art + art business courses online, in galleries + schools. Fueled by the fast-fashion rebellion, visible mending + craftivism, Sandra's no-waste philosophy results in ethically made + thoughtfully re-fashioned textile art. Sandra lives with her husband + children, dividing her time between her home in Mississauga, Ontario, + her off-grid cabin-in-the-woods near Algonquin Park in Highlands East, Ontario. You can see more of her work at sandraclarke.ca, and on instagram at sandra.clarke.canada.

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