Compostable Clothes

Last week I unleashed the first part of A Year of Zero Waste Sewing, which you can download for free in this blog post.

In it, I talked about fastenings for clothes which are compostable. I found the whole subject so fascinating and discovered lots more than could ever be fitted into a small booklet, that I thought I’d devote a separate blog post to it.

There are not many fashion businesses producing clothes which are compostable. As end-of-life is an important part of sustainability, I was rather surprised that it isn’t given higher priority.

But of course, it is not so simple. The whole garment needs to be compostable, including the fastenings, thread, labels, elastic, embellishments and so on. Dyes, prints, coatings etc on the fabric might contaminate the compost. Not everyone has a backyard compost bin. There aren’t really any compostable alternatives to fabrics such as spandex or nylon which are used in active/swim/high performance wear.

The remains of a cotton t-shirt which had synthetic thread and label.
This is an old t-shirt from Target which was used as rag and then forgotten about – someone left it hanging on the veg patch fence.
The fabric, which I presume was cotton, has almost entirely disappeared, but the label is still very readable and the polyester overlocking is in almost pristine condition.
The remains of a cotton t-shirt which had synthetic thread and label, showing a close up of the overlocking.

I already knew about A Very Good Bra, and found a podcast interview with the founder Stephanie Devine. She commented that only a few years ago she wouldn’t have been able to produce a compostable bra since no-one was producing the compostable components (elastic, thread etc). I came across some other companies making compostable clothes here.

When I thought about all the components of clothes other than fabric, which I’ve been using for so many years, I realised that they are practically all plastic or metal, and not so easy to separate from the garment once it’s worn out.

Historic clothes gave some ideas for alternatives and there’s a wealth of information in the historical re-enactment scene, if one digs around on the internet. I thoroughly enjoyed trying some of the buttons shown below – there are little step-by-steps for these in A Year of Zero Waste Sewing.

Thread buttons.
These are thread buttons made entirely from thread, but one of them has a core of linen fabric which makes it firmer. The red thread was recycled from the top of a flour bag, and the brown thread is perle cotton.
I plan to use thread buttons on the next shirt I make.
A medieval stuffed cloth button.
A medieval self-stuffed cloth button, made from a small square of linen and very strong thread. It measures about 1cm-1.2cm.
I was mega-impressed with this. It makes a spherical, very firm button. Rows of these on sleeves or on the front of a dress would look great.
A leather toggle
A leather toggle button made from a long triangle of leather rolled up. If you’ve ever made paper beads, it’s the same principle.
A leather and boiled wool toggle
I also tried making it in boiled wool, which was successful but the button lost the nice definition of the coils. Alas, just the previous week I had thrown out a leaky hot water bottle (and the bin man had already been) – I could have tried making it in rubber.
Wooden buttons made from a tree branch.
Some wooden buttons from a tree branch sawn into slices. Normally, one would drill holes in the rounds to sew the buttons on with, but amazingly a wood borer had done it for me!
Buttons made from beer bottle tops.
Recycled: buttons made from beer bottle tops.
Rouleau button made from cloth.
A button made of fabric rouleau, typically seen on Chinese qipao. Sometimes they’re made of cord.

So the whole exercise had me thinking more practically about garment end-of-life, because even with the best garment care, mending and re-using, eventually it will become rubbish.

And…I think zero waste patterncutting and compostable clothes should marry each other!

Cheers!

13 Comments

  1. Carmen Grantham on March 29, 2022 at 12:36 pm

    Another area that I’ve been thinking about lately is the iron-on interfacing we use and how that would compost.

    • lizhaywood on March 29, 2022 at 3:02 pm

      Good thought – I missed that. I think most interfacing is poly/cotton…but what of the glue?

      • Kate on March 30, 2022 at 7:24 am

        We could always use different weights of plain cotton and sew them in, like in the days before fusible interfacing.

        Thank you so much for this article- have just purchased my first compostable bra and undies, and am researching tencel overlocking thread!

        You’re a star!



      • lizhaywood on March 30, 2022 at 11:03 am

        Yes we easily could, as interfacing is essentially just another layer of fabric.
        Interested in your tencel overlocking thread investigations – hopefully demand by industry for things like this will follow on to home sewing supplies too.

        The REAL stars are the people who make these clothes 🙂



  2. Kate on March 30, 2022 at 12:17 pm

    https://www.sewforgood.com.au/collections/sewpure-gots-certified-organic-thread-300m

    Not overlocking thread but eco sewing notions available from Australia!

  3. Anne on March 30, 2022 at 7:08 pm

    Do you follow @madeorremade who deconstructs and reuses the thread, fabric, fastenings etc from jeans? Because of course we should reuse before we compost. I inherited my grandmother’s button box and diligently cut off any buttons before I relegate my clothes to dusters or whatever, but have never gone as far as removing the thread.

    • lizhaywood on March 31, 2022 at 10:34 am

      I do! His little Cutting Up Jeans zine is on my desk here. Lots of good ideas in there – I had not considered removing thread from jeans to re-use.

  4. Céline on April 2, 2022 at 6:27 pm

    Brilliant, thanks for the testing, I’ll try that next.
    I’m rather put off by the Very Good Bra, for the simple reason that it only uses the image of very thin models, and doesn’t make the effort to address the majority of us women with “ordinary” bodies. It shows that we’re still very far from a society where body standards are less important. It’s nice to be environment friendly, the work of that company is huge, but it’s a shame their thinking/concept couldn’t go that inch further…
    Well anyway, thank you for your work!

    • lizhaywood on April 2, 2022 at 8:06 pm

      Cheers, Celine, thanks for reading.
      Why don’t you drop them a line and mention it? I’m sure there are other people who have thought the same thing 🙂

  5. Janelle on April 3, 2022 at 7:02 am

    One idea for a composting iron on interfacing comes to me: “School glue” here in California is a starch glue sub. that can be eaten by small children without ill effects. It also washes out. I use the school glue in quilting where pins don’t do the job. It irons dry and keeps fabric together. I will try it slightly watered down to allow a smaller amount to adhere sew in interfacing(which seems to be a tad cheaper that the iron in type). However there is the problem of non-woven interfacing being made of plastic. Another thought is to buy very thin muslin from Asian fabric stores we have here. They sell thin fabric. The other option is to use plastic packaging and fuse layers to get the desired density. It of course won’t compost, but it is a way to repurpose plastic.

  6. Kate on April 3, 2022 at 10:30 am

    There is also a tencel overlockibg thread from James Tailoring in the UK but the costs for having it shipped to Australia are astronomical.

    • lizhaywood on April 3, 2022 at 8:11 pm

      Hmmm…yes, many of the compostable thread options are $$$.

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