Green Quilting

Over the years Jim and I have changed our living style to reduce our ecological footprint. We’ve made small changes over time, incrementally improving as we learn how to do things better. It’s meant buying less, recycling more, and upgrading to lower-energy lights and appliances, among other things.

Aside from basic daily living, my biggest environmental impact may be created by my quilting. Quilting has a cozy, natural image that belies the modern truth. From cotton production and fabric distribution, to all the steps we consumers take to complete a quilt, we make our mark when we quilt.

Cotton production uses enormous quantities of highly toxic chemicals, vast areas of land with undiversified agriculture, and fuel-guzzling machinery to plant and harvest. Post-harvest, only about 20% of US-grown cotton is processed by US textile mills. About 65% of US cotton is shipped overseas to be processed and made into something like clothing, bedding, or quilting fabric. One cargo ship, fully loaded, can carry about a million bales of cotton. The equivalent of about 11 fully loaded cargo ships will cross the seas with cotton from the US every year, one way. Much of that will be shipped back as finished products. A loaded cargo ship uses 86,000 gallons or more of highly-polluting fuel per day at sea. Then the cotton goes through incredibly toxic processing, sometimes in countries that have minimal worker-safety standards and poverty-level wages. Then it gets shipped back to me.

See my previous posts about cotton fabric production.
Cotton — Where Does Your Fabric Come From?
Cotton — What Happens After Harvest?
Cotton — Weaving Fabric
Cotton — Batik Production
Cotton — Printing Designs

Frankly, this is very disheartening to know. I have long realized that my need to quilt is a luxury that the world might not be able to afford. For now I will continue. But I will choose to find ways to reduce my footprint on the consumer end.

Here are some tips on reducing your carbon footprint of quilting.

Fabric acquisition and use:
* Use stash you already have before heading to the store or ordering online — save on delivery costs of fuel, road and vehicle use, gasoline, etc. If you need help with that, unsubscribe to all the ad emails you get. If you want something, you know where to find it anyway, right?
* Trade yardage and scraps with friends or guild members.
* Consider acquiring fabric in the form of used clothing, rather than as new yardage.
* Use your scraps in projects. More variety lends more richness and interest, anyway. Consider piecing same-fabric scraps together if you need somewhat bigger pieces. I’ve done this in a number of projects and believe me, it’s not like anyone will ever see the seams.
* Save selvage edges to use as you would heavy string or twine. I give mine to my husband, and he uses them in the garden to tie plants up.
* Consider buying American-made quilting fabric (assuming you are in the US.) There are only two brands that pop out. One is American Made Brand fabric, in 75 solids. One is Made In America cotton from JoAnn Fabrics. For all I know, they may be the same company.
* Consider buying fabric made from organically-grown cotton. These will have lower environmental impact because of less pesticide and herbicide use on the crop. In addition, other parts of fabric production have strict standards for impact. See this article on sewmamasew for more details.
* Use your own tote bags for shopping; decline plastic bags, or any bags, at the quilt shop or the chain fabric/craft store.

Books, magazines, paper patterns, and other stuff:
* Buy new (to you) books and stuff thoughtfully. Is it something you already have but can’t find? Is there a different solution than buying new? Most of my book purchases the last few years have been used ones. Can you borrow the specialty tool from a friend?
* Subscribe to digital editions of magazines.
* Unsubscribe from paper catalogs; ask all the junk mailers to take you off their lists.
* Download patterns when you have a choice. Store the pdf on your computer or a back-up drive rather than printing out.
* Recycle quilty stuff by first seeing if others will use them — donations, free table at guild meeting, friends and those in your small group, free-cycle, craigslist, paperback exchange, consignment stores, used book stores, your library. Only then recycle by putting in the bin. Last resort is to throw these items in the trash.

In your studio:
* Unplug your iron so it doesn’t continue to draw current while you’re out of the room.
* Turn off lights and TVs and audiobooks and other electrical devices when you walk away.
* Switch to LEDs. An LED lightbulb will last about 20 times as long as an incandescent and about three times as long as a CFL. They also are less expensive to operate, meaning their energy use (and your cost for it) is much lower. See the interesting chart on this page to compare. I’ve added LED lighting in my studio and am so glad I did. I have an enormous amount of light at a bare increase in energy used.
* Put your computer to sleep when you walk away for awhile. Power usage drops to about a third while in stand-by or sleep mode.
*Prewashing fabrics? I can’t tell you the impact there. I prewash, not post, so I am not washing and drying batting. On the other hand, I do iron my fabrics before use. My habits on this won’t change, regardless. I prewash partly because the sizing and other chemicals in new fabric bother me.

And what about batting?
Wow, this is a tough one, too. Polyester has the benefit of not being cotton; instead it is made from petroleum. Cotton has the benefit of not being polyester… Wool requires sheep, at about one sheep per twin-bed batt, depending on breed. And sheep require acreage, too, up to a half acre each. Compare that to cotton output of about 249 sheets per bale of cotton, and depending on location, about one bale per acre. So the number of cotton battings per acre must be many times the number of wool battings per acre, though otherwise the environmental damage is different, as well.

We also have other options. Bamboo is environmentally friendly and can grow prolifically without fertilizers or pesticides. Quilters Dream Green batting is made from recycled plastic bottles.

Without being able to do a more granular analysis, I’m not able to tell you what kind is a winner. I haven’t tried Quilters Dream Green, but it sounds like it’s worth trying. Other than that, I’ll probably continue to choose batting for each project based on that project’s needs and what I have easily available.

Do you have tips or ideas for green quilting? Please share in comments.  

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31 thoughts on “Green Quilting

  1. katechiconi

    I have my high-draw appliances hooked up to a couple of switched and surge-protected power boards. It makes it so much easier to turn them off, instead of groping around at floor level, and it means I actually do turn everything off. My iron heats fast, so I don’t leave it on even when I’m in the room, unless I’m piecing lots of small bits at once. I’m fortunate to have lots of very good natural light in my room, so rarely have any additional light on in the daytime.
    Also, I never throw out batting scraps. I use iron-on batting joining tape to make up larger sections from my larger scraps and offcuts, and the small offcuts go into a cushion-sized muslin bag after being hand shredded a little to make them less lumpy. Once that’s full, I stitch it closed and make (another!) cushion. My current project has been great for using up scrap pieces!

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      That’s great that your electricals can all be on a common switch. Mine are all over the studio, so I do turn things off or unplug them individually. As to batting, I admit that is a problem for me. Sounds like you’ve got it handled.

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  2. knitnkwilt

    You have covered what few I have thought of. I have heard that the “green” batting’s color shows through light fabrics in quilts, and I wonder about the temperature, whether it would be to hot like the non breathing polyesters. I haven’t tried them. I was delighted to learn of American made Brand fabrics last year and that four stores in Portland carry them (four at the time I checked;there may be more). They are my first choice, when shopping. But I’ll admit that the right color trumps the brand.

    It is important to be reminded and to constantly re-evaluate.

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  3. Jim Ruebush

    Your brother Jerry has similar concerns about his pottery art. If we thought about it, there are many things in our lives with similar histories of export and import. I guess we should consider the costs and use local if possible. Some things just can’t be had that way. Where would you get fabric? Raise your own cotton, gin it, weave your own? You could, but…

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  4. singingbirdartist

    ooh beware of the false flag bamboo flies under! the canes etc are VERY green, but the fibres have to be bletted in a deep bath of bleach like chemicals for about 6 weeks, so bamboo yarn has terrible eco-debts as the countries where’s it’s made tend to dump pollutants 😦 I use fleece or old acrylic blankets for the wadding in my quilts as they tend to be throws for sofas etc. Thanks for sharing all your research!

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Ooh, I did not know that about bamboo! Thanks for the info. Yes, dumping of pollutants is a big problem. The dyes and other chemical treatments for fabric are not always disposed of well.

      And yes about old blankets for wadding/batting. While I wouldn’t be glad to do that for everything, I do think that would work well for some projects. Thanks.

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  5. KerryCan

    Oops! Hit “send” too soon! I was meaning to say that our Depression-era grandmothers could teach us a lot about being frugal and, along the way, green. I appreciate the amount of research and energy this post took–great ideas!

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      You’re welcome. I actually started this post years ago, hoping I could find better information on some topics. But as that wasn’t happening, I decided to go with the simple, frugal things we all can do anyway. Thanks.

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  6. Lynda

    I agree that we need try harder to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Our ancestors certainly had skill in these! However, we need to give thought to any action we may take. What will the outcome be?

    I was going to bring up bamboo’s lack of ecofriendliness, but Singing bird artist beat me to it. However, I will add that due to it’s ease and fast growth as well as it’s lucrative market price, it is now replacing jungle and valuable animal habitat. It is sad, but no matter how we try there will always be a tradeoff.

    For me, I’ll choose quality every time and it may have had to travel a fair bit to get to my sewing room. Here’s why:

    If I take the time to make, then I want it to last. I see no point in calling a thing into existence if it won’t hold up. (thinking of JoAnn’s fabric brands here; horrible quality!). Choosing quality will mean that it won’t fade and become threadbare easily, ergo I won’t have to make three replacements down the line.

    While I agree we do need to use less and consider our impact we also need to be pragmatic in the scope of our decisions. In some instances, though not all, it may be, that quality and durability will have the least cradle to grave environmental impact.

    This is my first response here, although I have been following for a bit. I do hope I haven’t come across as too heavily opinionated.

    Lynda

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Lynda. I’m glad to hear your opinion. 🙂 I do agree with you: for all the time and effort and other resources we put into our quilting, we don’t want to be “penny wise and pound foolish.” I said to my brother (a potter) yesterday “It is a burden in the sense that there needs to be a net positive outcome. I like to think I create that, but it does give me pause.” So that, a net positive outcome. That is my intention with my living in general. But as you say, there are trade-offs for most of our choices. The key, I think, is to be aware of that and of the costs and benefits, and then to choose wisely. Thanks for following and commenting.

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  7. tierneycreates

    Love, love, love this post! Thanks for all the great tips, many I have implemented in my life. I am just reading this post after posting about my recent thrift store fabric find. I am torn between wanting to support our local quilts shops (it would be sad not to have quilt shops in my little town anymore) and wanting to keep my eco footprint low. I like your idea of focusing on organic cotton fabrics when buying fabric. So glad I follow your blog – I so enjoy it!

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  8. allisonreidnem

    I’m just writing a post about the first cotton mills in the UK and planned to link to your series of posts about cotton ☺As I was writing about conditions for the women and children working in the mills in the 1800s my conscience kept pricking me about modern cotton workers in far away places. It’s a tough one – we had a bit of a campaign a few years ago re. the rediculously cheap clothing available in Primark. When investigators travelled to Bangladesh to interview textile workers they were pleased to have people campaigning to improve their working conditions but didn’t want consumers to stop buying from Primark or they’d be out of work… There are strong links between workers receiving fair wages, consumers paying fair prices and the carbon footprints we all create.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I’ll look forward to your post on UK cotton mills. Yours preceded ours by a little more than a decade, I believe, and the mill worker system was much more oppressive than our began, but we moved in that direction. Now we have the same dilemma in developing countries. We do need to support safe working conditions and fair wages, as well as sound environmental management. It is to the benefit of us all. Thanks very much.

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    2. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oh, and I was going to say, I have my own post on the US textile mills in the early 1800s I’ve let sit in draft for MUCH too long! I’ve presented on it several times, but writing it up seems … hard. :/

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  9. norma

    I’ve been solar dyeing scraps for quilts – makes use of all those odd white bits that always turn up. You don’t even need much sun. We’ve been having a wet summer but I can still rely on getting good colour in a couple of weeks.

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  10. Anne Wheaton

    I always find it strange that some people buy up fabric, cut it up and sew it back together to make quilts as I think of quiltmaking as a way to use my fabric scraps, whether from dressmaking projects or discarded clothing. That said, my passion isn’t for quiltmaking.
    In the UK, sheep can graze on land that isn’t suitable for crop production and provide an ecological way of managing the landscape so any use for their wool is welcome. We also used it to insulate a barn.
    A very thought provoking post.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I think most quilters don’t see the process as you do, as a way to use up scraps. Instead, the new fabric is much like colors of paint for a painting. The fabric is the medium for expression, rather than something that otherwise would have gone in the trash. As to the sheep, I do love seeing them around. In the US, however, they are much rarer than in the UK. We only have about a quarter as many as you do. Thanks again.

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  11. TextileRanger

    Very interesting and a lot of good tips!
    I am so sorry to read that about the bamboo though, I bought my first bamboo batting last fall and was looking forward to using it. I am using wool right now and loving it so I may stick with that. And of course Hobbs is made right here in Texas so I love to support a local company.

    I don’t buy a lot of new fabric – I do buy from thrift stores sometimes, and then people are always giving me fabric. I am really looking forward to trying the American Made.

    When I do buy it is either from small fair trade companies or batik pre-cuts. The carbon footprint may be bad, but from what I have seen, I believe the jobs in producing the fabric are much better than the jobs sewing clothing, so at least I find that a comfort.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes on bamboo! I haven’t tried it but thought it might be a good option. Now, not so sure. As for wool, I’ve had variable experiences with it.

      And on fabric… that’s a tough one, too. I could get all preachy about it. What I’d really like, though, is for people to be thoughtful about all their purchases, not just buying for the thrill of it. That’s my practical side showing.

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  12. Ciar.

    I’m teaching myself to do patchwork and quilting but after reading your post and looking
    at the videos I’m sorry I ever started. Nowadays people just can’t get it right.
    From brushing our teeth to drawing our breath every action is destroying the planet
    According to scientist cows, due to their farting are responsible for destroying
    the zone layer. So should all the cows be killed?
    I have to buy fabric online (no LQS) where I live. As for buying in charity shops most
    of what’s stocked in our charity shops is not good quality.
    I do now genuinely feel that the enjoyment I was getting from my endeavours
    to become more proficient at patchwork is no longer important after watching
    the horrific conditions people work under to produce that which I buy.
    Put simply we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
    BTW I hate batiks.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Well… yes. All the actions we take and don’t take have consequences. We need to weigh the good and the bad and try to come to a neutral-to-positive position. I don’t use batiks much, and the awful work conditions is one of the reasons. Some quilters I know put enormous amounts of good into the world with donations of their work. I do a handful of donation quilts a year, too, but am not prolific that way. I don’t know. I don’t think I can frame a good response for you because sometimes I feel as helpless as you sound. But I also know that if I didn’t have a good means for my creative expression, my life personally would be much worse. Over time can I find one that is less damaging, more positive, than quilting? Perhaps. And as to the cows, maybe we don’t need as many bred in the future. I am a meat eater, but I don’t eat a lot of meat in general or beef specifically. If we all shifted to less meat, that would be a good change.

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