Green Quilting

In honor of Spring, and to celebrate five years since Jim and I opened our first WordPress account (Our View From Iowa,) I am recycling a previous post. (Recycling, get it?) All the links work but I haven’t reviewed them for relevance, nor updated the data in my writing. The original post was published 8/3/16.  

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.  


24 thoughts on “Green Quilting

  1. norma

    Very interesting post. We all need to think about it.
    Many old quilts use scraps and where necessary piece them together to make the shape. They’re still beautiful..
    I think I’d go for wool wadding because I live in sheep country. They get eaten too. Unfortunately, wool wadding comes from the US with all the shipping miles that entails. Not sure any sort of wadding is produced here. I’m thinking of carding local fleece for my project although I’m daunted by the time I’d take.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I think you did mention it. It still isn’t a product I’ve tried, but perhaps next time I buy batting, that’s the way I’ll go. Thanks for chiming in again!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Cindy. I think it’s like learning how to eat better. It takes a long time and most changes are incremental, but added up they can make a difference.

  2. katechiconi

    Like you, I’ve been working to run down my stash, and am now at the point where I have no pieces of quilting fabric larger than a fat quarter except for projects I’m currently working, where I need a backing, or enough to bind. It feels really good to use it all up, to exercise creativity to make use of what I have rather than simply go and buy something else. I’m also have a heap of fun using my scraps, even the very small ones. Look! Fabric from nothing! Great post to encourage us all to think more about what we’re using.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Kate. I am in no danger of running out of fabric soon! I’d love to have a run of JUST MAKING QUILTS and not doing a bunch of other stuff, but right now that’s not my life. So the pace will continue, using about as much as I bring in on average. That’s okay with me. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Jim R

    Steven Hawking said only about 2 weeks before his death that climate change/global warming was the most profound danger to the future of the human race. I doubt he would suspect quilters as the villains. Your footprints are relatively small.

    Keep on quilting. 🙂

  4. BJ

    Thank you for bringing this to the forefront of our consciousness. I think about it – sometimes fleetingly, recently more seriously. Storage has become my focus. I have 48 ArtBin 12x12x3 plastic project boxes. Every one has a ready-to-sew project in it! Too much plastic. I also have wall space 10′ x 8′ outfitted with shoe & sweater compartmented hangers filled with fabric. Plus another 8 filled large plastic tubs. I put myself on a fabric diet last year and am trying now to make quilts quickly enough to reduce the number of containers as well as the amount of fabric. I’ve been looking into organic fabrics for when I can finally start buying again.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Your commitment to using what you have is admirable. For me, sometimes I look at my relatively modest stash and feel a bit overwhelmed. How many quilts could I make from what is already there? OH SO MANY!!! Thanks, BJ.

  5. Nann

    i enjoyed today’s post, Melanie, and I went back to read the others you linked to. Right now I am feeling very thrifty because I have successfully curtailed fabric purchases in 2018. I know I will fall off the wagon in April when I go to the Chicago quilt festival, but that’s still three and a half weeks away. I know that “thrifty” does not necessarily equate to “green,” but at least it’s less consumption than it might be. I read “Big Cotton” by Stephen Yafa more than ten years ago. It’s an eye-opener, and I don’t think much has changed since the book came out (2004). ..I love batiks! I wonder about the environmental impact of that industry — how strict are Indonesia’s regulations about disposal/recycling of the water, wax, dye used to make batiks? What about worker safety?

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I was feeling quite smug about not buying any fabric this year, until the auction fabric last week. And I need not feel bad about that, I think, as it was pre-purchased. However, I have had purchases this year! My new longarm is just the most extravagant of those. 🙂

      Yes, batiks… they trouble me. I don’t use them a lot but sometimes they seem to be exactly the right thing.

  6. sandradny

    What a thoughtful post. Thank you. I try to upcyle fabrics when I can and I always look for unloved, pre-purchased yardage when I’m garage/estate sailing. I also try to use every bit of fabric for scrappy quilts. I love the idea of sharing infrequently used tools with other quilters. What I’m not good at: resisting the urge to always buy more (just in case). A work in progress, I suppose.

  7. louisedduffy

    And there it is. Ugh. All my efforts at pushing down my worries of how my newly found artistic joy is really having an impact on water, air, soil, ecosystems destruction, climate change….suddenly come to the surface with this post. Thank you for doing the brave work of considering how something that brings such joy can be impacting the health of the one planet we share.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Please consider the trade-offs that exist in all of our activities. If you are putting good into the world at the same time, that is part of the bargain. For me the key is to not buy more than I will use, responsibly get rid of things I don’t use, and generally try to do positive things with my words and actions. Thanks for reading.


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