The lady at the trendy fabric store in Toronto’s garment district had been friendly and helpful up until that point, but now she was exasperated. And why not? I’d been trying to find the right fabric to line the bodice of a dress (a Colette Truffle) and anxiously inquiring about fibre content every two seconds. I’d finally found a smooth weave that felt like cotton but had a slight, suspicious sheen and no fibre content marked on the bolt. Did she think it had anything synthetic in the mix, I asked?
She sighed deeply.
“Probably a little bit? Oh, honey. Live a little.”
Part of me was really annoyed by the whole scenario. After all, if I went to the butcher encountered a pile of unmarked ground meat, I probably wouldn’t buy it. And if I asked “hey is that 100% ground beef, or does it contain some human fingers?” I wouldn’t be satisfied with “Probably a little bit? Live a little!”
But I get it. It’s a huge store with thousands of bolts that get shipped in from who-knows-where. She didn’t know the answer, and no amount of obsessing or complaining would change that.
I was about to leave empty-handed when suddenly a second fabric shop lady appeared. She was much older, much tinier, and she came out of nowhere. I mean NOWHERE. I think she was hiding under the cutting table.
“Wait,” she cried, “I burn for you!”
And before I could work out why this shop assistant was declaring her passion for me she whipped out her lighter and torched the corner of the fabric. Like, she just set it on fire in the middle of the shop like it was no big thing.
Fabric shop lady #1 drifted away to help someone less exhausting while Fabric shop lady #2 stared intently at the glowing edge of of the cloth. Every few seconds she took a deep whiff of the smoke. It was like watching the Oracle of Delphi. After a long, inscrutable moment she snuffed the flame with the palm of her hand and threw the bolt on the table.
“A little something in that cotton,” she declared. “I don’t know what. This is not for you. I get you 100 percent linen, yes?”
I’ll keep this fairly short, as there are already a lot of excellent articles about this topic on the web, and I’d much rather be sewing 🙂 But since microplastic fibers inspired this blog, I thought I should lay out the basics of this huge environmental issue and how it has affected my sewing hobby.
Basically, microplastic fibers are tiny shreds of plastic that enter the water supply every time a piece of synthetic fabric is machine washed. If you want to get a sense of what they look like, take a peek at your sewing machine. The dust that accumulates around your thread spool and inside your machine is made up of teeny fibers that break off from the thread. And if you’re sewing with polyester thread, as most of us do, those fibers are microplastics. Make sense?
The trouble is that these tiny bits of plastic are washed into our water systems every time we do the laundry, where they’re accumulating at an alarming rate. A 2011 study found that of 85% of human-generated waste on shorelines is composed of microplastic fibers. Even more worryingly, the fibers are turning up in the bodies of fish and shellfish all over the world, in oceans and fresh water alike. In the terrifying words of one ecologist, the fibers seem to be “weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract” of fish. Ick. Research on microplastics is still a young field, but scientists’ concerns are growing. Health experts warn that they may even be entering the air we breathe.
As a seamstress, this all got me thinking. At first glance it seems like there’s a simple solution: buy natural fiber clothing. Easy, right? Except that anyone who sews knows there’s more to a garment than just the fabric. Every piece is put together using thread, which is most typically made of 100% polyester. Polyester thread also encases the overlocked seams of most garments to keep them from fraying. Interfacings are typically made of synthetics, and so are zipper tapes and even clothing care labels. In fact, I started to wonder: in the 21st century is it even possible to buy clothing made of 100% natural fibers?
If I was a fashion blogger I might try to find a retailer who could answer that question. But as someone who sews for fun, I became interested in exploring it myself. There’s a reason plastic is everywhere in the modern world – it’s inexpensive and practical. If you take synthetic fibers out of garment construction, what are you left with? This blog is an attempt to answer that question.
The gentleman at Trillium Buttons Inc. asked with some concern if I knew I was buying a spool of silk thread. Apparently people tend to grab it without noticing and are surprised when they’re charged almost $6. He was a bit bemused when I started rattling on about how I’d heard silk was the strongest thread ever. It seems that not everyone is obsessed with the fibre content of their sewing thread.
What did I use it for? Well, I’ve signed up for an adult beginner ballet class. I used the thread to sew the elastics into my new dance shoes. A full week in advance. The Mermaid Seamstress is not just an enthusiastic nerd about sewing, she’s an enthusiastic nerd about EVERYTHING.
The silk was undistinguishable from polyester on the spool. I’m glad Gutermann colour-codes their fibers (silk is on blue spools), or I’d be lost. It felt very different to my fingers, though. Lovely and smooth. I’ve had a slight issue with cotton thread working its way out of the smallest guide on my machine, the one closest to the needle. Maybe because it’s a bit bouncier than synthetic? In any case, the silk didn’t have this issue, and played beautifully with my machine. It might be a good thing that it comes in a limited range of colours. Otherwise I’d be tempted to use it for every project.
I used this excellent tutorial from The Adult Beginner (I LOVE this blog) to sew the elastics in correctly. I think they look pretty good! Will the silk thread hold up to the dance stylings of a decidedly not-svelte beginner? We’ll see.
Speaking of not-so-sylph-like ballerinas, has anyone else seen Big Ballet?
Pattern Review: This came about because my sister asked me to make her a green cape. Her requirements were that it had to have a hood and it couldn’t be too long. Oh, and it had to be green, her favourite colour. That part was non-negotiable. I enthusiastically agreed, bought a pattern and some fabric, and then didn’t do anything for more than two years. Oops. What can I say? Sewing is a beloved hobby, but when my life gets busy it’s the first thing to go.
Anyway, flash forward two years and I finally got around to sewing up the cape. I sewed view D, and my version basically looks exactly like the drawing on the pattern envelope, which is also green. There’s actually something very satisfying about that. Overall this is a great pattern. It sews up easily and quickly and is really flattering. I especially like the subtle shaping around the shoulders.
I did have a bit of confusion regarding the facing strip that runs along opening. The tissue pattern piece clearly instructs the sewer to cut two of them. However, the directions only tell you to insert the left one. Very curious. I read the instructions over and over, trying to figure out what I was missing. In the end I decided two faced edges would be bulky, so I went with the directions and only inserted one. Was I right to do that, people who know about making coats? I have no idea.
This view of the pattern also calls for a short line of topstitching on each side, going all the way through both the font and back of the garment. The idea is to create two sort-of sleeves. I skipped this step because I liked the look of the free hanging cape better.
The best part of this project is that I was able to sew a mini-cape for my 1 year old niece from the scraps! See, if I’d made the cape back when I said I would, there would be no adorable little person to dress like a tiny hobbit! The Mermaid Seamstress is actually a genius, see? SEE?
The baby cape pattern is just a circle with a radius roughly the length of her neck-to-elbow measurement. I cut it out of the scraps in six wedges (or actually five, because the centre back was cut on the fold). The hood piece was hand drawn based on the shape of the adult hood, but scaled down to fit the neck of the baby cape. It sort of worked, except that I had to divide each hood pattern piece into two parts in order to fit them on my scrap pieces. The resulting hood is a bit more peaked than the adult hood, but it fits okay. The pattern pieces were also cut off grain because I was trying to squeeze them onto scraps, so the whole thing has a tendency to hang in a wonky way, but it’s still very cute!
This is the first project I’ve tried to sew with no plastic microfibres and it went pretty well! The thick 100 percent wool coating was a dream to sew. Stitches just sink into this stuff and disappear! I worried that the silk habotai would be a nightmare, but in the end I didn’t mind it. Although it’s slipper and floaty I actually found it easier to handle than synthetic linings that I’ve worked with in the past. It also adds a decent amount of warmth to the capes, despite its thinness. Silk! Who knew?
I’ve read that cotton thread can be a beast, especially if you’re using older thread. Turns out that biodegradability that’s good for oceans also means that organic threads have a shelf life. This thread was brand new Gutermann 100% cotton, however, and worked fine. I really didn’t notice a difference from sewing with polyester. For interfacing I used a heavy cotton canvas fabric that was in my stash. I treated it just like sew-in interfacing and it worked fine. It was actually kind of nice not to have to whip out the iron and try to remember which side of the interfacing faces down and then accidentally melting it onto my ironing board. Not that I’ve done that multiple times or anything…
I bought these metal buttons at Trillium Buttons Inc., which has a huge range of all-metal buttons. I was especially delighted to
discover that they also had this design at a smaller size, which meant the adult and baby capes could have perfectly matched buttons. YES!
The total cost for all materials came to about $150 CDN. This is certainly more than I’d pay if I’d used, say, a synthetic fleece blend and poly lining. But it’s a LOT less than I’d pay if I bought a 100% wool cape in a store, let alone two. And I’m not sure I’d be able to find a silk lining in any commercial garment. So I guess sewing with biodegradable materials is both more expensive and cheaper, depending on how you look at it.
Off to a good start! First ocean-friendly garment and first blog post are done. Yay!