September 3, 2020

What is pre-consumer textile waste?

We all know that there is a textile waste problem. Most of the time the topic revolves around fast fashion and the disposal of clothes at the end of their life. But there is already a problem a few steps back in the process. Pre-consumer waste is all the waste materials that are created in the supply chain during manufacturing of a product. In this article, we will briefly explain how and why this happens.

Bodies aren't square, but fabric is.

To make explaining the concept of pre-consumer waste a little bit easier, we will be focusing on a classic T-shirt, but this problem does not only apply to basically all other garments, but pretty much all other industries. There is pre-consumer waste in home textiles, electronics, food production and many more. Materials come in a variety of shapes and sizes and finished products do as well - to get from one to the other usually involves many steps and many scraps.

But back to the T-shirt. A standard T-shirt is made from at least 4 parts. A front and back (which are almost the same, except for the neckline and sometimes the armhole curve) and the two sleeves. Since the human body is quite a complex shape, made up of a lot of round and curved parts, the previosly flat fabric has to be cut and assembled so that it creates a 3D-shape that can fit a wide range of similar but different bodies. This is why for example the armhole and top of the sleeve, as you can see above, have these odd curves, that when assembled together will go around our shoulders.

Most of our clothes that we wear these days are sewn together from differnt types of fabric. Very few are knitted from scratch. The advantage of knitting is that each piece of a garment can already be made exactly as the weird shape it needs to be, by including a variety of increases or decreases in the pattern. In this process, there is little to no waste, as none of the pieces have to be cut out, but it is often slower and therefore more costly to produce a garment this way. We have explained a little bit more about how this exactly works in our blog post about turning clothes into yarn.

The cheaper and faster way to produce a garment is therefore to take a ready-made roll of fabric, that usually comes in a very long rectangular shape and cut out the pieces needed. Usually the fabric has a standard width of 140cm or 150cm, based on the widths of the industrial knitting or weaving machines it is made by. Fabric is so cheap nowadays, exactly because it is machine-made (often from cheap materials) and producing scraps in the making process of a piece of clothing does not cost the manufacturer much.

As you can see above, the pattern pieces for a standard T-shirt do not fit that well onto the rectangular fabric. There are estimations, that even with a very optimised arrangement for all the pattern pieces, still about 10% of the fabric is wasted, in many cases more. Of course there are also a lot of technical properties of fabric, that pre-determine how efficiently it can be used. Depending on the direction of stretch or the orientation of a pattern, some pieces may have to be cut very inneficiently so that they work in the design and fit of the final garment.

If you open your closet and look at the clothes you have at home, you will find odd shapes and curves on almost every single one of them. So for probably almost every single item of clothing you own, some extra fabric had to be wasted, just so it can be the shape it is. If the amount of pre-consumer waste is at 10% in manufacturing, then there should or could have been 1 more garment for every 9 you own, if the fabric was used fully. If it is at 20%, there should have been one more for every 4 you own. That's a lot, especially considering, how many resources have already gone into making a roll of fabric up until this point. If it is natural, cotton, hemp or flax has had to be farmed and harvested, cleaned, dyed, spun into yarn and then made into fabric. If it is synthetic, fossil fuels have had to be extracted, chemically processed, dyed, spun into yarn and made into fabric. All of this, just to throw up to a third of it away?

And next to the cutting waste, sometimes whole, untouched rolls of fabric are wasted in the supply chain. These fabrics are what is called deadstock. It happens, when a fashion brand over-orders fabric, just to make sure they have enough to manufacture the number of for example T-shirts they need. At the end, when the order is fulfilled by the manufacturer, the extra rolls of fabric are often disposed, especially when there is a branded print on it. The companies of course want to avoid for those fabrics to be used in counterfeits or otherwise to be used in a way that could harm the brand image. Although personally I think what harms the brand image most, is to see all those deadstock fabrics piled up in a landfills.

Luckily there are many ways that uni-colored or non-branded deadstock fabrics are made available for other, smaller brands to use for their products or even for private use, through different reselling platforms or brick and mortar stores around the world. The cutting waste problem however, is a little bit trickier to solve for many reasons. The odd shape for one is definitely a factor, but also the fact that manufacturers don't care and don't have the time or resources to store those scraps and deal with them. Many of them are so small that it is hard to imagine how anyone could make anything useful with them.

What is the solution?

The best way to solve the cutting waste problem, is to simply not make any in the fist place. Zero-waste patternmaking is a technique, where the full width of a piece of fabric is used, without creating any leftovers. Usually those patterns are contained in a rectangular shape, so that they can be repeated over and over again on a roll of fabric, without leaving any weird shape pieces.

The example above is the simplest zero-waste pattern for a T-shirt. The front and back are simple rectangles and the neckline is basically created by leaving a hole when sewing the two parts together at the shoulders. The sleeves are rectangles as well, without the typical arm holes. This of course results in a much boxier shirt with a drop shoulder and loose fit. (The width of the fabric also somewhat predetermines sizing, which is problematic)

But of course it does not have to be this simple. Some clever constructing and arranging can result in amazing zero-waste garments, that can be quite complex. Neckholes can be used as pockets and even just some shirring, drawstrings and ruffles can create interesting shapes from simple rectangles. We have compiled a little inspirational board over on our pinterest, so that you can get a better idea what these patterns may look like.

The catch is, that these garments are a lot more complex and time consuming to design and of course a fast fashion brand that is releasing 50 collections per year does not have time for this. It takes a lot to figure out all these patterns for different sizes and different types of fabrics with different properties and still produce a garment at the end that is wearable by a large number of people. However, if you are someone who is regularly sewing their own clothes, I'd highly recommend to dive a bit deeper into this technique and try it out!

Celebrating weird shapes

Body positivity has taught us to celebrate bodies in all sizes and shapes. I think it is time that we apply the same things to scraps. If we can't make all clothing patterns zero waste (which is unrealistic), we have to figure out a way to re-value the leftovers, so that manufacturers start caring, start keeping them and start finding new ways and new partners to turn them into something useful.

For us at Wasteless Wonders, the weird shapes and odd sizes of pre-consumer scraps are beautiful and inspiring. They can be used in so many ways, no matter how small they are. If multiple of the same garments are made, usually there is also a pile of same size and shape scraps that can form interesting and unexpected patterns. Expecially when a fabric is made ethically from high quality materials, not a square centimeter of it should go to waste, to value the work of the farmers and workers involved in the dyeing and spinning of the yarn and the production of the fabric.

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