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Zero Waste Sewing Advice for Beginners + @duckgoesoink's DIY Process

Hello, I’m Hinerangi (@duckgoesoink)! I stopped buying clothes and started wearing a year-round capsule wardrobe a few years ago, after watching a documentary about the inhumane working conditions of the people who make our clothes. I’d initially planned to stop buying for a year, but 7 years later I still only buy technical equipment (sports + motorcycle gear). Every time I see documentaries or reports about the effects of fashion on the environment and humans, my decision renews itself.

Tessellated playsuit pattern by Liz Haywood; Tessellated shirt adapted from the playsuit + Birgitta Helmersson’s jacket pattern.

After 6-10 years of very heavy wear, many of my clothes were in a very sorry state. October last year I started mending and sewing replacement garments, as a way to keep my mind and hands busy from grieving the loss of a dear family member that month. Learning on my own, making only things I need, and trying to cause the least harm to the planet and other humans as I can afford - I started rebuilding my wardrobe with me-made (including shoes and underwear) and me-mended items. I started my Instagram account to rant into the void and keep a visual journal of my progress, but found a very friendly community instead!

This year I discovered zero waste sewing via Instagram. Searching for digestible info and examples of the concept, I came across the work of @zerowastewardrobe (she’s on a mission to create patterns for all the wardrobe basics!) - and an obsession was ignited. I watched all the videos I could find on the concept of zero waste sewing, and searched all the hashtags of patterns mentioned.

I downloaded and machine translated ZWW’s panties pattern, and started buying my first zero waste patterns and books: the ‘Zero Waste Sewing’ book by Liz Haywood, and the #zwwcroppedshirt by Birgitta Helmersson.

Sketches of DIY zero waste dresses and cutting layouts.

Things I've Made

I’m still a beginner, so most of my zero waste garments are based on patterns designed by professional designers. Although I have recently started experimenting with some DIY made-to-measure patterns too. I keep a list of garments I need (and want! No one’s perfect), and update it regularly.

Garments from patterns by Liz Haywood: Tie Front Top (Zero Waste Sewing), Smith Pinafore, buttoned skirt adapted from Wrap Skirt (Zero Waste Sewing).

I’ve found various zero waste patterns for underwear, tops, pants, and skirts, so most of my needs can be accommodated by those patterns, with some adaptations. Usually I have an idea of what I want, but sometimes it evolves based on the fabric I have or can find online. I sketch the adapted/hacked garment, along with notes of changes etc., then scribble on paper to try reorganising the pattern cutting layout to suit my hack. Then I search how to create elements not included in the pattern like button plackets, casings, linings, etc. (via Youtube, sewing blogs, and quite often Liz Haywood’s Zero Waste Sewing book).

Garments from patterns by Birgitta Helmersson: ZW Cropped Shirt, long-sleeved non-cropped ZW Cropped Shirt, lined and cropped ZW Workwear Jacket.

Shorts adapted from the ACT Trousers pattern by Milan AV-JC, T-shirt pattern by ZWW, panties pattern by ZWW.

In my DIY projects, I’ve given myself 1 meter of fabric from my small stash to experiment with and tried to design something that fits it exactly. I’m quite short, so it can be enough for a whole dress if I’m careful! I sketch ideas of finished garments, then choose one and try to deconstruct it into geometric shapes using what I’ve learned from the professional patterns I’ve sewn, and observing clothes I’ve worn over the years.

So far I’ve tried patterns from ZWW, Liz Haywood, Birgitta Helmersson, and Milan AV-JC. I hope to try other designers’ patterns too, such as those by Goldfinch, DECODE, and

DIY experiments: triangle print dress from 1m of knit fabric, burgundy dress from 1m of woven fabric.

Tessellated playsuit pattern by Liz Haywood; Tessellated shirt adapted from the playsuit + Birgitta Helmersson’s jacket pattern.

My DIY Process

1. Imagine: my ideas come from a combination of influences (what I’ve worn over the years, stuff I see on Instagram, how a fabric drapes, things I see in commercial patterns, etc.). I sketch the imagined garment on paper.

2. Deconstruct: I look at the sketch I’ve made to see what elements and shapes it’s made of. I’m not DIYing complex garments, so most of the main components become rectangles, squares, trapezes etc. with the occasional curve.

3. Details: What fabric will give the drape I’m aiming for? For example: crisp linen vs soft double gauze. Which shaping techniques would be most suitable? For example: gathers, darts, elastic, etc.

4. Measure: I use my tape measure on my body to see how wide/long I want a certain part of the garment.

5. Layout: Experiment with layouts in 1/10 scale (15cm for 150cm fabric): I draw ideas in a very small format to be able to iterate quickly. If there are negative spaces still unused, I’ll try and think about where I can use them (pockets, belt loops, facings etc.) or how I can change it to avoid them. I use 1cm seam allowances in most places, and these need to be included in the layout.

6. Ink: When I think I’ve got something workable, I ink in the final layout and measurements and photograph it to keep a reference.

7. Prototype: I make the garment to scale in real fabric. I like to post progress updates in my stories including mishaps, failures and successes. Then I log the final version with all the details in my Instagram grid for future reference. :)

Challenges, Mistakes and Lessons Learnt

Challenges and Mistakes

One big thing that I keep forgetting with zero waste patterns is to fully adapt patterns for my body size and shape. Contrary to standard non-zero waste patterns, there are no size lines to remind me to grade 4 sizes between the bust and the hips, no ‘lengthen/shorten here’ lines to remind me I need to shorten 5cm at the bodice and 5cm more at the skirt. I’ve made tops too long, cut necklines too deep, made skirts too tight around the hips, cut non-mirrored pieces, and various other beginner mishaps. But being stubborn, so far I’ve always managed to hack my way out of my mistakes while keeping the garment minimal or zero waste.

Another thing I find quite tricky as a beginner, is getting everything sorted on the technical side: setting up machine tension for different fabrics (especially on the overlocker), testing thread colours, stitch length, making buttonholes etc. without scraps is hard! You have one chance to get it right. 😄

Lessons Learnt

Read through the whole thing before cutting anything! Zero waste patterns are quite different from standard non-zero waste ones, so it’s harder to rely on intuition and there’s more room for error.

Think about adaptations needed to make something fit (all of them!). Otherwise be ready to unpick, chop, and resew.

Draw a 1/10 scaled version of the cutting layout (for your fabric/adaptations) to make sure everything fits and makes sense. If the designer says to make a paper pattern for something, DO IT! 😄