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Jan 6, 2020

The Environmental Impact of Home Sewing: Should We Care?


Readers, hardly a day goes by when we're not reminded in the media about the environmental crisis.

Global warming is not something that might happen--it's here, and we're experiencing its impact (some of us more intensely than others) in the form of droughts, fires, floods, storms, and environmental degradation.

According to the German non-profit SustainYourStyle.org, the fashion industry is the second most-polluting in the world.  The statistics are terrifying.  In an effort to keep up with fashion trends, consumers (i.e. us) are destroying the ecosystems we, and the other living creatures, depend on to stay alive.

It's easy to think of recycling as a panacea but recyling is not going to save us, even though it feels good and it does raise consciousness, which certainly matters.  Global warming is an issue that must be addressed at a governmental level.  For example, the American government could stop subsidizing the oil industry.  Sadly, this is not happening.  We are largely left to our own devices to make whatever positive impact we can.

Which brings me to the subject of home sewing.  Is sewing one's own clothes "better" for the environment than shopping for ready-to-wear clothes in a store?  The best answer I can come up with is potentially.  A lot depends on circumstances.

My belief, based purely on the people I've met over the years through sewing, is that we who sew our own clothes are more aware of the environmental impact of the fashion industry, particularly the costs incurred by fast fashion.  While not everyone who sews is motivated by environmental concerns, I think most of us can agree with the following:
  • By sewing your own clothes, you're not contributing to the exploitation of labor in low-wage countries.   
  • Sewing your own clothes makes you more appreciative of what you own. You know how long it took to sew every item and there's a story behind every one: the pattern you chose, the fabric you purchased, the effort involved, etc.  You don't take your clothing for granted.
  • Since sewing your own clothes means being able to create what you need when you need it, it is potentially less wasteful.  Shopping sprees are largely a thing of the past (at least for clothing, fabric however....).
And yet there are certainly costs incurred.  We all know that sewing requires acquiring a lot stuff: sewing machines, patterns, notions, fabric, etc.  And a lot of these things are also going to be created by that same cheap labor, in countries where environmental laws are weak. And even here in the USA, the current administration is working to weaken the environmental laws we already have.

There are a few things we can do to lessen the impact however.  Some are easier than others.
  • Whenever possible we can sew from fabric we find second-hand (sheets!), or use fabric from garments we're repurposing.
  • We can purchase second-hand sewing machines and, when available, use vintage notions.
  • We can support organizations like FabScrap that sell fabric which otherwise would have ended up as waste (top photo is from their NYC store).
  • Finally we can sew more selectively.  Avoid the dress-a-day competitive sewing syndrome (which, thankfully, seems less of a thing than it was a decade ago).  Many bloggers I follow are saying that they are sewing less quantity and more quality.

I was often able to find vintage sewing supplies and lots of fabric at the Chelsea Flea Market.

To be clear, I don't do all of these things, not nearly.  I've thrown away scrap fabric rather than tried to track down an organization that might have wanted it (something I have done in the past but which takes more time and effort).  I don't make rag rugs or stuff pillows with my fabric scraps.  I sew things solely for pleasure, some of which, so far, have gotten little wear.

I believe there are more effective ways to limit one's carbon footprint than sewing one less dress or shirt, including:
  • Eating less meat and fish.
  • Reducing the amount of driving you do.
  • Conserving electricity when possible. 
  • Buying less stuff and purchasing more things second-hand.
  • Avoiding buying things that come with excessive packaging.
In closing, a few questions:

1) Is the environmental impact of sewing something you think about when you choose your projects or is it totally not on your radar at all (no judgments if it isn't)?

2) Do the joys of sewing (which is, after all, largely a niche hobby in 2020) outweigh the costs in terms of the potential environmental impact of whatever it is you're sewing?

3) Anything you do specifically to reduce your own carbon footprint that might be applicable and/or inspiring to others?

Jump in!

I won't lie: I ordered the fabric for this shirt from China.  Then again, if I'd found it in the garment district it still might have been manufactured in China and shipped to New York City.

39 comments:

  1. The past few years I've really started thinking about sustainability in sewing and the ethical ramifications of the practice. Last year I bought less than 15 pieces of fabric and continue to try to sew my stash or what's been gifted to me from other people's stash. Being more thoughtful about what I make and choosing patterns with details I can't find in my price range or size helps make my sewing practice more intentional. Sewing is amazing, it's a mood lifter, and it's fun but I think being intentional is key. Other small things I'm trying to do include trying to find a composting service for food scraps (I rent and don't have a place to use compost) and am trying to purchase less plastic.

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  2. I think about this so much now, especially given what we are witnessing in Australia — where so many creative and inspirational members of the online sewing community live. I have only done one fabric shopping spree in the last year (Fabric Mart in PA). I feel guilty about it because my current job doesn’t leave me much sewing time. So I am just growing my stash which is plenty big enough (times 5). I wish we could know more about where and how the fabric we buy was created. And while I am committed to conscientious shopping and living, I know the only way to make the important Big changes needed is to elect people who are committed to legislative action on this. I hope we can make this happen. We are really leaving a degraded world for the next generation and not enough people my age and older take that to heart in their actions and their politics.

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  3. Great subject Peter, thanks for bringing this up. Yes, for the last year or so, mostly for financial reasons, I have scaled back on purchasing fabric, patterns and notions. What fabric I did buy was from secondhand/thrift shops in the form of clothes, sheets, and older fabric. Just before Christmas I picked up a boucle wool suit made in Paris for $10. It's so beautifully made that I am reluctant to deconstruct it at all, but it certainly doesn't fit me. So I may try posting it on our local Free Facebook site first. From that site I also found a woman looking for sewing supplies and after a couple of pm's we met at a coffee shop in town. I had been given sewing supplies from a couple of deceased friends and friends of friends since so few people sew these days. It was all too much but I would have hated to see them thrown away. The secondhand shops I peruse both support local charities - one for the hospital, and one for hospice. If I do purchase anything ready-made for myself or grandchildren, it now comes from one of those stores. Also working on sewing my stash creatively. For my friends for Christmas this year, I made 47 tissue package covers from my fabric scraps. A lot of the those scraps were leftover from the aprons I made them 2 years ago, so that really helped reduce my stash. They all expect something homemade from me whether it be in fabric or wood. Since I was brought up in a household with the "make do" ethic it's fun discover others are now thinking the same way. Lots of wake-up calls in the world these days for everyone.

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  4. Peter the best thing we can do apart from lobbying our local members of parliament about various environmental issues to consume less in general. Back in the days when I was blogging I wrote a piece about how we should stop buying/stashing/hoarding fabric so greedily and I was howled down by some bloggers. How dare I tell them that! I am glad attitudes like that are changing. My aim this year is not to buy ANYTHING sewing related unless I run out of something specific to finish a project. Believe me I am not likely to run out of fabric, notions or patterns soon. I am tweaking the things I seldom wear to give them new life. Thanks for bringing the issue up. I live on the edge Sydney and have spent the last two months in a smoke haze, watching out for relatives & praying for rain. It does bring home what really matters. Valerie.

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  5. The "live lightly/simply" mantra of my back-to-the-land-movement younger years has stuck with me through the decades, but I'm as susceptible to a fab fabric as the next person. I even pre-ordered some quilting cotton last year that still won't be out for a few more months. Yet my most satisfying makes recently have been the cowl-neck shell I made in 2019 from a shawl that sat in my closet for years, and the quilt I made from my mother's clothes after she passed away in 2018. (I'm determined to use all the old thread I inherited from Mom, despite warnings about its viability. So far, so good.) Part of me wants to preach that we should all try to live more simply and with more awareness in all areas of life. But everybody has to travel a path that fits the needs of their life. As sewing enthusiasts, though, I think we have a responsibility to be aware of the waste in the industry and to do what we can to help turn the tide. I've been shocked at what I've learned about the enormity of the problem. I'm trying to find a balance between buying "rescued" fabric to keep it out of the landfill, reconstructing existing clothing, and allowing the occasional fabric splurge.

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  6. I want to thank you for the link to FabScraps. I know it wasn't the intent of the article, but quality apparel fabrics at affordable prices are hard to come by when your only brick and mortar option is Jo-Ann. I, like most of us, have a sizable stash with plans and dreams abounding and not enough time to accomplish it all. I honestly never thought of sewing as having a negative environmental impact. I learned to sew at a young age and continued as much for the love of it as for the cost savings it used to afford. Now days I sew for the art and for the love of it as prices have soared and quality and local selection have dwindled. It's a shame that corporations need the government to force them to behave responsibly. I think many of us are trying to live as responsibly as we can, and constantly being reminded that it isn't enough when the truth is that no matter how much those of us at the bottom do it can't fix the problem. But hopefully we are doing it because it's right, not because we are being shamed into thinking it's all our fault.

    On a side note, Peter you have been such an inspiration to me. I want to thank you for helping me break out of my ever so practical side and allowing myself to explore my talents as a form of art expression. I have learned so much from your blog. Thank you for being the beautiful person that you are and sharing yourself with the world.

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  7. Most thought provoking. Making and looking after clothes from robust materials in a style which one can continue to wear for many years seems more important to me in reducing waste than worrying too much about minimising scraps. This is probably easier for middle aged men like me who are not very swayed by fashion trends. A well constructed jacket in a robust tweed, for example, can last decades even with regular use. The one I made a couple of years ago (from a pattern I drafted from a book published in 1927) replaced one I had been wearing for over twenty years. In spite of its archaic style I received a nice compliment recently from a passing youth, who shouted out "Hot tweeds, bro!".

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  8. Great post. Some years ago I used feel a little bit guilty about buying new fabric (for trying out specific patterns) as I generally try to resew/upcycle from thrift shops.
    I do wish that sewing was taught more in schools etc as its such a life skill, even if someone does not want to make their own, they can at least understand fabric and mending better. A lot of people buy such badly made and bad quality clothing as they dont know any more what good quality is, and lack the skills and knowledge to assess it

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  9. As an Australian, living in the west of Victoria whilst the east of the state burns and we only have thick smoke to contend with, I thank you for your thoughts. Global warming and climate change are here now! I try to reuse fabric I source from Op shop clothes, buy local, fresh food where possible using my self made netting bags, limit car use, purchase less and leave packaging in the shop where ever possible. However I cannot do much about the 'climate change denier' government we have at present! Nope I didn't vote for them! I am also trying to buy no new clothing this year - a challenge but hopefully I can meet it.

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  10. Ooh, you hit a delicate spot, mister. I looooove to buy fabric, especially when I'm in a foreign city. Although my stash is as least big enough to provide cloths for the rest of my life, and I therefor forbade myself to buy more fabric in 2019, I collected more fabric last year in Vienna and Londen, and in the Dutch city of Eindhoven, which happens to have the best hidden fabric shack in the country. But there is something I try to do in favor of the environment, and that is to buy LESS POLYESTER. Almost all of my fabric stash is made of natural fibers that are biodegradable. Yes, I know that the production of cotton is also very polluting, so I buy eco-friendly cotton, if possible. Better quality fabrics, better quality sewing.
    Thanks for your blog. I wish I could join you next MPB day, but flying to New York City is not good for the environment ;-)
    Barkcloth in Amsterdam, the Netherlands

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  11. I confess, never gave thought to the environment with this hobby. It arose from need since RTW just does not fit or it comes in colors I hate. I will say what I have sewn I wear to rags. I have a few things that are 20 yrs. old so maybe that helps a bit. I would like to sew more things with natural fibers, but budget gets in way so it has to be sale.

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    1. Heh, reading this while wearing my favorite long-sleeved T-shirt, which I made either before I had kids or while they were still small (they're in their 30s now). I too have worn some clothes to the point of beyond-repair, then used the still-intact sections in quilts (I buy cotton clothes, or fabric for clothes, for this very reason).

      One sure way to break me of any desire to shop, for ANYTHING, is to visit a GoodWill/Salvation Army/Op Shop or two (which I did this morning in search of a typewriter). It's quite depressing to me how much overage our society churns out.

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  12. This was a big motivation for me to organize a destash in my city. I had so many fabrics that were gifted or I bought before I knew what I liked to sew, or in a prior life of sewing. We had 60 people show up to swap and were able to donate the extra to ASG for their charity sale. I used to sew at the rate of shopping, and I just don't anymore. I need less, want less and prefer a higher quality.

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    1. I'd love to hear how you organized that, Renee. Was it free or did people have to pay to participate? Very inspiring!

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  13. Happy New Year, Peter! Love this post. Lots of food for thought. To answer your queries:
    1. Yes, the environmental impact is definitely something I think about. That's why I have loads of scraps that are stuffed in bags. Like you, I don't use them for pillows or rugs. I am, however, playing with the idea of making pillows for the humane society in my area.

    2. Does the joy of sewing outweigh the environmental cost? Hmmm. Well, I'd have to say yes, but that's because I sew. I really try to be mindful of the impact of the things I consume and dispose of overall, not just where sewing is concerned. I do recycle everything that I can, and reuse literally until things are worn out.

    3. Anything special I do? Hmmm. Again, I'm considering making pillows out of fabrics from the stash and using scraps to stuff them. Also, donating scraps to the local elementary school for art projects may be something I'll look into.

    One other thing I try to do is use up all the fabric I have when working on a particular project. That may mean making another garment so that the project turns from say, a jacket to jacket and skirt. I really like it when most all the yardage for a given project is used up.

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  14. You can cut or tear many of your scraps into rag yarn, and donate it/use it to make household goods like mats and rugs and baskets. Quilters have long used scraps to create usable yardage.

    Sadly for me, I use most of my rag-yarn baskets to hold even more scraps that "I'll do something with, one day."

    I used to sew most of my clothing, now I thrift most of it -- better quality fabric than I could find, much less afford -- but I do a good bit of alteration and re-fashioning.

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  15. I have donated fabric scraps in the past here:
    https://www.facebook.com/IndianaDOC/posts/fabric-donations-neededidoc-wabash-valley-correctional-facility-is-seeking-fabri/2652079111503951/

    If you research them a little, you'll see that they do amazing work, and have no access to "shopping for fabric". Thank you.

    M in the Midwest

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  16. Love this post, Peter. I always say that by sewing just one garment, you'll never look at $9.99 Old Navy pants or shirts the same way again. As you gain experience, you'll come to appreciate good construction, fit, and fabrics. And the self-sufficiency and independence you gain from knowing you can sew your own clothes is invaluable. It's not just sustainable, it's subversive! Thanks for this post.

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  17. Another good use for our sewing skills is to mend clothing so it lasts longer, both for ourselves and for others. I have started a small business where I show up to the local Farmers Market and do mending both there and taken home to my sewing room for the week- Many are the people who are nearly in tears when they see that their favorite shirt can last a few more years....

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  18. I definitely think about sustainability in my sewing. I'm trying to work from stash, though I do occasionally purchase new (usually cotton lycra). I prefer to work with natural fibres which will at least break down over time and not cause the same microfibre problems as polyester does. I tend to cut as economically as I can and larger leftovers go in a pile in my studio for use as accents or to eke out other fabrics if I don't have quite enough of something. I do have some poly in my stash and am still trying to work out whether it's best to sew it up or rehome it.

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  19. I buy most of my fabric at charity shops, usually enough for a shirt and if not, then I use a contrast to make up the shortfall. I use sheets as well.
    I also scour charity shops for vintage haberdashery although it's becoming rarer now because the new age grannies don't sew any more - no more biscuit tins full of magical buttons or ancient threads on wooden reels.
    As for clothes, I seldom buy anything new but once again, hit the op shops (charity shops) for almost everything. I love the clothes I make; mainly shirts which I can never find ready-made because of my height, I even have one I made in the 1980s which I wear regularly (quality sewing you see...joke).
    Regards, Will.

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  20. Another contributor from the burning state of Victoria in Australia. Iam concerned about this and do the following
    We have 16 solar panels on the roof and feed this into the grid as well as avoid huge power bills . This has become economically a very sensible thing to d as well as Important
    I compost all our food waste
    I tend to buy natural fiber fabrics which I can actually also compost . Last year I used lost of old sheets and fabric to mulch some garden beds .It worked really well and the fiber disappeared into the ground over 12 months.
    i have some bags that I take with me when I but veges etc so I am not using bags to put things in .
    I need to improve though thats for sure .
    I need to not use my car when ever I can avoid it even though is it is small 4 cylinder car and very fuel efficient.
    I need to buy fabric more accurately so that I can avoid waste
    i need to be much more picky about buying items with packaging .
    I need to get out on the streets and protest our stupid indolent entitled government .

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  21. FabScrap will recycle your scraps for you for $1.50 a pound; scroll down to the "not with a brand but want to recycle with us" section:
    https://fabscrap.org/recycle

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  22. Thank you for helping me not feel guilty for emptying the wastebasket after each sewing session. It’s either contribute to drowning in scrap textiles or drown in my own clutter.

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  23. Thank You Peter and all for working to save our planet and us. Even some of the top fashion names are doing as suggested here. Eileen Fisher, Stella McCartney, some others, and Patagonia are doing it. Check out "Fashion Revolution" website. Seems like you all are doing almost all that we can do. I could purchase some new clothing, but now only buy things like underwear or shoes new and everything else is sourced at thrift or resale shops. All great ideas here and Great efforts. Thank you.

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  24. Living in the comments section, I revel when Peter puts forth a topic and the village green gets over run.

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    Replies
    1. Heck, we could probably make a quilt top from our scraps that would completely cover the village green.

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  25. I don't make muslins as I think it is a sad waste. I alter a pattern carefully and leave wide seam allowances. Sometimes I also tissue fit. If the end result is not to my liking, I redo or donate. I donate excess fabric to a sewing teacher who offers them to her students. But regardless of my efforts, I still worry about the environment. My problem is excess. I don't need everything I sew but I like options. Used to have much less when I was young and was fine. What happened between then and now is very sad. I wish I were a clothing minimalist but I enjoy creating and variety too much. In 2020, I plan to cut back more in other ways, electricity and water use, plastic, gas, food wastage. Also will be contributing more to environmental organizations. Greta Thunberg is a half century younger than me but is a hero that I admire.

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  26. Great article! My favourite spot to donate fabric and my fabric scraps is my local high school. The home economics department is always looking for free materials for the students to work with. They also love having home sewists come into the class to show off their sewing projects and discuss what their hobby means to them with the students.

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  27. I live in SoCal and solar panels on my roof generate all the electricity I need with extra going into the grid. I grow veg to eat and can. When i feel my fabric stash is out of control I find a charity with a need for garments and sew it up. I still shop too much, receive too much plastic packaging, etc, but am generating less solid waste every year. Hoping for a scientific OR magical answer to plastic pollution as well as every other kind. I didn't buy an electric or hybrid veh because i didn't want to put another steel hulk in the scrap pile and my annual mileage is low/mpg is good. Thanks for the reminders.

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  28. Some of my sewing, I have to do. My handicapped daughter needs pants that have room for a diaper. Not in regular children clothes. For her tops I buy small women's at Goodwill that look like they have shrunk. I use scraps to make the knee patches for her pants when she wears them out crawling. Also I make a lot of little bags for 'wrapping' Christmas gifts. I make my own clothes so I don't have to buy and throw away things for not fitting or not lasting. Especially those awful slips in awful material. I use a lot of used and worn sheets. Also made a lot of bibs for my daughter as she has outgrown baby sized bibs. they work really well made from flannel sheets. It is the plastic and polyester that has made so much pollution. They wrap a lot of items we buy in three layers of plastic in order to hang them to display. Why can't we go back to returnable glass bottles. It wasn't the end of the world. I saw that they can make road out of the plastic we throw away. But we still need to stop producing it. It is bloody useless!!!!

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  29. There is also all that bubble wrap they put in our packages. It would be nice if we could give it back to our local post office and have Amazon and other companies come and pick it up for reuse. Sending it to recyclers doesn't seem to help much.

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  30. Bubble wrap and other soft plastics must be recycled separate from hard plastics. They clog recycling equipment.

    I bag my soft plastics in a large garbage bag, seal, label it soft plastics and put in recycling that way the soft plastics can be easily removed from the rest of the recycling at the recycling center.

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  31. I have been fortunate to find a group of quilters in my town that make quilts for the VA hospital vets. They will take all my scrap (usually cotton) fabrics and use pieces as small as 2x2". They also accept all the smaller little pieces to stuff dog beds for veteran's service animals. I keep a basket near my sewing machine to collect the bits. I realize this doesn't actually solve the abundant textile manufacturing issue and just moves the problem to another location, however I'm happy to help their quilt group and it does benefit others in need.
    I can't believe I'm going to actually say this online, but I believe a good way to help your health and the environment is to eat no/less meat and dairy. Sorry to get preachy there. Happy New Year!

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  32. I would love it if someone would make a post describing how to make pillows from sewing scraps. I made a couple of small pillows from the stuff they put in quilts. I rolled it up and sewed it in the shape I wanted and then used old sheets to make the cover.

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  33. Great post. I'm from Victoria , Australia too.
    Sewing wise most of my fabrics are unwanted donations or from the op shop. I reuse my patterns over and over and reuse buttons and zips all the time. I try to just sew what I need .
    Right now I'm wearing a cotton shirt I sewed in 2001 and I still love it. ( cotton that old that has been washed lots of times feel incredibly soft ).
    occassionally I buy new fabric from a shop and I do feel a bit guilty about that.
    The joys of sewing do outweigh any environmental impact. I limit my travel as much as possible plus our lifestyle is a low carbon output.
    We have transitioned to all electric cars, have a large solar system and a battery storage so we are almost off the power grid . We live in an energy efficient home with no air conditioner and our only heating is a wood heater which also does our hot water over winter.
    We grow quite a portion of veges and fruit and have chickens supplying our eggs are year round. We love giving away excess to our family and friends. We have our own water supply ( sadly tainted by the fires so it smells and tastes a bit smoky but not dangerous for our health )
    The people commenting here are all from on the same wave length so I hope many others reading this ( well everyone really ) will have a good think about this and reduce their impacts on our ailing planet.

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  34. I am sure this will be controversial, but what makes me cringe is the oft quoted "rule" to "change your sewing machine needle before you start each new project". Take out the current one and throw it in the garbage- without even checking its sharpness.

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    1. I agree: totally unnecessary unless your starting a project made with extremely precious fabric.

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  35. In Sydney we have the Sewing Basket, a charity run donated craft materials store. It’s amazing! https://achieveaustralia.org.au/the-sewing-basket/
    A great place to buy second hand, fabric, patterns and notions. Even better, your money supports a charity.

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