Picture yourself rolling out dough for some cute sugar cookies. You arrange the cookie cutters around to try to jigsaw as many of them in as you can. After pressing them and then carefully laying them on the baking sheet, you gather all the "scraps" to be pressed and rolled, and then you repeat the process.
This is very similar to how we cut fabric to make clothing. The fabric is rolled out on the table (sometimes in layers), and paper pattern pieces (kind of like blueprints) are laid on top, traced and cut. Just like with your cookie cutters, they're arranged to maximize efficiency. Factors like the weave of the fabric are taken into account; the vertical grainline (warp) of the fabric usually has to run parallel to gravity when it's sewn into a garment and worn.
The key difference from cookies is that the leftover scraps of fabric can't be reused. They can be cut into progressively smaller pieces (think collars, cuffs and pocket linings), but after that, they're destined for the trash can. Depending on the "cutting efficiency" of a given garment, as much as 30% of the fabric can end up as scraps.
Why can't they be recycled? Unlike cardboard or aluminum, fabric has a huge variety of raw material component variety. It could be from a plant, an animal, or a man-made substance - or a blend of each. Synthetic materials like polyester could be melted down and turned into a new plastic good, but they all need to be the same "type" of plastic - almost impossible to tell unless you know which mill made the original fabric.
For this reason, textile recycling has lagged behind other sectors. There are certainly innovative solutions out there, but they have yet to become mainstream or available to small businesses like us. As a person who feels guilty every time I throw anything in the garbage, it weighed on my conscience to be throwing out so much fabric. I designed our styles with better and better cutting efficiency in mind, but it was impossible to totally eliminate our manufacturing waste.
When I heard about Fabcycle and Irena, the lovely lady who runs it, I was very excited. Irena runs a recycling service for manufacturers and designers. We keep every single scrap piece of textile in a bin (even loose thread!), and she picks it up, weighs it, sorts it, and brings it to a factory that makes carpet underlays. You know, the foamy multi-coloured mat that goes under your wall-to-wall carpet! Fibre content doesn't matter as it all gets "munched together" anyways. When possible, the scraps also get distributed for free to artists and crafters who use them for a plethora of creative projects.
Even though this is a paid service, it's worth every penny in terms of environmental benefit. Since April, we've diverted a whopping 250 pounds of textile waste from the landfill. Our scraps get a second life, one that is practical and useful. I still am neurotic about avoiding throwing out fabric, but it's amazing to now throw a handful of scraps into a recycling bin and know that it will be used to make someone's house a little cozier or their art a little brighter.
So next time you wear your favourite S&S piece, rest easy knowing that it generated zero waste. That, lovelies, is true beautiful design.