Wider Lens

Wider Lens

I’ve heard this said about everything from organic bread flour to organic fabric: “I don’t notice a difference, but you can spend the extra money if you want.”

The problem with this assessment of perceived difference is that it ignores what, to me, should be the primary motivation for buying organic foodstuffs, craft supplies and so on: the environmental impact of conventional methods.

Cloud9 bundle
Cloud9 bundle based on the color palette of the Sewcial Network logo. Stay tuned for an original pattern created using this bundle!

I have a bundle of cotton from Cloud9 (an organic fabric supplier) sitting on my desk right now. It was sent to me as part of a project associated with the Sewcial Network to which I belong. Yes, the fabric is soft, but not particularly softer than the non-organic cotton I have in my stash. Yes, the colors are gorgeous and rich, but not more gorgeous or rich than other high-quality solids I’ve seen. It isn’t ironing itself or levitating… so why bother with it?

Focusing on immediate, tangible benefits prevents people from seeing the full picture. The cotton on my desk is from plants that were not sprayed, soaked or steeped in dozens of the agricultural industry’s harshest chemicals. They were not planted in soil doused in synthetic fertilizers and laced with heavy metals. The entire process, from seed to fabric, was closely monitored and controlled at every stage. Since the fabric has the GOTS certification, the consumer can be sure that this bundle of fabric has had as little impact as possible on the ecosystems and people it has encountered.

That’s the value—not that it’s softer, more vibrant or easier to iron; but that it is just as soft, vibrant and easy to iron and that it is better for the farmers, weavers and factory workers, the crafters and consumers, and for the fields, the air, the water and the world.

The value of organic is not in your hands in the checkout line, it’s under your feet and over your head when you walk out of the store.

If the emphasis shifts to the wider lens, decisions about how to reduce the impact of fiber craft become a bit easier. Let’s look at this new way of assessing impact when it comes to batting.

When considering batting, today’s quilter has many options. Most websites will tell you how to choose based on performance. Of course, performance is and should be an important factor, but the conversation shouldn’t stop there. The concerned crafter should also consider the environmental and ethical impact of each option and then weigh the sacrifices to make the best decision.

Ahimsa Silk
Silk pod that has been cut open so as to prevent harm to the pupa.

Let’s start with organic batting, specifically cotton, organically reared wool, and Ahimsa silk. These offer the same performance as their conventional counterparts, but by far the lowest impact. The fibers are biodegradable and safe to use. The organic process significantly reduces the amount of chemicals and hazards involved. It’s important to point out that organic does not actually mean chemical-free, just free from synthetic chemicals. Each certification has different standards for this, but all share the effort of reducing the impact on the environment and people.

Of course it would be easy to view the imperfect process of certification cynically, but bear in mind that these certifications are currently the only efforts being made to create accountability. They’re imperfect, but improving. Who here can’t empathize with that?

Next, let’s consider non-organic, natural fiber batting, such as conventional wool, cotton or silk. Just like the organic version, it has the benefit of being biodegradable (a trait that weighs more than almost any other in my book) and renewable. However, conventional methods of agriculture and sheep rearing have their own drawbacks, so one should never take for granted the price paid for these methods.

Finally, we have the synthetic and semi-synthetic options: polyester, bamboo, etc. Polyester comes in many varieties, and it is not always clear which type you are buying. Some polyesters are, in theory, biodegradable, while others are not. Most polyester contains petroleum and coal—think about that the next time you snuggle up under your blanket. The fully synthetic polyesters behave the same as any plastic in nature. The fibers breakdown to microparticles and are consumed by sea life, humans, and other animals.

A recent study of plastic contaminants in water sampled 18 beaches around the world and found that there was no sample that did not contain pieces of microplastic. The majority of the plastic microparticles were fibrous.

In fact, your polyester batting and thread are making their way into the waters of the world even while they are in use. The same article states that “some polyester garments released more than 1,900 fibres per garment, per wash.”

Regarding bamboo and other viscose fibers: click here to read about the chemically intensive process required to turn bamboo into fiber.

Most people would agree that, while warm, the failure of polyester, viscose and so on to breathe like natural fibers restricts their use to certain temperatures. Wool and cotton batting generally allow for better temperature regulation so you can use the quilt virtually year round, depending on your climate, of course!

We don’t make our choices in a vacuum and we can’t make change alone.

For all these reasons, I really want to use organic batting, but I have come across challenges with availability. Recently, I was faced with the tough choice of not finishing a quilt or using polyester batting and thread, because I couldn’t buy any organic options locally or import what I needed.

Because shop owners and consumers generally focus on the immediate benefit of a product, they are only looking through a narrow lens. Decisions are made based on the perception that polyester thread is stronger than cotton and polyester batting is less expensive, not on the reality of thousands of microparticles steaming out of washing machines and into the water supply eventually feeding the five giant garbage gyres in the oceans.

We don’t make our choices in a vacuum and we can’t make change alone. If I continue to have difficulty finding organic batting, it will make it difficult for me to continue quilting. I recently sent out emails to every quilt and fabric store I could find in Ireland asking them if they carry organic fabric. Of the ones that replied, none do. One shop owner said “cost would be a big factor here.” Another admitted to not even knowing that organic fabric was a thing.

Until shop owners and consumers look past the immediate “benefits” and conveniences to consider the wider lens issues around conventional agriculture and the dangers of synthetic fibers, little will change. In the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask. The more requests shop owners get, the more likely they are to carry the things we need to have a concerned craft.

Have you ever used organic batting? 
Does your local shop carry organic batting, thread, or fabric?
What is your favorite batting to use, and why?

4 thoughts on “Wider Lens

  1. Sean M

    When making quilted garments in the style of the fourteenth century, I use Luna Loft Simply Cotton from fadengerade.de as a substitute for the original raw cotton. I have heard that and Warm & Natural recommended by more conventional quilters.

    1. Great! I have also heard good things about Warm & Natural, although I would be resistant because of the polypropylene scrim. Also, I came across organic raw cotton on organiccottonplus.com when doing some research for this piece. I wonder if they have a German supplier. Thanks for the comment, is there a place where we can see your garments?

      1. Sean M

        I find natural battings with poly scrim and natural battings without confusing too. Then there is linen fabric where they shorten the fibres so they can spin it like cotton (and so it is not nearly as strong and durable as traditional linen), or the fabric where there are no proper selvages just cut-off threads. Buying materials today is hard.

        You can find my current project at bookandsword.com/tag/reconstruction. I am trying not to spend too much time taking photos and blogging and too little sewing, but to include plenty of illustrations (because fibre-arts and historical clothing people do not all find words easier than images, and don’t all speak English as their native language).

        1. I agree. The fabric store can be an overwhelming place.

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