Sunday, October 19, 2014

Tests of Time - Sustainability and the Vintage Sewing Pattern

In an era when "Green" is the new consumer mantra, sustainability takes on a broader definition. What does it mean to be "Green"? Organic cotton, imported from halfway across the world, has a carbon footprint that surely negates any benefit its "Green" label boasts. Is Ethanol, a corn-based gasoline additive, a greener product than petroleum if the chemicals applied or engineered into the plant destroy the Monarch population? Do lower carbon emissions justify the vast amounts of propane used to dry the prematurely harvested corn, depleting a fuel supply that rural and remote homes depend on for heat? Is it ethical that Ethanol diverts a major human food source to fuel our vehicles? What defines something as "Green" or sustainable? 

Sustainability is not a new concept, just a forgotten one. There was a time when all you could buy or barter was local or seasonal, and when something needed mending you didn't throw it away and buy a new one... you repaired it. In our global economy, "Buy Local" seems like an antiquated notion and one that is difficult to implement. So how do we assess a thing as sustainable? There are entire institutions that dedicate their energies to this topic, but to my mind, sustainability is about something that endures.

Why does something endure? In Tests of Time by William H. Gass, he asserts that the "Test of Time" is not a test at all. Enduring is a result of the conscious effort to preserve something that is valued. That is not to say that all beautiful or wonderful things escape oblivion. It also does not imply that all that endure are worthy of their longevity. A thing may have been tucked away and forgotten. Perhaps a thing is preserved for it's sentimental value or because it is still useful. Or perhaps because it is beautiful. These attributions of value are not set by the marketplace.

As a collector and seller of vintage sewing patterns, I have witnessed time and again, a 100 year old paper sewing pattern, the most fragile and ephemeral material on the planet, used once, twice or many times, carefully folded and placed back into the envelope and saved. These patterns continue to be collected and used and saved. They have withstood the test of time through a kind of stewardship. For a thing to require nothing, be non-polluting and yet be useful for 100 years or more is the most sustainable of things.

When the consumer computer revolution began the thought was that it would lead to a paperless society and thus eliminate, or at least minimize the rampant deforestation occurring throughout the world to feed the need for paper. Computers = Green. It was a good theory but that really didn't happen judging by the sales of personal ink-jet and laser printers not to mention cartons of paper. Fortunately paper is one of the easier materials to recycle. Unfortunately, it doesn't account for the vast resources it requires to process, like water. 

The computer and the internet have made the exchange of information fast and fairly effortless. The Portable Data File, or PDF, is a file that compresses data to allow for easy travel through cyberspace. Medical records and legal documents can be sent and received quickly. They are read on tablets and computers and not necessarily printed onto paper. This is not true of the PDF sewing pattern industry. Independent designers and vintage reproduction companies, as well as the major pattern manufacturers now offer "instant download" patterns. They are instant only inasmuch as the download will appear on your desktop within minutes. The delivery imposes almost zero carbon footprint. But now the task of printing out several to sometimes hundreds of sheets of 8.5" x 11" sheets of paper (that come from trees), laying them out, taping them together and cutting them out... the "instant" factor and the sustainability quotient has dropped significantly. If they are used once, discarded and printed again...

The vintage sewing pattern, that has endured the test of time will usually be my first choice when I set my sights on a sewing project. But I also see so many wonderful designs from fabulous up and coming independent designers that I would love to try but won't because they only offer them as PDF's. A printed pattern, in a beautifully designed package is a pattern worth using once, twice or many times, keeping and treasuring. A Colette Pattern is a perfect example of a pattern that will endure. Her thoughtful attention to detail and the sturdy spiral bound instructions are attributes that will contribute to it's longevity and the legacy of Colette Patterns.

Albion by Colette


No doubt there are many contemporary independent designers with equally useful and beautiful = sustainable pattern designs and packaging. I encourage all sewists to choose vintage or contemporary printed patterns... real patterns. My CynicalGirl shops on Etsy, Goodsmiths, Zibbet and Bonanza carry a huge variety of vintage and contemporary patterns - all of them real, physical patterns that have endured. They remain both useful and beautiful.


  1. Reduce your impact on the world by reusing. Vintage patterns are an excellent place to start.