Every year, millions of tons of textile waste end up in landfills. In fact, the textile industry is the third most polluting industry in the world. While many companies are doing their part to offset the damage (recycling water, less toxic dyes), there are things makers can do to continue helping at home.
Garments that we make for ourselves are far more sustainable than store bought clothing. They fit better and are worn longer and more often than fast fashion counterparts. But even our best made pieces of clothing can reach the end of their usable life. When that happens the item can be cut into rags or repurposed for another use, but did you know you can compost fabric? For makers that means tiny scraps that are too small to use, cotton thread, leftover linen and pieces of wool yarn can be buried or composted.
It’s important to know what you can and cannot compost. You can only compost natural fibers like cotton, silk, hemp, linen and wool. Over the course of a week to a year, they will biodegrade. Some natural fabrics, like leather and wool, take longer but they will decompose.
You cannot compost fabrics like polyester and spandex. Fabrics from synthetic materials take an average of 200 years to break down.
Before you compost there are a few items to keep in mind:
1. To compost more efficiently, check the label to make sure you are composting all natural fibers.
2. Cut the fabric into small pieces. It will break down faster. Be sure to remove any buttons, zippers, or tags as they won’t break down.
3. If you have a compost pile vs burying scraps, be sure to add worms to help speed up the composting process.
4. Some dyes can be toxic so cut around any heavily printed areas, like a t-shirt logo or graphic, and don’t put those in the compost pile. Additionally, if the fabric is heavily printed you should find another way to repurpose or recycle it. Fabric recycling sites are becoming more readily available and if there isn’t one nearby you can opt to use your scraps as filling for pillows or other stuffed items you make.
We’d love to hear if you’ve composted any fabric. Be sure to let us know!
10 thoughts on “Composting Fabric”
Thanks for these tips! I’ve also found that some of the birds and small animals nesting in spring appreciate pieces of undyed or only-plant-dyed wool, rovings, yarn ends, fabric scraps, etc
Hi Audra! Absolutely! Thank you for sharing!
I’d love to know more about why linen can’t be composted.
Hi Mary! I’m so glad you asked! There was a mistake (now corrected) in the article. You can compost linen as long as there isn’t anything on it that’s not compostable.
I’ve heard mixed things about donating left over yarn and fabric to birds. It would be great to get an expert opinion to make sure we do no harm.
We definitely don’t want makers to toss bits of fabric and thread outside their back doors! Like we said in the post, it is safe to compost materials in a compost bin or to bury them. Birds cannot get into a compost bin, nor should they be able to dig up fabric if you’ve buried materials properly.
You are correct, though, about harm to birds. The National Audubon Society recommends that makers don’t leave scraps of thread outside because birds, especially babies, can get entangled and die. https://www.audubon.org/news/what-nesting-materials-are-safe-birds
Why compost? I save all my quilting scraps and am using them to stuff cat beds that I’m donating to a local shelter. They’re washable so they can be used until they fall apart. I use selvages as ties in my garden. Our quilt guild has a “free table” where you can donate fabrics and others can take and make some incredible quilts!
Small pieces that would otherwise land in the trash can are perfect for composting. Dog beds and a box of fabric to share at a guild are also great. The idea isn’t that you should only do one thing – the idea here is that you can do one of MANY things to keep fabric out of landfills. What’s great is that you get to pick what you like best!
I do compost my snippets of thread and tiny scraps. I’m pretty sure no one at a quilt guild would be interested in one 1-2″ square of fabric! Larger scraps than that go into my scrap baskets for using in scrap and foundation paper pieced quilts.
In our guild (Peninsula Quilters Guild) in California, we use our tiny scraps of fabric and batting to make “People Pillows” to donate to homeless shelters. They love them! We can also use beautiful upholstery fabric samples that would end up in landfill as the covers. Sew up 3 sides of your cover fabric and put it by your machine to put all your small scraps in, try putting your head in it to make sure there aren’t and hard spots, then just sew it up!