I met Dr. Timo Rissanen several years ago, just as he was taking on the role of Assistant Professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability at Parsons School of Design. He is a pioneer in zero waste design, co-authoring Zero Waste Fashion Design with Holly McQuillan.

If you’ve not heard of Zero waste, this genre of design attempts to create clothing patterns that leave little to no waste fabric when a garment is cut. It’s a fact that the fashion industry is one of the largest polluters on the planet and that the majority of apparel companies end up throwing away their excess fabric because it is cheaper to do so than to create new patterns and cutting methods.

Zero-waste design strives to create clothing patterns that leave not so much as a scrap of fabric on the cutting room floor. This is not some wacky avant-garde exercise; it’s a way to eliminate millions of tons of garbage a year. Apparel industry professionals say that about 15 to 20 percent of the fabric used to produce clothing winds up in the nation’s landfills because it’s cheaper to dump the scraps than to recycle them. Timo is a leader in this design methodology and can design patterns that fit together on fabric yardage like puzzle pieces.


Rissanen’s work is highlighted as part of the Textile Toolbox, which is a TED web platform that allows designers and experts to interact and exchange ideas. The intention of Textile Toolbox is to create systemic change within the fashion industry through “interconnected design thinking and processes for sustainable textiles and fashion.”

Each section of the site features work and thoughts from industry experts who delve into the specifics of how sustainable design might work and work better. As an expert on waste reduction, Rissanen explores design processes, waste sources and potential solutions, among other topics. We have spent quite a bit of time talking to Timo about our lean method manufacturing and design methods. We are proud that he chose to highlight Alabama Chanin and our manufacturing processes as an example of how to design sustainably.

After the launch of Textile Toolbox, we asked Timo some questions about waste and the future of design.


How did you become interested in sustainable design and waste-reduction methods?

Like many Finns, I grew up with a strong connection to the natural environment. We would fish for food, and forage for berries and mushrooms in the woods, and we still do. I was 11 when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened in 1986. There was considerable radioactive fallout in Finland, some of which remains today, three decades later, and I remember my parents’ worry about food during the summer of 1986. That event made the fragility of the environment, as well as our complete dependence on it, very clear to me. When I was a student in the 1990s in Australia, I had one textile design teacher, Julia Raath, who often spoke to us about the environmental issues with textiles. Her teachings have stuck with me. Once I started working in fashion, I started to get a grasp of the responsibility we all share in ensuring that, through our actions today, we allow future generations of humans and all other species to flourish.

The concept of reducing waste in the fashion industry is difficult, both logistically and cost-wise. Can you help explain the reasons why designers and manufacturers might be hesitant to embrace these ideas?

There are considerable systemic challenges to reducing or eliminating fabric waste from clothing production. For example, often the patternmaker is not in the same location as the designer, and the patternmaker’s contribution might not even be considered design but rather, a service to it. In my PhD I argued that patternmaking is fashion design, however in reality it is often not perceived as such. Another challenge is that the various kinds of waste created in fashion are often completely invisible to the designer as well as the consumer. More human-scale supply chains, like Alabama Chanin’s, are an effective way to maintain a real grasp on various material flows within a company. Finally, designing without creating fabric waste can be slower than conventional fashion design. I would say that good design is never fast, and there is an opportunity for fashion design and the industry to slow down. Integrating sustainability is instrumental to good design.

What are the most creative approaches to reducing waste that you have seen?

Several small designers are creating beautiful zero waste fashion, for example Daniel Silverstein in New York, and Lela Jacobs in New Zealand. Each designer brings their own aesthetic to it. Holly and I first saw this when we curated the exhibition Yield in 2011, of which Alabama Chanin was a part, and it was even clearer once we came to write the book on zero waste fashion design during 2014.

In your opinion, what is the best way to educate shoppers about waste and the consequences of fast fashion? And what should they be looking for when building a wardrobe?

One on one conversations tend to be the most effective in my experience; people really get the impact of the predictable future on all of us, unless we act together, when you share it face to face. The challenge then is to scale that education up; as well as educating someone we should also aim to inspire them to become educators in this respect themselves. Nonetheless, brands should also tell the stories of their solutions to these problems. For shoppers, I think spending the same amount of money on less items is often better, for example instead of buying five pairs of shoes at $50, invest in one pair at $250. Learn about quality and look for it. For learning about quality, often speaking to someone from the generation before you can be fruitful, not to mention a joyful experience.

Any advice on how consumers can reduce post-consumer waste?

I think the Alabama Chanin model of operations – to be like a traditional farm where there is no waste – is actually achievable on the level of a household. Disposable, non-recyclable packaging is perhaps the biggest challenge; we need to ask our supermarkets and food producers for alternatives, and our legislators to facilitate changes. As for post-consumer clothing, we can reduce it first by simply buying less and buying better, and wearing things for longer. With every garment I buy I ask, how many years of wear will this garment give me? I know for a younger person this might not sound an exciting proposition; the culture of today is dominated by endless variation. Perhaps shared use is one solution – it already happens with friends borrowing each other’s clothes. Clothing libraries and designer handbag rentals are examples of a service design solution of this, in a business context.

How can at-home sewers begin to integrate zero-waste design and patternmaking techniques into their creation processes?

Simply by treating all fabric as precious, which home-sewers tend to do anyway, and by being endlessly curious about patternmaking and sewing. Not knowing every ‘rule’ can be an advantage in being fearlessly experimental with patternmaking and sewing. Holly McQuillan’s designs for the MakeUse project are fairly easy for even a beginner to construct. And even if a design is not zero waste, home sewers can be intelligent about reusing scrap, and many are. If you can’t find a use for it yourself, there are likely others who might. And if you get stuck, write to me or Holly and ask for advice.

*Second and third images courtesy of Timo Rissanen.


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Click to read 9 comments
  1. Julie Ford

    Excellent article and very informative – makes me even happier that I ordered the generous bag of Alabama Chanin scraps I received yesterday! Regarding reducing post-consumer waste, I’d like to add thrift stores to the list. Many of my Alabama Chanin-inspired skirts and tops that I am making are created from men’s 100% cotton t-shirts I find at thrift stores. And I “winged” my straight skirt pattern using a paper grocery sack. Scraps from these projects are in a special bin for future use. Scraps I cannot use in my clothing are hand cut into tiny pieces and used for stuffing catnip toys. Zero waste.

  2. Martha

    My great grandmother in Louisiana sewed for five daughters. She would spend hours arranging pattern peoeces in fabric to get the maximum use from it. She was my inspiration.

  3. Penny Salmon

    Love this article! I had bags and bags of beautiful scraps and spent the last 3 months turning them into scrappy bunting. A beautiful outcome for something I had sitting around – I couldnt bring myself to throw it out. The process of reusing scraps got me thinking even more about how i can incorporate zero waste into my design projects at home (thus avoiding accumulating masses of scraps again). The concept of thinking about how a pattern can use as much of the fabric as possible stretches my creativity but really should be something that is done as normal design not as a special approach. Thanks for the article. 🙂

  4. Tracy

    I love this so, so much. I got interested in the topic after reading about it in a great book called Fashion & Sustainability a couple of years ago, which featured some zero-waste pattern designers, and it really stuck with me. Since then, I’ve been trying to use up absolutely every last scrap of fabric (I recently made a scarf out of teeny-tiny Alabama Chanin jersey pieces!)

    Anyway, this is awesome. Thank you.

  5. Timo Rissanen

    Thank you everyone at Alabama Chanin and thank you Natalie for all of the email conversations over the past four years; truly a highlight of my time in New York! Thank you all the commenters, too; you demonstrate that for many, zero waste is simple common sense. Reading the comments was the perfect start to my day 🙂

  6. Marta

    I appreciate Alabama Chanin’s Journal articles, but this one has exceeded all expectations! Thank-you for the interview and particularly links to Timo Rissanen’s latest book and projects with New Zeland colleagues. I’m inspired by this latest generation of designers and EDUCATORS! We need to encourage more learning and sharing at all levels. I hope to encourage and mentor young artists and makers here in the Pacific Northwest to continue to develop these principles and ideas.

  7. Lisa G.

    I am trying to keep this in mind when I’m sewing something, but it’s also good to know that we can compost cotton, wool and linen fabric scraps.

  8. Rebecca Forencich

    Perfect timing of this article as I’m working on my first Alabama Chanin projects. I’m planning on using larger scraps for applique ideas. The thought popped into my head the other day that I can make bracelets from skinny pieces while I’m practicing and testing embroidery stitches. And farm wife style, there are lots of cleaning projects around the house too!

  9. Betsy Cook

    Being taught by two grandmothers who sewed was the key for me. They often bought grab-boxes at factories and made our play clothes. Scraps went to make quilts and older blankets went inside quilts . My grandmother saved all her selvedge and used it to tie up scrap bundles or bread wrappers. The line in. The line about “building a wardrobe”. Being able to buy quality pieces that fit regardless of size. We do get pushed to get new pieces every season. I. Know why this is, but as consumers we have to take charge and say no. And I learned from my mother in law how to put key pieces together that mixed and to properly take care of those clothes. My daughter learned to preserve what she had but many do not. Popping off to the mall because …
    Education is a great way to help our environment so I say documentaries and talks are great. Maybe fashion blogs and podcast could talk about these waste issues more often. Now that I have a granddaughter if I am discarding any garment I look at it fir buttons, zippers. And yardage. Very often a garment cannot be reused because of a stain but if you take it apart you have enough for a new item. Knowing how to piece might be a skill instead of needing whole yardage.
    Thank you for keeping us informed.
    Ps. I am 60