Zero Waste - A How To Guide

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A quick overview of my zero waste design process

When I start sharing my designs with people the first line of questioning I get is always “how did you do that?! It's really zero waste?” Below is my attempt at consolidating my process.



1. The Puzzle

The first thing that really drew me into this line of design was the puzzle making aspect of zero waste. When you change one thing it has a direct impact on something else in the design. Everything needs to have the correct ratio of push and pull in order for it to work.

2. The 15%

When beginning a new design I always have to stop and ask myself what I want the piece to be. Is it a tee? A short? A jacket? I then need to distill what that piece needs in order for it to exist. There is a concept industrial designer named Daniel Simon who I once had the pleasure of listening to speak about his process. He said that when designing something completely new that no one has ever seen before, it is essential to include 15 percent of an object that people recognize so they know what they are looking at. For example, when designing a concept car one might include a steering wheel, a shift stick, and doors and allow the rest to be completely unrestricted. The visual of seeing that steering wheel will allow a completely fresh onlooker to position the concept in their mind and move past the original intrusive thoughts trying to discern what an object it. This allows focus on how and why something is created, not what it is. Now take this reasoning into clothing. What 15% of a t-shirt do I need to include in order for people to recognize that I've created a t-shirt? Let's say it's sleeves, a neck hole, and a hem. Everything else can be completely changed and yet it will still be a t-shirt. This is how I start about my design process.

3. Fabric

Do you already know what fabric you're going to use? What are the dimensions? I'm going to give this example with the assumption that I don't completely know the end use… this is going to be a starting zero waste block that can be adapted to different materials and silhouettes.

4. Where to start

If I know that I want a t-shirt to have sleeves, a neck opening, and a hem that is where I start my design. I go back to my set of basic blocks that I created years ago for base measurements and shapes. Being a menswear designer, I used the book Metric Pattern Cutting For Menswear to create these, but they can come from any starting point. You can take your own measurements to create blocks that fit you! 

In this case I think the most important thing to focus on for my pattern is the shape of the sleeves and how they will attach to the armholes. Sleeve pattern pieces are usually smaller and easier to manipulate placement wise,  therefore the armhole will be my starting focal point.

5. The basic body

I begin the placement of my focal point on a drawn out plan of basic measurement of a rectangle. Drawing out the body width and length of the front pattern piece is the base minimum. Draw this out on pattern paper or in illustrator. (I like starting manually on pattern paper then translating into illustrator once the design is mostly done, but for ease of sharing I decided to do this demo in illustrator) Since I'm focusing on the shoulder/armhole I'll add the shoulder length and slope measurements as well.

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Fitting the shoulder - look at the shoulder slope. Look at its degree and the space that is created between the front and the back pieces. Can we get rid if that by shuffling pieces around? Should we keep it? Do I want ease in the back shoulder to make it fit better? What can it become? If it's joined to other pieces can it make cool or fortuitous shapes? I have a few different versions that I've created to solve this problem, but I'll  just go down this one route.

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The armhole - I know the measurement I need to include based on my blocks. Since I'm starting on the front body I'll begin with half of that measurement. Since I know my body width and the shoulder width it's easy to fit this in and the shape of the armhole will be determined by this. I will change the shape based on what I want that excess piece to become; straighter for trims and rounder for pockets typically. This can be adjusted later.

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Repeat the armhole step for the back and add on your back body measurements.

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Neck opening - Measure out whatever kind of neck opening you would like. This will directly effect the shape of whatever pocket execution you chose to do. Keep in mind the need for either a neck band or a finishing execution. Is it a separate material like a rib? Can it be finished with a tape or a turnback? This will all need to come into consideration.

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Excess - Pockets are usually formed out of excess pieces. In this case I use the neck opening circle and the shoulder drop pieces to create a rounded, rectangular pocket. This can be adapted any way you want; it can even become a half moon or internal pieces. The excess left from the armholes I intentionally left rather straight in order to turn it into a hem band. The finishing for this can be tricky so I chose to use a piping to hem this particular style.

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Sleeves - Usually on a sleeve cap there is a variation from the front curve to the back curve. For this exercise I find ways to mirror it perfectly to fit within a box. The cap of one sleeve becomes the underarm for the other. I also straighten out the underarm to cuff line in order to fit in this box. This additional volume can be taken out later on either with darts or a rib cuff. I'm okay with a wider sleeve opening because it still fits within the constraints of a tee that I started out with.

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Further excess considerations - In this case the sleeves are exactly the width of the tee, but there will often be a little rectangle of excess left over. This can be repurposed in many ways...a neck band, a locker loops, a pen pocket, whatever you want!

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Adapt and improve on my process any way you desire, this is simply a jumping off point. Please reach out if you have any questions or suggestions!