Maja Stabel: zero waste sewing

Maja Stabel, a talented Norwegian fashion designer and illustrator, designs beautiful garments from the simple, all rectangular shapes of her zero waste patterns. Previously designing for her own label Stabel, she now offers charmingly hand-drawn zero waste patterns (for free!) and holds workshops for home-sewers.

If you’re familiar with sewing, the odd assortment of scraps remaining after cutting out your pieces will be familiar too: long strips, curves and wedges of fabric which only the most passionate patchworker could re-use. About 15% of fabric in the fashion industry is cut away at the production stage and thrown out as waste.

Intrigued by the concept of zero waste in fashion, I reached out to Maja and have since also had the pleasure of joining in on one of her workshops (where I made this). Her passion for combining creativity and sustainability in clothes making is inspiring. And today I am delighted to share an interview with her here!


I get the impression you were drawn to zero waste thinking as a sustainable approach to fashion design but also as a creative challenge of pattern construction. Could you say a little about what zero waste design is and your fascination for it?

Zero waste design within the fashion industry is about pattern construction – about designing waste out of the production of clothes.

I love that zero waste design challenges you to find new solutions and that you have to be creative with what you’ve got. When you distance yourself from the conventional way of constructing patterns, zero waste design can be a tool for innovation.

It’s hard to make the math to fit and the proportions right and at the same time make sensible use of the whole fabric piece and not waste anything, but this is what I think is fun and exciting; which makes zero waste a more creative design process for me – I’m forced to find new solutions.


You have previously designed beautiful zero waste garments under your own label Stabel. Now you’re offering zero waste patterns for people to sew themselves. What was your motivation for bringing zero waste fashion design to the home sewing market?

I really wanted to have a sustainable business model that was different from the conventional one where you produce new collections all the time that encourage consumerism and contribute to a growing waste problem. I wanted to cut the production phase – at least the one where I produce a bunch of clothes in India or China and would be forced to sell a huge quantity of clothes to make it go around. Probably I would have to sell a lot on sale as well because it’s impossible to estimate how much you are going to sell.

Then I thought that the way I make my zero waste patterns are very easy to learn and understand, so why not make people produce their own clothes? Last year I studied pedagogics and discovered how much I enjoyed teaching. I ran a zero waste assignment in a class and it was so much fun so that’s when I figured I could run my own zero waste workshops as well.

And now I just had my first workshop! (that I'm very happy you wanted to attend). I was so excited about how it would be and how it would be received; if people would like it and benefit from it. I thought about it for such a long time so I’m happy I just did it when the opportunity arose because it really turned out to be such a fun and inspiring day! Everyone was really positive and I think eager to learn and to sew something on their own which made it an easygoing and nice event. I had so much fun teaching and seeing people turn my design into their own by adding small details and finding new solutions.


Sewing things myself, I’ve often found it challenging to find sustainably sourced fabrics and notions. Do you have any tips on where to go or what to look for?

No, this is something I find very frustrating – it’s very hard to find sustainable fabrics. I recently found tencel fabric at a danish website and was super excited, but then it gets very expensive because of taxes and customs which is really annoying. Stoff og stil [a Northern-European fabric chain store] has actually started to stock some organic fabrics.

Are you also thinking of selling your own DIY-kits with fabric and notions to go with your patterns?

Yes! I'm in the process of creating DIY kits with zero waste patterns and Norwegian wool made at Krivi veveri [one of the few remaining Norwegian weaving mills].

I want it to be a 100% Norwegian product – that will be locally made by my customers. I hope this can inspire people to make their own clothes again.


Do you generally sense a positive change underway in the fashion industry with fresh approaches to sustainable fashion?

Yes, I feel that there’s something positive happening in the fashion industry – more and more people open their eyes and find better and more sustainable ways to make clothes. I think, and hope, that the brands who don't focus on sustainability won't survive. I think it’s especially inspiring that big brands like Levis and Stella McCartney take a stand and make an effort to be (more) sustainable.

But we have a long way to go and I think we, as consumers, are the ones who hold the power to really change it. We need to demand better and more sustainable clothes and we can do this by choosing the sustainable companies – we have to be aware of where we put our consumer vote. Alternatively you can buy secondhand or, of course, make your own clothes ;-)


As consumers it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the problems in the fashion industry and not know where to start or whether we can even make a difference. What would you say to that? Do you have any advice on where to start?

I guess I've already answered that, but to make it clear: the consumer can make all the difference!! And it is our responsibility to use our power and be conscious of how we shop. Start by choosing sustainable when it’s possible and if not, at least buy clothes with good quality that last, and always ask yourself if you will wear it a minimum of 30 times.


Thank you so much, Maja!

You can find more about Maja and her work on her website, instagram and facebook.

Les Sublimes: A passion for the good, with style

Image courtesy of Les Sublimes

Image courtesy of Les Sublimes

Through the coming months I’ll be talking to makers, designers, producers and fibre artists about their approach to sustainability, slow fashion and craftsmanship. First up is Alexis Assoignon and Kachen Hong behind the French sustainable clothing label Les Sublimes.


Long-time friends Alexis and Kachen quit their jobs, travelled to Nepal, and came home with big dreams. They wanted to create what they could not find: quality wardrobe essentials, produced sustainably, and that would also help lift women out of poverty.

Starting up in Kachen’s living room, they spent a year discussing every little detail before launching their first collection Made in France this June. It’s a small line of tanks, tees and knit dresses made from sustainably sourced materials and manufactured at a family-run atelier in central France.

I talked to Alexis and Kachen about their journey towards creating Les Sublimes, and what it’s like being a small business with high standards in today's fashion industry. Their warmth and passion is contagious! If you’re curious to hear more, there’s an audio snippet from our conversation at the bottom of the post.

© Les Sublimes

© Les Sublimes

What is the textile industry like in France today?

Kachen: The little village where we are producing our collection is actually part of a whole textile region specialised in knits. In France, before the massive globalisation and de-industrialisation over the last decades, different regions were known for specialising in different things, like lace or other materials. Now, smaller brands, like us, are coming back and reaching out to those who have really struggled to survive in the industry.

For example, we’re now working with our next collection and we really want to use linen. And France is the biggest producer of linen in the world. The biggest producer. But there are no longer any French companies processing the raw material into fibre as it’s labour-intensive work. So all the linen is sent to China to become a fibre, and then sent back to France to become knitted fabric.

It’s pure economic thinking, with no consideration of the social or environmental impact behind.

Alexis: And I think it’s so easy to look outwards and go: okay, there’s a child starving in Africa, let’s do something there. But then you forget that there’s always people in your own community who are also in need.

Through this venture we’ve noticed that almost all the small manufacturers in France, like the one we’re working with, have gone out of business. So what about the women who worked there? Their jobs are important too, and they all have families and mouths to feed, too.

Kachen: We share our manufacturing information openly. Hardly no other brands do that, but why? I was surprised at how outdated the textile industry is. Most of the manufacturers don’t even have internet. But if we keep the information about our manufacturers to ourselves, we’re not helping them. They need jobs and we want to send business their way. In turn that’s going to help them modernise, which again will benefit us.

We didn’t at first envisage a Made in France collection. We discovered these issues along the way and supporting the local industry feels important to us.


I imagine one of the challenges in producing responsibly is ensuring high quality throughout the production at a price level that is still affordable to many. How do you feel about that balance?

Alexis: We can’t compete with Zara or H&M, but I don’t think we need to. They might put “organic” on their clothes, but then it’s not certified or not fairtrade or the fabric doesn’t feel that great. We’re using the same luxury, quality fabrics as fashion brands who are selling almost exactly the same product for four times our price.

Kachen: We realised that we’re not really competing against other ethical brands. After all, we’re all fashion brands. We’re all selling clothes. So what differentiates us? Well, we don’t compromise. And we don’t want to. Not even on the economic part.

That’s where we have to get creative, because nobody is going to buy a t-shirt for €150 from an un-known brand. We may be naive, but we still have some economic notions.

We decided to cut out the middleman and sell directly to our customers online. And it’s also why we’re doing a crowdfunding campaign.

Alexis: And we’re excited that our costs will only go down as we grow, because right now we’re paying the highest prices for fabric and manufacturing because it’s all in small quantities. Our goal is really to make these options more widely affordable.

We offer a permanent collection. We’re not trying to change every season. We don’t think you need to throw out your whole wardrobe. We’re saying when you need to buy something new, here’s a great product. It’s the essential pieces you should spend money on, because you wear them every day.


You also work with an organisation in Nepal, funding a month’s worth of education for a girl there for every item you sell. What led you to work with Panuati Community Homestay in Nepal particularly?

Kachen: When we were in Nepal we met this man – he was nice, he spoke English and was about our age – and we were invited to his house where we met his wife. And there was a little girl there who served us tea. When we came back another day it was a big festival and all the women were dressed in red – except this little girl who just wore her ordinary clothes. We asked why.

It turned out that she was sold to this household and working for them as a servant, because her family was poor.

For us it was hard. Should we judge her family for selling her? Should we judge this family for taking her on as a servant? Is she better off or worse? We don’t know. It’s not that she seemed terribly miserable, but she was fairly young, maybe seven or eight, and it was a strong experience for us.

There is a big problem of girl slaves in Nepal and, although we can’t judge, one thing was clear for us: If we don’t do anything, this girl will have a girl and she’s going to pass on this – what they call destiny – on to her.

Alexis: The women who run this organisation have so little, but are determined to give everything back to the community. Women there have no trained skills, there are hygiene issues that make their families sick, they may not even know how to read or write, and they definitely don’t know how to speak English. The Panuati Community Homestay gives them English classes so they can communicate with tourists. They teach them how to cook hygienically, and lend them money to install a toilet and sanitary conditions in their homes.

Then these women can receive guests in their homes. They learn about the world by talking to travelers and their dreams expand. And the income goes back to the community educating girls.

We want to help women and we want to provide jobs. But to have a job you need to have some basic level of education. So we need to work on both sides to break the poverty trap. And this is an organisation we personally know and completely trust.

(The Independent wrote about Panuati Community Homestay here.)


What is your advice for those who want to transition to a more sustainable wardrobe, but don’t know where to start?

Alexis: Start with one thing. One piece. You can’t change everything at once, it’s too overwhelming.

Kachen: And also, be curious. When you buy something ask yourself: do I need it? Who made it? Where is it from? How will I make it last?

Questioning is the first thing. That’s what we do too. For every new thing we stumble against in our business we ask ourselves: Why is it this way? And how can we do it in a different way?


Listen to Alexis and Kachen’s own voices in this short snippet from our conversation. Alexis talks of their impressions from their trip to Nepal visiting a Tibetan refugee settlement and Kachen describes how the idea of Les Sublimes evolved into a Made in France collection.