Textile waste and leftover generation in the garment manufacturing
Implementing an upcycling-based garment design and production process requires a good understanding of textile waste and leftover generation in the garment manufacturing process. However, usually this data is not available to designers, and therefore it is difficult to introduce upcycling approaches on an industrial scale. Here we describe the main causes of textile waste with the results of our research on their volumes in the garment industry.
Main causes of textile waste and leftover generation
Textile waste is one by-product of garment manufacturing, and usually it is deemed unusable for its original purpose. Fabric waste and leftovers are generated at various stages of the garment production process and their volumes and causes can differ significantly (Runnel et al. 2017a, 2017b).
In general, there are three main reasons for fabric leftover generation and fabric loss in the garment manufacturing:
Leftovers due to the technical particularities of production processes (e.g. cutting waste, roll ends, sewing damage and defects)
Problems with quality of fabric (e.g. defective, damaged or unsuitable fabric)
Problems related to manufacturing and resource planning (e.g. excess fabric, order faults or cancellations, over production)
Leftovers from garment production process
Textile waste and leftovers generated during garment manufacturing can be categorised based on technical particularities of the production processes as follows.
Sampling fabric leftovers
Textile leftovers are already generated in the product development stage. During this stage several samples are usually made on which the final production design is decided and the production processes are tested and planned. Typically, part-finished or finished garment samples and textile swatches are considered as factory surplus textile leftovers. However, fabric leftovers and not used samples that are produced during the sampling stage form a very small part of the total generation of textile/garment leftovers.
Fabric leftovers and losses from cutting
Cutting is the major stage among the various processes of garment production where most of the fabric waste/leftovers is generated. The amount of fabric loss in the cutting process depends on many aspects. During the cutting process two main types of fabric losses occur—marking loss and spreading loss (Nayak et al., 2008).
Marking loss arises due to the gap and the non-usable areas between the pattern pieces of a marker. Marker efficiency indicates the amount of marking loss. Marker efficiency is commonly affected by fabric characteristics, shapes of pattern pieces, fabric utilisation standards and marker quality. The higher the marker efficiency the higher the fabric usage and smaller the wastage. The area between pattern pieces, which is not used for garment parts, is usually called cut pieces.
The various fabric losses outside the marker can be broadly classified into the following groups (Nayak et al., 2008):
Edge loss—occurs due to variable fabric widths. The width of the marker is usually a few centimetres less than the edge-to-edge width of the fabric. This loss on the sides of fabric roll is called edge loss.
End loss—is an allowance left at both ends of a fabric ply in a spread to ease cutting. The end loss should be as small as possible (standard end loss is 2–4 cm, but it could be more depending on the quality of the cutting process). The greater the fabric length the less waste.
End bits and roll ends—during the spreading process, the variation in length of fabric between the fabric rolls as well as roll allocation could result in the generation of significant amount of remnant fabric loss or roll ends in different lengths.
In addition to the abovementioned leftover types, rejected panels could be brought up as a specific type of fabric leftover from the cutting process. Rejected panels are segregated after cutting when defects on the fabric are spotted or mistakes were made during cutting. The most common reason for rejection is defects in the fabric itself and different brands have different quality standards for the number of defects per square metre.
Fabric leftovers and losses from sewing
Fabric leftovers generated during the sewing stage are usually related to sewing damages and defects in the fabric. While some of the defects can be corrected, oil stains from sewing machines, uneven panels or other permanent defects result in rejecting the whole garment. That means the majority of the textile waste involves partial or complete garments that have been separated during quality control. The frequency and therefore the total amount is directly in correlation with the quality of the sewing process of the manufacturer depending on the suitability of the fabric and other materials, the competence of the sewers and the quality of the machinery.
Leftovers related to fabric quality
Whether the fabric is produced in-house (vertically integrated production) or ordered in, it can happen that the fabric has unrepairable faults in it. The following reasons cause the largest amounts of leftover fabric:
Unsuitable fabric—the main reason a fabric already sourced is not used in the production is when it deviates from the initial order. Problems with the specifics of the colour are the most common but also feel and other qualities. Although there is an industry-wide system for colour standards to make sure of the specific colour type, in reality variations occur.
Defective fabric—typical defects during the manufacturing process include back fabric seam impression, birds eye, bowing, broken colour pattern, colour out, colour smears, crease mark, mistakes in drop stitching, dye streak in printing, holes, jerk in, knots, mixed yarn, mottled, needle line, open reed, pin holes, press off and others.
Damaged fabric—damage can occur during storage, treatment or transportation if the proper conditions for humidity, ventilation etc. have not been met. That is also why various chemicals are often applied to deter the growth of fungi.
Leftovers related to manufacturing and resource planning
The garment industry has become a very consumer-driven industry, and this affects the relationship between brands and manufacturers. Manufacturing companies have to compete globally to respond to client demands. They cannot afford to lose time in the production process because this can lead to penalty fees when products aren’t delivered as promised. Buyers can quickly find other companies to replace manufacturers who cannot deliver. As styles are now changing rapidly the brands demand increasingly shorter lead times between ordering and delivery and many of them make increasingly smaller orders that are diffused amongst a number of manufacturers. To keep up with changing trends, manufacturers are pressured to plan and control their manufacturing processes accordingly. This results in manufacturers having to pre-plan and store sufficient supply of fabrics and plan for over-production to minimise delivery risks.
The main reasons a significant volume of fabric can be left unused include the following:
Order faults or cancellation—sometimes the client cancels the order for internal reasons. Although, usually the material cost is fully covered by the client, some of the material can already be produced and ready but will not be used.
Excess fabric—the minimum order quantity (MOQ) for fabric orders can be bigger than a smaller manufacturer will use to complete an order.
Delays—these can occur when ordering or manufacturing the fabric. Contracts are strict and being pushed back even a few days can result in cancellation of the order.
Over-production—the manufacturer has to deliver the products to the customer on an agreed date. The lead time can be as short as 30 days in vertically integrated plants to cater for fast fashion, although it is usually 60 days. An average lead time is 30 days for making fabric and 45 days for producing garments. To avoid under delivering to the client, the risk of possible production errors from all stages are accounted for by planning an extra 3–5% of end produce. This results in over production of ready-made and ready to ship garments. If no mistakes are made during the manufacturing, then the excess production—even though it can be perfect in quality—is usually written off as waste. Sometimes the branding labels are removed from the ready-made garments and sold off to the local market.
Quantity of fabric leftovers from garment manufacturing
The results of the detailed analysis of fabric leftover and waste generation in two typical garment manufacturers—one large and one small—are presented in Table 1.
The results of the analysis show that there is significantly less fabric loss generated in the large manufacturing company compared to the smaller factory—the total share of leftovers was 24.7% and 39.2% respectively. The biggest difference is in the generation of cutting waste, where the share in the large factory is half that of the smaller factory in all forms—cut pieces from marking loss as well as end-pits and roll ends from spreading loss. The smaller proportion of waste in the large factory can be reasonably explained that they generally operate at a higher level of efficiency, larger orders allow them to better minimise cut waste from routines and fewer alterations. Furthermore, quality control works more diligently in larger factories. Smaller manufacturers have more fabric leftovers because their orders are smaller and the minimum purchase quantity is sometimes bigger than the order, which results in excess fabric.
Using the upcycling method in fashion design
The following section displays examples of selected upcycling design methods that were developed as a result of the leftover analysis and product development. Those designs have been successfully manufactured on actual mass production lines (smaller quantities have also been produced in more flexible facilities to create samples). The design methods are presented here according to the most suitable types of fabric leftovers for upcycling determined within this research:
Design based on cutting leftovers (small cut pieces, end-pits and short roll ends 30 cm to 3 m) and rejected panels
Design based on longer roll ends (3–49 m) and excess fabric
Design based on overproduced garments
Design based on cutting leftovers
Cutting waste is the most abundant form of fabric leftover in the production process. Due to the small size and various shapes of cut waste its use in designing and producing upcycled garments is the most challenging. To effectively use such material, it is necessary to integrate the upcycling design into the garment production process.
The most difficult pieces to use in upcycling designs are the smaller cuts, which are in essence non-usable areas between the pattern pieces of the marker (so-called marking loss). Their amount and size varies from order to order due to the garment’s design elements and order volume. To get the best use of the material, the panels for an upcycled garment have to be planned into the production and fit the empty spots on the original pattern. Gathering the cut pieces and later cutting them separately is too labour intensive, making it economically and technically unfeasible. Furthermore, cutting everything in one go with the original order is much easier and cheaper as it requires less handling and allows access to the main production lines. Interfering with the original production, however, requires good cooperation with the manufacturer and the brand’s design team, as well as reacting fast when the original order is prepared for production. This means there are two main approaches to using cut leftovers.
The first approach is to design the upcycling product in parallel with the original primary product and its production planning. The pattern is prepared in the factory just before cutting. The details of the pieces for the upcycled garment must be ready by then to be placed into the original marker. The most efficient approach is when the client who orders the initial garment plans their side product into the pattern themselves. The amendments must be swift because the initial order cannot wait for the secondary designs. To be able to upcycle in such a way, an analysis of many patterns over time is required to develop products whose details are suitable to place into the gaps. The details (or some of them) of the design of the upcycled product are integrated into the empty areas in the original pattern and will be cut simultaneously on the cutting table. This makes it possible to maximise pattern efficiency and the use of potential cut waste pieces for the upcycled garment. Those added details will be separated during cutting and the new upcycled garment can be produced in parallel to the original one.
The second approach is to define standard details that can be added to the markers continuously whenever the empty areas between patterns have enough space to fit them. For example, certain triangles fit well between men’s button up shirt patterns to combine into a new garment. At the cutting table those pieces are cut with the rest but separately collected to be later used in the production of certain types of upcycling products.
Cutting waste forms majority of textile waste produced throughout the production of garments, therefore in order to achieve maximum circularity, it is recommended to send cutting leftovers unsuitable to upcycling with the rest of the textile waste to mechanical recycling.
Example 1. Dress made from cutting pieces
One of the most efficient ways to minimise cutting leftovers is to design a product made from similar smaller pieces. That makes it possible to add those details into a marker that is already set up and the product will be cut at the same time. The details will be collected separately from the cutting table and sent for sewing. This method gives the opportunity to save up to 60% of the cutting leftovers, depending on the size of the detail added to marker. The example in Fig. 2 resulted in a 50% reduction in waste material.
It is somewhat easier to use the fabric leftovers generated outside the marker during the spreading process—shorter end-pits and roll ends, usually up to 3 m in length. The variability of the length of the pieces does not allow many layers of material to be cut together. Therefore, the most complicated and expensive step in the process is cutting. It has proven reasonable to proceed according to the shortest length of roll ends that in our experience has been 30 cm. This length dictates the size of a panel in a product that allows to use the most fabric. Such panels can be combined into one product that may therefore have several cuts in them.
The most efficient way to use the end-pits and shorter roll ends is to develop special garment designs as standard products that can be continuously made from separately collected fabric leftovers that come from nearly all orders (see Example 2 and 3, Figs. 3 and 4). This requires a clear procedure at the manufacturing site, for which leftovers in terms of size, fabric type and other parameters must be separated at the cutting phase for later upcycling.
Example 2. Upcycled T-shirt
The size of the details of the T-shirt can depend on the size of the available waste pieces. In this example, short roll ends were used. This design has been in production for five years, the amounts and colour variations depend on the fabric available (see Fig. 3).
Example 3. Upcycled dress
This dress is another example of a design based on cutting waste—end-pits and short roll ends. The size of the details is driven by the size of the abovementioned waste pieces—here 30 cm long pieces were used. This particular model has been in production for two years in three different colour and fabric combinations.
The generated leftovers—end-pits and short roll ends—can be upcycled up to 80% in both examples. The design of example 3 allows even higher efficiency in using the leftover fabric because the square shape of the pattern makes it possible to use the “zero waste” approach.
It is also possible to use rejected panels in the aforementioned designs. The challenge here is gathering and preserving the material. Cutting is especially challenging, as they are usually smaller than end-pits and shorter roll ends, the amounts are unpredictable and there can be defects in the fabric. Therefore, it is a suitable material to be used in small quantities, garment details, or other non-garment design products. The production from rejected panels is expensive and requires high flexibility.
Design based on long roll ends and excess fabric
The longer roll ends (usually 3–49 m) are the most abundant type of textile waste, and due to their size, it is the most suitable material for making large quantities of upcycled garments. To ensure greater efficiency, roll ends longer than 3 m are instructed to be separated from the smaller ones at the cutting table, put back on a roll and stored separately or sent directly for upcycled garment production. The upcycled design is free of constraints when using larger roll ends, as the size does not determine the cuts. The easiest way to cut the larger roll ends is by creating a 3 m marker and the fabric can be laid out in 3 m layers on top of itself.
Example 4. Upcycled dress
This dress is designed to continue the overall style of the collection that has decorative cuts. This model has been in production for three years and it has been produced in five different fabric combinations. This method made it possible to upcycle 80% of such leftovers (Fig. 5).
Although producers try hard to avoid and reduce the amount of excess fabric it can still happen in significant volumes. The most reasonable solution is to use this excess in the production of other garments. In general, producers try to use such fabric in other orders or try to sell it to other smaller producers to be used in their production. Such fabric leftovers can also be used for making upcycled products, especially if they come in smaller volumes and in a variety of styles that are difficult to find a use for otherwise.
Example 5. Upcycled jeans
These jeans are produced from excess fabric that came from a cancelled order (see Fig. 6). Around 600 m has been stored separately for upcycling and the same model is being produced several times a year, 200 units at a time. Using the same fabric ensures consistent quality and can be used to make samples for new upcycled products. Furthermore, in this case up to 80% of the original leftover fabric was upcycled to produce new products.
Design based on overproduced garments
The best way to avoid this waste altogether is if brands had more flexibility with their orders. As they are generally good quality garments made according to the specifications of the client, the best solution would be to sell them to the client. However, as this is most often not the practice, it is possible to use the material and upcycle it into new products with a different design. This is a complicated and costly process, as the products will have to be dismantled either partially or fully, create a clever and suitable design, recut the panels and resew them back into a new garment. A production like this is more suitable for a smaller manufacturer or a studio; it is not viable in mass production. However, it would be possible on the sampling lines of a large manufacturer where the production conditions are different and they have greater flexibility.
Example 6. Song Festival upcycled T-shirt
The factory had cancelled an order of 70,000 polo shirts. Those cancelled products were turned into 23,000 new T-shirts produced for the Estonian Song Festival. Because the cutting of the original products had to be done by hand it was a relatively complicated and time consuming process (Fig. 7).