Talking sustainable fabrics with Leigh Anne Van Dusen

Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Leigh Anne Van Dusen, founder of O Ecotextiles. O Ecotextiles partners with fabric manufacturers to create safe, low-impact and gorgeous fabric for home design. Leigh has an encyclopedic knowledge of sustainable (and unsustainable) fabric production, and she has been passionately pursuing change in the textile industry for over a decade. I’m tremendously excited to welcome her to Crab & Bee to share some of her wisdom about she runs O Ecotextile’s business, textile industry issues, and how to purchase healthier fabrics!


You became interested in sustainable textiles in 2004 when you wanted to reupholster your sofa. How did that lead you to create O Ecotextiles? Leigh

Leigh: In looking for a “green” fabric for my sofa, I found many fabrics that were sophisticated, but not environmentally friendly; or green (mostly recycled polyester), but not stylish. Even the “organic” fabrics were processed with chemicals that were harmful for people and the planet. Since I couldn’t find a company that was creating sophisticated, stylish fabrics using organic or sustainable methods, we (my sister and I) decided to create our own, never thinking it would be as hard as it has! We quickly learned how absolutely gigantic the textile industry is, how polluting, and how often it was exploitative of its workers. And there were no natural fiber fabric collections extant that combined high design, high performance and “green” credentials. We decided to offer fabrics that would change the way textiles are being made by proving that it’s possible to produce luxurious, sensuous fabrics in ways that are non-toxic, ethical and sustainable. Our initial impetus and goals remain our current objectives. We desire our production and end products to have a benign toxicity profile for the earth, and for humans and animals (yes, those are different considerations); to be fiercely carbon positive; and to be a consistent fair trader and good employee that pays family wage long term jobs and affords good working conditions.

Photo courtesy of O Ecotextiles
Photo courtesy of O Ecotextiles

Can you describe the lifecycle of one of your fabrics?

Leigh: We are primarily focused on the textile manufacturing process. We want to clean up this industry, to ensure that workers are given a fair shake and to realistically evaluate carbon and water issues. We want the end product of this new industrial paradigm to be beautiful and durable – without sacrificing luxury. We select only the very finest natural fibers that have been grown entirely without chemicals which have been identified as being harmful – to humans or other life on the Earth. Since growing even organically certified cotton, one of nature’s thirstiest plants, can contribute to the desertification of the world, we emphasize the use of less thirsty natural fibers such as hemp, bamboo and linen. Then we process them minimally, stripping the many finishes (all those “antis” – static, wrinkle, stain, bacterial, mildew, etc.) from the finished product, offering it in its purest form. We have also been inspired by overcoming technical roadblocks: When we began this process almost eight years ago, we had to find partners who were willing to work with us. We were, after all, just two unknown women from Seattle with a crazy idea. It turns out that we had to have our hemp linen piece dyed – almost unheard of these days – because our dye house in Italy, run by women who were themselves committed to changing the industry, could not dye the yarns. Nor could we afford to ship the yarns back and forth for weaving. The result is a fabric that, instead of reading as a solid block of color like a painted wall, has subtle variations due to the different amounts of dye uptake along the length of the yarns. The fabric is alive. It would be impossible to replicate this effect in a yarn-dyed synthetic. Another example of overcoming technical problems was finding a low impact, fiber reactive dye that could pass the colorfast tests. Our first formulation of GOTS certified dyestuffs yielded color that didn’t pass the tests – we were crushed. But a few lab dips and tests later we found a formulation that was colorfast to ACT as well as GOTS standards And at the end of their useful life, our fabrics can be used as mulch in your garden.

Photo courtesy of O Ecotextiles
Photo courtesy of O Ecotextiles

What is your favorite aspect of your job?

Leigh: I really like to being able to provide a solution for the many people who call us at wits end: the mom whose child is allergic to everything; the chemically sensitive people who thought they’d have to do without fabrics. It makes me think we’re really providing a service.

Lots of companies market their products as “sustainable” or “eco-friendly”, and I find it difficult to navigate the marketing terms. What are some important things to look for when shopping for sustainable and safe fabrics?

Leigh: The most important thing to do, by far, is to search out third party certified products: Global Organic Textile Standard-certified fabrics (GOTS) or Oeko Tex certified fabrics – not just the fibers. The fabrics certified to these standards ensure that what you’re getting is safe – think of a fabric as being similar to organic applesauce. If you begin with organic apples but then process those apples with preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers, etc., then the final product cannot, by law, be called organic applesauce. There is no similar law protecting you in fabrics, so it’s easy to find a fabric made of organic cotton, but which is processed conventionally. It is not an organic fabric.

  1. If organic fabrics are not available, pay attention to the type of fiber used in the fabric and the production methods employed. Never buy conventional cotton if you can help it; never use PVC or acrylic. If buying polyester, is it antimony free?
  2. Be aware of greenwashing. Remember, avoiding greenwashing doesn’t mean waiting for the perfect product. It DOES mean science, honesty and transparency is paramount.
    1. Look at the company you’re buying the product from: It’s important to look beyond the hype – green registers as dollar signs in many corporate minds, so look at the company’s claims: do they offer a gazillion products but have a small “green” section? (Some cleaners come to mind, like Method vs. the green offerings from Clorox, for example.)
    2. Can you easily find info about the company’s sustainable practices on their web site?
    3. Google the company name + environment.
    4. Also, if it’s a really big company, check their R&D budget – if they’re invested in sustainable solutions, it should show up.
Photo courtesy of O Ecotextiles
Photo courtesy of O Ecotextiles

I mostly sew garments; are there any manufacturers of fashion fabrics that you like? Do you have any plans to sell fashion fabric?

Leigh: There are too many to name! Some mills make deliriously delicious fabrics – but they’re not green. So sad. We have our hands full with our upholstery and drapery fabrics, but practically every fabric we carry has been used as a garment. The problem for fashion fabrics is that fast fashion has pushed the prices of fabric even lower, making the mills use ever more toxic chemicals (because they’re the cheapest and easiest to use). It’s a vicious cycle.

As someone who handles a lot of fabric, I find it disturbing that I’m not better protected against toxins from textiles. How can I get involved in the fight to make textiles safer?

Leigh: There are many ways to be involved. The Washington Toxics Coalition (www.watoxics.org) is doing a great job in fighting for revision of antiquated toxics laws in the U.S. Write your senators and congresspeople that you support the Toxic Substances Control Act of 2013. But above all, become educated in what makes a sustainable textile – the government isn’t going to do it for you, so it’s really up to us to discover what the issues are – and the risks of not paying attention.

Thank you, Leigh!


Meeting Leigh has given me a lot to think about. Obviously (based on my blogging history), I’ve been focusing more on thrifted/second-hand fabrics in the past year and not as much on how to find sustainable new fabrics. Since our chat last year, however, I have started seeking out GOTS-certified organic cotton for basics like t-shirts and tank tops, as Nathan and I tend to live, work out, and sleep in them. And I plan to make us a new set of sheets in a healthy fabric when ours give up the ghost. I’d like to strike a personal balance of thrifted fabrics, healthy/sustainable fabrics (for the garments and textiles I touch the most), and the occasional random fabric purchase.

Sometimes reading about toxicity and environmental impacts of the products and food we consume brings me to a very low place where I feel simultaneously terrified and apathetic, so I wanted to say that I shared this interview not because I want to scare anybody, but because I believe our wonderful sewing community deserves more information on the textiles we work with every day. I believe that the majority of the textile industry needs to change their practices, and I think the more we learn and talk about it, the faster change can happen. It’s been hugely inspiring to see people speaking out and taking personal action against the terrible garment factory working conditions and environmental practices, for example.

Have sustainable fabrics been on your mind lately?

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32 thoughts on “Talking sustainable fabrics with Leigh Anne Van Dusen

  1. This is a fascinating article and all the information in it is pretty much new to me. Thanks for sharing. I wouldn’t know anything about the processing of fabrics that I purchase. Something to think about…

    1. It’s kind of astounding, isn’t it? For as much time as I spend around fabric, I really don’t know that much about it either. I’m happy to get to share a bit of Leigh’s knowledge!

  2. I’ve been thinking about this for a little while now and it’s made sourcing fabric a minefield. I’m fortunate enough to have inherited a huge box of fabric from a relative for the time being but it would be so good to have quality ecofriendly garment fabrics available. I thought I’d found a fairly good site in the UK but all the fabrics on there are uncertified organic. I’ll look out for GOTS now though, thanks for sharing!

    1. It really does add a layer of complexity to finding a fabric, which involves a lot of factors already (durable, suitable for a project, the right color and print)! I’ve never tried this site, but heard about an online fabric seller named the Offset Warehouse (http://www.offsetwarehouse.com/) from the blog Yes, I Like That. I took a quick look, and it seems like they do a pretty good job of setting out which certifications each of their fabrics meets. Also, congrats on your fabric windfall! I personally believe that using fabric that we already have plays a part in sustainability.

  3. Great article, and an eye opener. And Yes I have thought about sustainable fabric but it is impossible to find. It will be great when we get the option.

    I will keep looking.

    1. Thanks, Stephanie! And good luck on your search. Sustainable fabrics certainly aren’t the norm, but I’ve seen some decent ones popping up and hopefully more will follow.

  4. This is something I give a lot of thought to these days. When I first started sewing clothes for myself I just went out and bought whatever I could find (there are very few physical fabric shops in the UK these days, unless you are in a big city). This translated to some cheap and nasty fabrics, some quilting fabric (more readily available) and quite a lot of secondhand. (I do buy online when necessary but there are often issues with fabric bought online!) My preference now, as I’ve become more aware of environmental and ethical issues around fabric production is second hand first and organic second (I think!), partly for financial reasons and partly because it’s already been produced. I pick it up in charity shops and currently have non-clothing fabric in my stash to be used for clothing too, which may or may not work out!

    As well as featuring some very beautiful fabrics, this article reminded me not to just think about organic cotton but to consider some other fibres, too. I was also aware of the GOTS/Oeko Tex certification which I know of through a continental supermarket here which sells certified towels, bed linen and basic clothes alongside groceries at very reasonable prices. It’s pretty rare in the UK but I think because of this supermarket (which is very mass market), it must be more common in Germany and possibly the rest of the EU. It occurs to me that I may be able to source appropriate fabrics from the rest of Europe occasionally, as it isn’t expensive for me to do so like it is from America.

    Finally, I feel that our government hasn’t taken any interest in this area in terms of regulation, and I don’t think the the general population has much awareness of it either, so the more discussion about it the better!

    1. I’d be interested in hearing how sourcing good fabrics from Europe goes, if you give it a try! As an American, I tend to think of the EU as far ahead of the regulations that we have in place in terms of consumer health and safety. Do you feel like that doesn’t include the UK as much?

      I went through the same process as you when I started sewing – a mix of thrifted fabrics, quilting cottons, and “whatever I can find” fabrics from our local chain stores. It was certainly a learning process! I also prefer second-hand fabric for the same reasons as you listed above. 🙂

      Very interesting that your first awareness of those certifications came from a supermarket, and that certified products are reasonably priced! I’m so curious to see how awareness of the impacts of fabric grows – which I think is definitely happening – and what it will mean for those of us who sew.

      1. From my limited experience it seems Germany is way ahead in this area and also the Netherlands – but this is through observation of available materials, rather than any knowledge of regulation. I feel that the UK lags behind on many environmental initiatives compared to our neighbours, although change is happening slowly. For example, we now have excellent recycling facilities with a local processing plant and lots of the houses in our neighbourhood have solar panels on their roofs. Public bins divided into recycling and landfill are getting a lot more common, too.

  5. These issues are a huge part of my reason for sewing – I got interested in making my own clothes because it was difficult to find much organic cotton clothing beyond socks and underwear (not the case now, of course). This interview’s really interesting and I completely agree that we need to discuss this stuff openly to combat the sense of fear and helplessness. I wrote a post about organic cotton and ‘ethical’ sewing last year: http://toftsnummulite.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/conscious-crafting-some-sewing-links.html .

    1. Hi Nina, I remember wishing I lived in the UK when I read your post! I didn’t start sewing strictly because of my interest in sustainability, so it’s interesting to hear your perspective as someone who did.

  6. This is a lot to think about! I’ll be honest- I really want to sew with sustainable, clean materials, but I do find it overwhelming to try to consider all the factors (no animal testing, low environmental impact, living wage to workers, sustainability). I’m so interested to read this interview. I really hope that sustainable fashion fabrics become more readily available.

    1. There really are an overwhelming number of factors to consider! I’m not sure if this is helpful, but what I’ve been trying to do in both sewing and other areas of my life is figure out a small place – an issue that you care most about, perhaps – to start making change. Personally, I think a lot about waste, so my entry point was to avoid buying fabrics that didn’t seem like they’d last very long. Next, I started finding thrifted or second-hand fabrics, even if they were originally produced in a way I wouldn’t have chosen. I’m sure others would feel most drawn to the humanitarian aspect you mentioned, or animal testing, and I think that’s awesome! All of these issues are very worthy of attention, but sometimes one needs a starting point.

  7. Like everyone else has said, this is a lot to take in. Thank you for taking the time out to educate us on this cause. It is all very overwhelming, but I’m really grateful to you for the awareness. And really appreciate that it is a cause close to your heart (and sewing machine).

    1. Hi Eleyna, I was very happy to share some of Leigh’s wisdom! I’m by no means an expert in sustainable fabrics, but this is definitely a topic I want to learn more about and feel more comfortable with. And you’re right – it’s an overwhelming amount of information to take in. It blows my mind, how many issues fabric production touches. I’m hoping as a sewing community, we can all contribute to awareness.

  8. I try really hard to use certified organic fabric (as well as secondhand, hemp, linen, etc.) whenever possible, but it is definitely a challenge! I buy a lot at organiccottonplus.com, and I’m learning how to dye fabric to increase my colour and print options (since there are so few, and they’re mostly for babies), but I prefer to sew with lightweight, floaty fabrics with lots of drape (but not completely sheer), and I still haven’t found a source, even undyed. Cloud 9 has a new collection of voile (Palos Verdes) that I love, and I’m hoping that trend will continue so there will be more to choose from in the future. Thank you for sharing this! I think more awareness will increase the options companies provide, which will make it easier for us to choose organic.

    1. I really admire your commitment to certified organic fabric! There really aren’t a lot of weight/color options yet. I’ll have to check out the Cloud 9 collection – thanks for sharing!

  9. Thanks so much for this, Morgan. I have to confess that this hasn’t been a focus for me, but lately I’ve found myself thinking more about where our fabric comes from. As the topic comes up more in the rtw world, it’s making me think more in terms of how the fabric itself is made, as others are becoming more aware of how their clothes are made. A few months ago I had thought of making a leather jacket, but once I started reading about the conditions of leather workers, and how toxic the dyes etc. are, I decided against it. Baby steps! This is a great conversations, and I’ve enjoyed reading others’ comments, too.

    1. It does seem like the issues in garment production and fabric production go hand-in-hand. We just know so little about how the products we use (whether it’s finished garments or fabric) are made. I think it’s really, really cool that you made a decision on a project based on the health/environmental impacts you discovered through research!

  10. its super encouraging to read posts like this, that get the wheels turning and us googling our country’s regulations and asking questions. i completely loved reading your last paragraph, and am very appreciative of you (& others!) taking the time to talk about what needs to change in the textiles industry and providing resources to help that happen faster. thanks for the information :). i would love love love to walk into a store and find a healthy selection of fashion fabrics that have done no harm en route to the shelves.

    1. Hi Kay, nice to hear from you, and thank you! I absolutely agree that asking questions about regulations and production is a great first step. It’s so encouraging to me that there are people like Leigh who feel passionate enough about healthy, sustainable fabric production to make a career out of it – we need all the information and support we can get!

  11. Thanks so much for this article Morgan. So interesting and enlightening. I have been thinking a lot about this lately and the manufacturing process of fabric (especially really cheap fabric).

  12. Wonderful article! I really try to focus on using GOTS certified fabric/fair trade whenever possible for sewing as well. I love the list at the end. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. I’ve noticed (and admired) that you sew with a lot of GOTS-certified fabrics;I’d love to learn more about how you got interested in that!

  13. Just seen your article, so I’m a bit late getting in this discussion! Really interesting though and well written. Interesting that you think Germany is way behind the States on sustainability, for me living in Germany, I feel completely the opposite! Germany has been consuming organic products for over thirty years and when the Green political party were in joint power, they did a big push to promote organic and it seems to have worked. All the new supermarkets opening in our area are organic. Also for the last 3 years I’ve been visiting Munich Fabric Start, a fabric trade fair for the fashion industry and each year the selection of organic products expands, it’s very encouraging. I’ve been using Lebenskleidung as a source of organic fabrics and this year they won the international award for best sustainable fabric supplier. I can’t recommend them enough and I have no vested interest in saying that! I wrote about them on my blog.
    I studied sustainability at a Swedish uni some years ago and Sweden is very ahead of the pack on this issue, they’ve been carbon-neutral for years.
    Keep the discussion going!

    1. Thank you! In my admittedly limited knowledge, I actually had the impression that it’s the States that are far behind a lot of European countries in terms of environmental policy. I studied in France just over 10 years ago and was amazed that most of the fresh produce would have been considered organic in the US. I didn’t know much about Germany specifically, so thank you for sharing a bit! It sounds really exciting.

      I’m curious – what do you think makes it easier in a place like Sweden or Germany for sustainability to gain real traction?

  14. Oh the colours and the textures of that pile of fabric is just divinely lush. I’m all about the tactile aspect of fabric! I loved reading through the interview – and more so how this topic seems to be gaining a bit of traction, at least in our little corner of the world. I recently bought some sustainable hemp fabric that I plan to make a bag from – and was really quite surprised by how lovely it is (soft, supple, but looking rather industrious almost) even though it was upholstery weight. The one other time I bought an organic cotton was a complete disaster. I didn’t realise it was woven in a tube – which meant no selvedges, and the grainline was so ridiculously off kilter I completely wrote it off. I’d love to start seeing more ethically produced and sustainable fabric options – because I’d buy them if they were of a high enough quality.

    1. Aren’t they? I’ve seen Leigh Ann’s fabrics a couple of times and can confirm they’re just as lush in person. Hemp is a fiber that I’ve been interested in lately, too. The quality question is interesting; a naive part of me would like to believe that ethical and sustainable fabrics would be higher quality but I know that’s not necessarily the case. I think you’re right that the issue is gaining traction – I saw a few sewers share during the Fashion Revolution event that they made their clothes but wanted to know more about who made their fabric.

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