Sustainable, Eco-Friendly Patches are the Future

Sustainable, Eco-Friendly Patches are the Future

Published Mar 15, 2023 by Rick Cundiff


Custom embroidered patches are a popular means to express a message, promote a brand, or add a little bit of personality to clothing. Today, with new awareness of environmental concerns, more and more people are asking about the sustainability and eco-friendliness of such patches.

As materials and dyes have evolved over the years, it’s never been easier to create custom patches that are not just eco-friendly, but environmentally sustainable as well. With just a little research, it’s possible to make patches in ways that can be sustainable and easy on the environment. Let’s look at how both fabrics and dyes have evolved over the years to make that possible.

A Brief History of Embroidery

The art of embroidery dates back centuries. For much of its history, embroidered products were the province of royalty and wealthy landowners. Creating hand-stitched designs and artwork was time-consuming, difficult work,

By the mid-1800s, the development of embroidery machines began to bring the price of embroidered goods down to a more affordable level. Later advances fully automated the embroidery process and enabled mass production at low prices. Today, you can buy custom patches for as little as pennies apiece in bulk. That can add up to a lot of cotton twill backing and a lot of embroidery thread.

Adding Color: A Brief History of Dyes

Fabric dyes are almost as old as embroidery. It’s documented all the way back to 2,600 BCE, and probably existed even before that. Dyes were originally made entirely from organic materials, including plants, minerals and even animals.

Colored clothing soon became a means to determine a person’s social and wealth status. The more difficult a dye was to make, the more expensive it was.

By around 1200 BCE, ancient Phoenicians discovered the most expensive dye of all – Tyrian purple. Also known as royal purple, the dye came from sea snails. Unlike other dyes, it didn’t fade with exposure to sunlight, but became brighter instead.

Tyrian purple was expensive because it required thousands of snails to create enough dye for a single garment. It became a symbol of royalty and wealth.

By the 1850s, scientists discovered how to make synthetic dyes, and the world quickly became more colorful. But some of those dyes brought their own problems, as we’ll see later on.

The Trouble with Fabrics and Threads

You might think cotton would be the ideal eco-friendly material, perfect for making embroidery thread or fabric. Think again.

Both growing and processing cotton require massive amounts of water. One report claims it takes more than 700 gallons of water to create a single cotton t-shirt. It creates a tremendous problem with wastewater.

Cotton also often is treated with chemical insecticides and fertilizers, producing toxic waste there as well. While organic cotton can avoid this problem, it does nothing to reduce the issue of water usage.

Synthetic fibers such as nylon and polyester have their own disadvantages as well. Made from petroleum products, they’re not biodegradable the way organic fibers are. Nylon and other synthetic fibers also release microfibers when laundered. In recent years, scientists have become concerned about the level of such microfibers in waterways and oceans.

The Trouble With Dyes

As noted earlier, dyes were originally purely organic, crafted from plants, minerals or animals. Even those dyes had their problems.

In the late 18th century, Karl Scheele discovered how to make a particular shade of dye, which he called “Scheele’s green.” It became a very popular color for women’s wear and even wallpaper.

It might have been “natural,” but Scheele’s magic color held a deadly secret—arsenic. Cases of illness and even death were reported.

Enter synthetic dyes. In the 1850s, British scientist William Henry Perkin discovered a new way of making dye from coal tar.

His discovery made lower-cost, high quality dyes possible, and effectively created the synthetic dye industry. But there was a downside.

Aniline dyes, such as those Perkin created, are toxic in their original form, and break down during the dyeing process into toxic byproducts. While less immediately toxic than Scheele’s arsenic-laden green, the synthetics also could be a health risk.

Another concern with most dyes, even today, is the amount of water required to produce them and to use them. Just as with cotton production, dyeing takes a lot of water. One source estimates it requires 125 liters (33+ gallons) to dye just one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cotton.

New Technology, Old Ideas Offer Answers

Just as in other industries, thread manufacturers and dye producers have responded to increasing concerns about waste and pollution with innovative, eco-friendly products.

Major thread and backing producers including Coats, Madeira and AMANN Group have introduced embroidery thread made from recycled materials such as polyester crafted from plastic water bottles.  

Organic products are becoming more prevalent too. The textile industry created the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) to promote production and purchase of organic fibers, including cotton, bamboo, silk and wool.

Organic dyes also are becoming more popular, bringing the industry full circle in a sense. The dye industry has become more aware of the need for more sustainable practices. Dyeing processes that reduce water use can help reduce energy usage as well. Thread producer Madeira claims a 96 percent reduction since 2001 in electricity consumption per kilogram of thread produced.

One company has invented a process that dyes fabric without using water or process chemicals at all. The equipment uses carbon dioxide as a medium to get the dye into the fabric instead of water or solvents.

The company estimates one of its machines can save more than 8 million gallons of water a year, with no wastewater produced. The manufacturer claims the closed system recaptures 95% of the carbon dioxide used in the process for reuse.

Another manufacturer promotes a process that dyes synthetic fibers during the manufacturing process, which it claims greatly reduces both water and chemical consumption.

More Options than Ever Before

With new materials, machinery and production processes for embroidery, there’s never been a better time to make the choice of sustainable embroidery products. Whether it’s thread, yarn or even finished products, eco-friendly alternatives are more available now than ever before.

And it’s not just patches. Just about any embroidered item, such as tote bags, can be customized with sustainably produced embroidery.

As consumers and producers alike, we are realizing the need to respond to environmental concerns we didn’t know existed in decades past. Even what looks like small steps such as eco-friendly production of embroidery thread can make a big difference in the future. Ask your patch sales representative about their availability.