With so many exciting craft projects for children’s toys, upcycled pillows and stuffed animals, it’s time to break away from the petroleum-based polyfill and find organic alternatives that are eco-friendly and non-toxic.
Check out our picks for alternative stuffings to add to your growing list of organic art supplies.
Polyfill, or polyester fiberfill, is a petroleum-based, nonrenewable resource that is energy intensive and contains toxic chemicals. Because polyester is cheap and versatile, it’s become a popular option for a variety of uses, including crafting.
More than 70 billion barrels of oil are used to make polyester each year, and it takes more than 200 years to decompose. It’s believed that synthetic fibers, like polyester, are the biggest source of microplastic pollution in the oceans.
The main chemical in polyester is ethylene glycol, which is absorbed by the body through inhalation and skin contact and has been linked to kidney and central nervous system problems. Polyester also releases VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, and its production excretes formaldehyde and benzene into the atmosphere.
The one benefit of polyester is that it can be made from recycled plastics or recycled polyester, which limits the impact on oceans and reduces manufacturing byproducts. That said, alternatives to polyfill are still the best decision you can make to protect the environment.
Made from 100% pure sheep’s wool, carded wool stuffing is an excellent alternative to polyfill stuffing. The sheep’s wool has been carded, or brushed, to organize the fibers. Once carded, the wool can be used for a variety of craft projects, including needle felting, punch needle, quilting, thrumming, and filling dolls or stuffed animals. Like polyfill, carded wool holds its shape well. It is a popular choice for Waldorf style dolls.
Recycled fluff is about as close as you can get to polyfill stuffing without the harmful chemicals. This 100% eco-friendly cotton filling is produced from recycled textile waste. It’s machine washable at low temperatures, making it ideal for children’s toys like stuffed animals and cloth dolls. Recycled fluff can be used for external parts of projects as well because it’s fluffy and voluminous, and comes in a variety of colors.
Conventional cotton accounts for 25 percent of the world’s pesticide use and has significant health and environmental impact. Organic cotton, however, is grown without the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers. It’s also free of heavy metals and chemicals, as well as being fair trade. Because it’s essentially cotton, organic cotton can be substituted for conventional cotton in any project.
Kapok is one of the most popular eco-friendly fillings on the market. It’s a vegetable-based fiber that’s made from the seed pods of the Kapok tree. Because it’s wild grown, Kapok is naturally pest-free and requires no pesticides to grow, and it’s also hypoallergenic and mold-resistant. Kapok is suitable for pillows, blankets or any other projects that typically use cotton or polyfill.
Buckwheat hulls are a byproduct of buckwheat milling and are naturally hypoallergenic, water-resistant and pesticide-free. These hulls have been a popular stuffing option for pillow stuffing in Asia for centuries, often used to relieve pain in the head, neck and shoulders. Buckwheat hulls are resilient as well, so they hold their shape well and lend themselves to neck pillows, firm toys, pincushions and other firm, stuffed craft projects.
Ground walnut shells are harvested from walnut production and are an economical, sustainable alternative for stuffing. Like the other nut and seed choices, ground walnut shells are suitable for weighted plush toys, heating pads and pincushions. Because of the fine texture, ground walnut shells can also be used as an alternative for sand in some projects.
Natural latex is harvested from the milk of the rubber tree. Because this is a rapidly-renewing resource, there’s little impact to the environment. Natural latex is an excellent alternative to other materials because of its resilience and springiness, as well as its biodegradability. This alternative stuffing is great for everything from plush projects to natural bedding.
Wool is an excellent insulator that stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It’s also naturally water and fire-resistant and also combats mold, mildew and dust mites. Organic wool is widely available as well, which means it comes from organically raised sheep and is free of any chemicals. Wool is perfect for craft projects that require traditional stuffing or batting.
Like buckwheat hulls, millet is another seed option that’s small, sustainable and great at holding its shape. It’s also quieter than some of the other seed fills and, due to the smaller size, is better for contouring. Because of this, millet is a great choice for pillows and stuffed toys that require a specific shape.
Flaxseed has similar properties to millet, and its therapeutic properties make it a good choice for heating pads and pillows. It’s also scent-free, which is a big perk for some projects.
Lavender buds are harvested and dried for stuffing and give off a soothing aroma. Lavender is crunchy, however, so it’s important to consider that when choosing it for a craft project. It can also be mixed with millet or flaxseed to get the best properties of both materials.
Hemp is popping up everywhere in the craft world, thanks in part to its similarity to cotton in its texture and care. Hemp is soft but firm, making it a great choice for stuffing, as well as being durable and mold resistant. Organic hemp is widely available and grown without pesticides or chemicals. It can be substituted for any project that typically uses cotton or polyfill.
Bamboo fill comes in two varieties: 100 percent bamboo fiber and a 50 percent mix of bamboo and organic cotton. This resilient fiber is hypoallergenic, sustainable and has a texture similar to polyester fiberfill, so it’s ideal for all types of craft projects.
Horsehair is an organic (and cruelty-free) alternative to polyfill that comes from the manes and tails of horses and is sometimes mixed with the hair of cattle or hogs. It’s coarse and has a dry, firm texture, which makes it a great choice for pillows and toys with a stiffer structure. Horsehair is also elastic, which helps it hold its form well.
One of the best insulators known to man, down feathers have a variety of uses in pillows, blankets and coats or jackets. While conventional down filling is sourced from live plucking, which causes significant discomfort and stress to the animal, there are options that are humanely gathered and ethically sourced. Humanely sourced goose or duck down is also harvested with environmentally safe practices, ensuring that the entire process is green and cruelty-free.
Soy or corn-based polyfill alternatives are a better option than polyfill but are still energy-intensive in production. They can also be genetically modified, so it’s important to look for organic options. Eco-friendly varieties of soy and corn-based stuffing are sustainable, fire-resistant, hypoallergenic and anti-bacterial, and they hold their shapes quite well, making them an excellent choice for a variety of projects.
Another alternative to stuffing is to use remnants of wool, fabric or other materials to fill your project. While this won’t be ideal for all projects, stuffed toys and throw pillows could be stuffed with scrap materials to make good use of your leftovers. Just keep in mind that the resilience and texture will be impacted by your scrap choice, so adjust accordingly.
From natural latex to seed-based fibers, eco-friendly polyfill alternatives can add layers of texture, shape and contour to your craft project, along with unique scents or therapeutic benefits. Try out some unconventional stuffings for your next plush or pillow craft, and don’t forget to shop our lavender-infused ground walnut shells and the rest of our collection of alternative art supplies at Eco-Friendly Crafts!
What’s your favorite alternative stuffing? Tag us on Instagram @ecofriendlycrafting and show us your project!
Hello! What a fantastic post! I’m thrilled to see so many diverse ways to replace polyfill. There’s only one thing that crosses my mind: pests and trying to wash the pillow/stuffed toy. I know that corn and grains attract rodents and could perhaps attack the object trying to get to the food. And well, if you’re using millet, flax seeds, corn, soy, walnut shells, etc wouldn’t all that attract mold if it gets wet with either intense humidity, saliva, or the accidental water spill from the child or person onto the toy/pillow?
I’m looking forward to hearing from anyone to know the truth about these questions. I really would like to get into this kind of replacement for this craft. Thanks again!
I had a feeling fiberfill was toxic. I’m making rocking chair cushions for my newest grand niece and this is the best information I’ve found on substitutes for polyester.
Hi! This made for fascinating reading, as I am trying to source a sustainable and hypo-allergenic stuffing for my old panda teddy (passed down to my daughter) and my son’s dearest, but deflated penguin cuddly toy. The thing I’m worried about is washability. Which of these alternative stuffings could be machine washed at 60 degrees C to keep dust mites or head lice at bay? Thanks so much in advance for your advice!
Awesome page! exposing me to so many great alternatives, never using polyester again! thank u so much
Dryer lint works as well! and is a great way to divert waste