Crafty by Nature

Crafty by Nature

How to Make Recycled Cotton Art Yarn

comments (9) March 31st, 2009     

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leethal Lee Meredith, contributor
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All-natural cotton makes for a soft and pretty spun yarn.
You can use recycled wools if you prefer, as I did with this skein.
I love my finished one-of-a-kind recycled cotton art yarn!
All-natural cotton makes for a soft and pretty spun yarn.

All-natural cotton makes for a soft and pretty spun yarn.

Photo: Lee Meredith
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When I first got into the idea of making yarn, I started recycling yarn from sweaters, then I starting spinning, then I thought, how about spinning recycled yarn? I've played around quite a bit with plying recycled strands together, spinning recycled yarn with bits of wool roving, plying them with thread, dyeing yarn before spinning it with other yarn, or dyeing it all together after spinning. Then I took it to another level by adding beads and buttons into the mix to make recycled spun art yarn! You can do this project with any types of fibers, since it doesn't involve dyeing, but I'm showing you my example made with 100 percent cotton, for a springy, all-natural yarn!

Creating new yarns by spinning multiple strands of recycled yarn together is much easier than spinning yarn from scratch, and you can use a drop spindle (which is very affordable, or you can even make your own) if you don't have a spinning wheel (or access to one). It will go faster with a wheel, of course, but by using a drop spindle you have the advantage of being able to use any size buttons/beads because they don't have to fit through the orifice of a wheel. I used my wheel, but I'll be including notes about how it'll work with a spindle.

I won't get into details about how to use your wheel or spindle—you can find plenty of online tutorials for that, and if you're new to spinning and want to get into it, I'd recommend getting a book on the subject to get you started. You don't really need to know how to spin to do this project (you won't be drafting or anything), but you'll need to learn the basics of how to use your drop spindle or wheel if you haven't already.

You'll need:

  • Multiple sweaters of different colors to unravel, or one striped sweater
  • Seam ripper and scissors for unraveling
  • Thick thread or sturdy lace-weight yarn
  • Buttons and/or beads
  • Bead threading tool or floss threader
  • Spinning wheel or drop spindle
  • More threads (optional)
  • More objects to spin into the yarn, such as long, skinny fabric scraps (optional)
  • Container with a hole in it, such as a CD-R case (optional)

First, you'll need to unravel your yarn, so see my recycling yarn how-to for that, which is written for wool yarn. I unraveled parts of three cotton items; for cotton (or any nonanimal fiber) you'll follow the same steps, but you can machine-wash the items first. Then after unraveling, you won't need to wash the yarn before spinning it. If you are using a wool yarn, you can decide if you want to wash it before spinning, or if it doesn't feel dirty, you can just spin it first, then wash the finished yarn (which you'll want to do regardless).

I used four color sections of the scarf, one brown sleeve of the baby sweater, and one sleeve of the large sweater with blue and white.

You wouldn't want to choose something knit all in Fair Isle color work unless the yarn is extremely special because it would be so much work to unravel. The snowflake sweater I used only had the Fair Isle design at the top of the sleeve I unraveled, so it didn't take too much extra time. When unraveling color work like this, be sure to keep each color balled neatly as you go so you don't end up with a tangled mess, and just pull one color until it stops, then the other, back and forth.

Color work like this is annoying to unravel, so don't choose a sweater with too much of it.

As you unravel, think about how long you want the color sections in your spun yarn. You can either make several separate balls, then as you're spinning you'll spin one completely, then tie on the next ball; or you can tie the different colors together as you unravel, in the lengths that you want, so you'll end up with one or two large balls of multiple-color striping. This is also a good time to think about how you want to spin the yarn together—I did two single strands, each spun with a strand of thread, then I plied the two together along with the beaded thread. Don't worry about the details for now—but you can either do that (so you'll need to divide your unraveled yarn into two equal sections) or you can choose to use only one strand of yarn and ply it with thread (so you won't need to divide the yarn).

I divided my little yarn balls into two groups and chose three threads to spin into my yarn.

Now you can spin your first single. I spun one strand of fine thread with each single, which is optional—you can do the same as I did, or you can spin thread with one single but not the other, or you can spin multiple threads along with the yarn during the last (plying) step. And here's where that optional container comes in—if you have a ball winder, you can wind the yarn into cakes so they can sit on the ground and won't roll around, but if you're working from hand-wound balls sitting on the ground, they will roll all over the place. I put my balls in recycled 100 CD-R cases, with the spindle broken off to make a hole in the bottom (which I use as the top). This way, the yarn ball bounces all over inside the case, as I pull it straight up from the hole—perfect! If you don't have a CD case like this, you can use any container with a lid that comes off and a hole to bring the yarn end through.

Recycled CD-R cases make for perfect yarn ball containers!

Start spinning! All you need to do is put twist into your recycled yarn. Cotton recycled yarn is usually several strands of cotton thread held together, so you can spin in either direction. If you are working with recycled yarn that is already twisted in one direction, you'll want to spin it in that same direction, just adding more twist.

Add twist by spinning the recycled yarn.

If you're using a spindle, you'll be doing the same thing, just putting twist into the yarn. Because you'll be plying the yarn, you want the yarn to be overspun, so it twists up on itself when you bring it in on itself.

Move the yarn up and it should twist up like this.

Or if you fold the spun yarn in half, it should twist with itself like this:

The yarn is plying with itself.

When you reach the end of a color section, tie the two ends together (if you haven't already)—be sure to bring the new ball through the lid hole of your yarn container if you're using one. If you are spinning the single with thread, then the thread will really help out at the joins. Twist the ends along with the yarn and wrap the thread around them to hold them in, making for near-seamless joins. If you are not spinning with thread now, you can let the ends hang loose, and later when you ply the singles you can wrap them in place with thread.

I twisted the thread extra around the yarn ends to hold them in.

Repeat the yarn joins every time you finish a ball and keep spinning until your first single is done. Then repeat for your second single if you're doing two, making sure to spin in the same direction. You could even go crazy and spin three singles, for a three-ply yarn! If you are using a drop spindle, you'll need to carefully wind the first single into a ball before moving on to the next single (or the plying).

Once you have your singles spun up, you can ply them together with buttons and beads!

Now you need to get your buttons and beads strung onto the thick thread—make sure you're using a durable thread, as a thin thread may break if buttons are pulled. If you are using a wheel, you'll need to make sure the objects you choose fit through the orifice. I have a pretty large orifice in my Louet wheel, but most wheels will only fit small buttons. If you want to use objects that won't fit, you could spin the last step on a drop spindle, freeing you up to use any size buttons/beads. (If you're an experienced art yarn spinner, you probably have special equipment to allow you to use any size objects.)

I picked out an assortment of buttons and beads, with lots of color.

String your buttons and beads onto the thread. I use a floss threader for this, which is a fantastic craft tool and can be purchased in bulk for a few dollars at most drugstores (I think I found mine at Target) by the dental floss. You can thread several buttons/beads onto the threader, then slide them onto the thread. The order in which you thread the objects will be the order they'll be placed on your yarn (but reversed), so pay attention to placement.

A floss threader is an excellent tool for beading!

Lift the end of the thread to move the buttons and beads down farther so you can start spinning the thread end. Gather the ends of your singles, the beaded thread, and any other threads you want to spin in, and start spinning in the opposite direction as the singles to ply everything together.

All these fun little objects spun into the yarn will turn it into something special!

Leave the buttons/beads all hanging down on the thread, and as you ply, whenever you want one, just move the next one up on the thread and spin it right in. You can anchor it in place by spinning thread or one of the singles' extra around the top and bottom of the bead/button, but it's not necessary. You can check out an art yarn spinning book (like Intertwined) or Insubordiknit's fabulous art yarn how-to DVD if you want to get fancy, but when working with recycled yarn like this, you don't have to really know what you're doing.

I anchored that button in place by wrapping the thread around it.

I like to change the tension in my singles (pull one out at an angle or hold one looser) to make for cool wrapped effects or little beehive-like features. You can just play around and have fun with the plying and see what happens!

I wrapped the light blue around the white by holding it out while spinning, and I wrapped the thread around the green bead the same way.

If you used the same two-ply method as I did, with the two singles of long color sections, you'll have subtly blending stripes in your finished yarn, as one single changes at a time.

On the bobbin, you can see a little of the subtle stripes created by the two-ply color changes.

The last step is to set the twist. Wind your finished yarn into a hank (see my recycled yarn tutorial for how to do this with chairs), and soak the yarn in water with a little soap for at least a half hour. Then squeeze the water out in a towel, shake it out a bit, and hang it to dry. My 162 yards of bulky two-ply cotton took a long time to dry—you can turn it to help speed the drying process if it's going slowly.

I love my finished one-of-a-kind recycled cotton art yarn!

I also made an art yarn like this with a few different wool/wool blend recycled yarns, adding some fabric scraps into the mix!

The natural, undyed wool is brightened up with colorful threads, buttons, beads, and fabric scraps.

I knit that yarn into a hat—I love how it looks knit up!

It's a little tricky to knit with the beads and buttons, but it looks great!

That was just a mini-skein, so I finished off the hat with a few handspun leftovers.

Art yarn hat!


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posted in: beads, thread, yarn, recycle, buttons, cotton, handspun, spinning

Comments (9)

zoozi writes: Amazingly beautiful and so creative. A friend just lent me one of her ashfords for a while and this is a great project to start off with.
Thanks for sharing this!
Posted: 11:50 am on October 6th
creddy writes: Ok...that CD case trick is INGENIOUS!!
Thanks for posting this!!
Posted: 11:38 pm on August 31st
Jen1964 writes: I'm not sure my hands would welcome the spinning (due to repetitive strain injuries from over the years); but they are much prettier the way you've done them, than any of the original counterparts.
I had not thought of dissecting cotton sweaters. You see them all the time in tag sales. I don't usually care for them "as is" but admire the yarn. NOW I have IDEAS!
I mean the dog only needs just so many "sweater-sleeve jackets" for herself.
Posted: 2:27 pm on June 15th
ojosdelaluna writes: this yarn is soooo pretty!
Posted: 6:28 pm on May 30th
PamHarris writes: I am very excited to put your fabulous ideas to use to make a weaving stash! Thank you!
Posted: 2:42 pm on April 3rd
croqzine writes: LEEEEE, you're my hero. I love all your work, and this is no exception. Also, I love the CD spindle tip!
Posted: 9:45 pm on March 31st
Jen_W writes: I love this. You really made spinning yarn seem doable and I love how you merged our button theme with the crafting green theme.
Posted: 2:52 pm on March 31st
janetdawson writes: Another fabulous recycled yarn tute! Love them all so far. :)
Posted: 12:30 pm on March 31st
Joannie_N writes: This is so neat. My FIL brings me thrift store finds all the time. This is definitely worth a try. Love the beads and buttons!
Posted: 9:27 am on March 31st
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