How to Recycle Yarn from a Thrift-Store Sweater

comments (22) October 4th, 2008     

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leethal Lee Meredith, contributor
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When youre done ripping, youll have hundreds of yards of brand-new yarn for knitting!
This example sweater is bulky yarn, so itll be easier to see whats going on.
Sometimes the edge will be machine sewn closed, so youll have to make more cuts to get it started. With this sweater, only one snip was necessary.
When youre done ripping, youll have hundreds of yards of brand-new yarn for knitting!

When you're done ripping, you'll have hundreds of yards of brand-new yarn for knitting!

Photo: Lee Meredith
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The most classic handmade holiday gift has to be the knit sweater, which is also one of the most ambitious. If you plan to knit a sweater for a loved one this year, you'd better start soon, at least with the planning stages. There are limitless designs out there for sweaters, you're sure to be able to find the perfect one for anyone on your list if you search around (especially if you're a ravelry member!), so I'm not bringing you yet another design idea. No, I'm bringing you a yarn idea! I think that hand-knit sweater gift would be made so much more special if you could tell your loved one it was made from recycled yarn! A whole new level to the classic sweater, to take an unloved garment, destined for the landfill, salvage the wool, and give it a brand-new start as a beautiful knit gift; it's sure to be appreciated by any recipient who loves the planet.

You'll Need:

  • Thrifted sweater to unravel (details below)
  • Seam ripper
  • Scissors (embroidery scissors can be helpful)
  • Dish soap or shampoo
  • These will help if you have them: niddy noddy, swift, ball winder

This example sweater is bulky yarn, so it'll be easier to see what's going on.

Your first step is to find a sweater (or two) to unravel. If your heart is set on knitting a specific pattern, it may take many trips to the thrift store to find just the right yarn, but if you are willing to choose a pattern based on the yarn you find, your sweater shopping probably won't be as stressful. Main things you'll want to consider:

Yardage: If you find a fantastic yarn but are not sure it'll be enough to complete your gift, I'd recommend finding another yarn of the same weight that could be added as a stripe in your sweater if needed. After unraveling, you'll be able to count the exact yardage so you can deal with stripe planning at that point. If you are firmly against adding stripes, be sure to choose a big sweater that will definitely provide plenty of yardage.

Weight: There are tons of sweaters out there made from very fine yarns, which are not easy to take apart. You'll want to choose a weight that's right for the kind of sweater you want to make, of course, so pay attention to the gauge of the sweaters when shopping.

upcycle sweater

Find more upcycle projects:

• Make Hats from Recycled Sweaters
• Make a Vest from an Old Pullover Sweater

• Make a Recyled Dog Sweater
Make Snuggly Slippers from Old Sweaters


Fiber content:
I only bother unraveling sweaters with all or mostly natural fibers because it's just not worth it to take the time for acrylic, so be sure to read the tags. If there is a small percentage of nylon or acrylic, it will be less breakable and therefore easier to unravel, so man-made fibers aren't all bad.


There are tons of wool sweaters to be found, and if you're lucky you can find some with angora, alpaca, or even cashmere!

Not felted: Many wool sweaters end up in thrift stores because they accidentally got tossed in the washing machine; these should be easy to spot and obviously won't unravel.


The gray sweater on top is completely felted, so you can't see any stitch definition. Even though you can see the stitches on the blue one, it's still too felted to unravel.

Sometimes you'll find partially felted sweaters (for instance, felted only under the armpits), so you can decide if it's worth it to try to make it work. With the best sweaters (not at all felted), you can clearly see the outline of each individual stitch and see through the fabric when it's stretched.


This sweater is not felted at all-perfect for unraveling!

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posted in: yarn, recycle, reuse, wool, thrift

Comments (22)

Michaelsmoms writes: Excellent idea! Sometimes you can find the nicest, and most unusual yarns.
Posted: 1:57 am on February 22nd
Baystein writes: Wonderful tutorial. My best find is two sweaters, one silvery-gray, the other charcoal, both in a wool-silk blend. Two sweaters worth of wool/silk for a total of $4.00! Score!
Posted: 6:30 pm on April 19th
mariellin writes: Thanks for the neat tutorial! You are the perfect person to ask... Does boiled wool unravel? I cut off a boiled wool "jumper" for a vest. I'm thinking about blanket stitch in embroidery floss (don't know how closely I need to bind the edge) - or leaving a raw edge...
Posted: 1:25 pm on February 14th
belleeven writes: Thank you!!! I'm living where natural fiber yarns are impossible to find, and where shipping costs are gastly. This is a great alternative, and your tutorial makes it easy to see how to undo the seams (something I've never tried). :)
Posted: 8:17 pm on August 29th
Pola writes: webberel, you are unraveling from the wrong end of the knitted piece. Simply go to the opposite edge and find the loose end and start there. Believe me, I learned this through lots of trial and error. It should start to unravel like a dream.
Posted: 9:34 pm on September 29th
webberel writes: After reading this I was inspired and went and bought some sweaters at goodwill and tried this out for the first time last night. But I am having a really hard time getting it going, everytime I get to the end of a row I have to pull all the yarn through a loop at the end which I usually have to loosen with my fingers. I am really not getting the "pull and it comes apart effect shown above". Am I doing something wrong, in all the tutorials I have seen online there is no mention of this problem at the end of rows.

Posted: 12:00 pm on August 18th
webberel writes: After reading this I was inspired and went and bought some sweaters at goodwill and tried this out for the first time last night. But I am having a really hard time getting it going, everytime I get to the end of a row I have to pull all the yarn through a loop at the end which I usually have to loosen with my fingers. I am really not getting the "pull and it comes apart effect shown above". Am I doing something wrong, in all the tutorials I have seen online there is no mention of this problem at the end of rows.
Posted: 11:59 am on August 18th
webberel writes: After reading this I was inspired and went and bought some sweaters at goodwill and tried this out for the first time last night. But I am having a really hard time getting it going, everytime I get to the end of a row I have to pull all the yarn through a loop at the end which I usually have to loosen with my fingers. I am really not getting the "pull and it comes apart effect shown above". Am I doing something wrong, in all the tutorials I have seen online there is no mention of this problem at the end of rows.
Posted: 11:59 am on August 18th
webberel writes: After reading this I was inspired and went and bought some sweaters at goodwill and tried this out for the first time last night. But I am having a really hard time getting it going, everytime I get to the end of a row I have to pull all the yarn through a loop at the end which I usually have to loosen with my fingers. I am really not getting the "pull and it comes apart effect shown above". Am I doing something wrong, in all the tutorials I have seen online there is no mention of this problem at the end of rows.
Posted: 11:59 am on August 18th
he_knits writes: Great tutorial!
@Rosel, on dealing with the ribbing, I find it's sometimes attached as a separate piece. I don't usually have problems unraveling it, but I think the ribbed edges tend to get more wear, so I'll often use this yarn for swatching or sampling.
Posted: 8:59 am on March 6th
Ladydreamgirl writes: There's no need to abandon a lovely sweater just because it has serged seams. Bunches of short already spun yarn can be spun together into a single strand of bulkier yarn. Since the fiber isn't loose, this can actually be an easy way to get into spinning.
Posted: 5:42 pm on December 10th
creddy writes: This is Incredible! I've been recycling wool sweaters by felting them for sewing projects, but I NEVER thought of doing this to reuse the wool yarn! I LOVE THIS!! And thank you so much for taking the time to do a DETAILED tutorial of it! So complete!! Reuse, Restyle!!
Posted: 10:44 pm on August 31st
Calico63 writes: Wow! Thank you for the wonderful tutorial! No questions left unanswered. I've never tried anything like this, but now I'm excited to try it! My daughter's name is Lee also :)
Posted: 2:54 pm on January 24th
mal64 writes: I can't wait to get to the Salvation Army and start shopping! This sounds like fun and much cheaper than buying new. I really like the idea of recycling too.
Posted: 4:42 pm on December 27th
Derrydown writes: This is so great! Your method of washing and stretching the yarn really helps. I've recycled a number of sweaters into other projects. I live in a heavy-sweater area, and have found that a lot of people give away pullovers. Some are beautiful pattern knitting and I hate to unravel them! I prefer cardigans for layering, so I am working on turning men's heavy cardigans into zip-up cardigans for me. We'll see how it goes.
Posted: 2:25 pm on December 13th
Rosel writes: I've got a jumper i've been trying to unravel, but it has a ribbed edge which I'm finding really awkward to work through, does any one have any tips ?
Posted: 2:31 pm on November 1st
Jen1964 writes: I may have to try this one. I've watched yarn go from "supercheap" to incredibly expensive, in just a short time. So it seems, and it's really annoying. Quality is still quality. I'm not above reusing stuff "with a lot of wear left in it" though I never really thought of unravelling sweaters to get it. I know that's a lot of work. The soaking to remove the kinks is one of those "why didn't I think of that" brilliant strokes. It's sure to make the difference like blocking at the finish does. When your sweaters are too felted or itchy for humans, I've absconded with sleeves, to make doggie sweaters. They don't mind, and it's really cute. Those seams are there, exactly as you say. Once you get them undone, it's free sailing. I know when crocheting was kind of new, in the '70's, some folks unravelled stuff, to have yarn to work with. Just be careful, if you have carpal tunnel, or other tendon problems, and go easy on the winding stage - or better yet, let family help too.
Posted: 1:21 pm on October 20th
susanstars writes: oh, cool, Lee!
Posted: 8:08 pm on October 6th
laughingpurplegoldfi writes: it's wonderful to see people out there promoting the use of recycled/reclaimed yarns... as you know, it's a fiddly process... but well worth the effort, kind to the budget and the environment... gotta love that :)
Posted: 5:03 am on October 5th
marjidoll writes: Fantastic tutorial Lee! Now I know what to do with the first sweater I ever knit--a beautiful yarn in an ill-fitting bad design. Thank you!
Posted: 5:23 pm on October 4th
Average_Jane_Crafter writes: Amazing tutorial, Lee! Even for a non-yarn gal like me. ;) Your pictures and descriptions are fantastic - very clear and easy to follow. And what a beautiful idea/project! Huurahh!
Posted: 2:32 pm on October 4th
Sister_Diane writes: Beautiful tutorial, Lee - and great to see you here!
Posted: 1:50 pm on October 4th
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