How to Recycle Yarn from a Thrift-Store Sweatercomments (22) October 4th, 2008
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.
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seams: To get usable yarn, your sweater must have sewn or crocheted seams, not serged! With serged seams, the knit fabric is cut, so you wouldn't be able to unravel the yarn continuously.
The best kind of seams (easiest to take apart) are crocheted together—most sweaters I find are this way.
The other kind of seams are sewn together, so you'll see loops of yarn along both sides—this seaming is mostly found on sweaters labeled "hand knit."
Now that you have your sweater, you can start ripping! You can take apart the seams in whatever order makes sense to you, but I always start with the sleeves and work my way up the body. It's much easier and safer to use a seam ripper for the whole process; scissors are just there to chop long pieces of seaming yarn when needed. So, first you'll need to cut the yarn at the end of the sleeve seam to get it started; you may end up clipping a few strands to get it going, but since it's at the end you won't lose much yarn by making extra snips.
If you're working with a crocheted seam, you can start pulling the seaming yarn to get it going. To unravel the chain, you'll need to pull the yarn on the opposite side of the seam from the chain—you may need to cut it a few times and try pulling from different places before you find the right spot and it all comes apart. If working with a sewn seam, you'll just have to take it out with your fingers and/or cut along the seam. Be super careful not to cut any yarn that's not the seaming yarn! I usually pull it out by hand, cutting it short whenever it gets about 8 inches long to make it go faster. (That's what the scissors are for.)
When you reach the end of the sleeve seam, you'll probably need to make an extra snip or two to get the shoulder seam going. For crocheted seams, look at what direction the chain is going to unravel in the right (easy) direction. For sewn seams, it doesn't matter what direction you go.
Usually, after I detach each piece of the sweater, I like to go ahead and unravel it, to keep things interesting. If you prefer, you can continue taking the seams apart until your sweater is all in its separate pieces, then unravel all at once.
To unravel the sleeve, start at the shoulder end and find where the bind-off ended. Make any necessary snips and start pulling.
Pull and pull to turn that unloved sweater back into yarn, wonderful yarn!
When you have a big ball and are ready to turn it into a hank for washing, set up a system for winding it exactly 2 yards around so that you can measure the yardage. If you have a niddy noddy, great; if not, you can use the chair method. First, cut a piece of scrap yarn exactly 2 yards long. Then set up two chairs, backs facing each other, so that the scrap yarn wraps around the backs and just touches.
Now you can wrap your balled yarn around the chair backs and know that each time around is 2 yards.
Tie the ends around the yarn in a figure 8 to hold it securely, and tie two more pieces of scrap yarn spaced around the hank to keep it from getting tangled.
Repeat the whole process for each section of your sweater, and you'll have four or more big, kinky hanks of yarn that need to be washed and de-kinked.
Fill a sink, tub, or big bucket with warm water, then add a huge squeeze of dish soap or shampoo and stir. Gently push the yarn down into the soapy water, one hank at a time. Let it soak for a long time, at least a half hour—I often wait several hours or sometimes even overnight.
Rinse the yarn with room-temperature water, or the same temperature as the water it was soaking in, gently without any agitation. Once it's rinsed super well, squeeze (don't wring) the water out in the sink. Now roll it up in a towel and squeeze hard or step on it to get all excess water out. After drying, to get the yarn all even and help with the kinks, whip each hank in the air or against your leg, or spin quickly over your head, and repeat a few times holding the hank in different spots. Hang the hanks to dry overnight, over towel racks, the shower curtain rod, hangers in a doorway, or on a coat rack as I use.
Once the yarn is completely dry, you can ball it up and start knitting! If you don't have a swift, you can put it back on the chairs and wind by hand. Or maybe if you go into your local yarn store and buy something and are super nice, they'll let you use their swift and winder to ball it all up! Maybe...
In case you're wondering, my total yardage of this bulky red yarn ended up being 428 yards. Normally you get more yardage than that because the weight is finer on most sweaters. But still, 428 yards of gorgeous, deep red, 100% wool bulky weight yarn for $6.99 is a darn good deal!
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