Dare to Make It: Holiday

Dare to Make It:  Holiday

How to Recycle Yarn from a Thrift-Store Sweater

comments (21) 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

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.

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!

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.


On serged seams, you'll see the cut yarn ends bound together with thread.

The best kind of seams (easiest to take apart) are crocheted together—most sweaters I find are this way.


On crocheted seams, you'll see a small crochet chain up one side of the seam.

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."


My example sweater has sewn seams.

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.


Make some cuts with your seam ripper around the end of the sleeve seam to get the unraveling process started.

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.)


If your seams are sewn together, you'll need to pull the yarn out one loop at a time.

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.


Work your way up the seam to the armpit, then you'll probably need to make a few more cuts where the seams meet.

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.


Getting each piece separated is the hard part. Once that's done, all that's left is the fun ripping part!

To unravel the sleeve, start at the shoulder end and find where the bind-off ended. Make any necessary snips and start pulling.

 


Sometimes the edge will be machine sewn closed, so you'll have to make more cuts to get it started. With this sweater, only one snip was necessary.

Pull and pull to turn that unloved sweater back into yarn, wonderful yarn!


As you unravel, ball up the yarn to keep it from tangling.

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.


When measuring your chair distance, be sure to stretch your measuring yarn the same amount that you'll be stretching your sweater yarn (not too much, not too little).

Now you can wrap your balled yarn around the chair backs and know that each time around is 2 yards.


You can either count as you wrap, or just count the strands after you're done.

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.


Be sure to keep it tied loose enough for the soapy water to get in there.

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.


After washing, all that crazy kinkiness will be gone!

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.


To avoid any felting, use warm water, not hot, and don't agitate the yarn at all when submerging it in the water.

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.


If your yarn was extra kinky and needs to be stretched to straighten out, you can put something in the bottom of the hank to weigh it down—I use a big salt container or canned foods, while some people use towels.

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...


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

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!

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

Comments (21)

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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