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Using Yarn from Recycled Sweaters

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By Caitlin Wilson | Mar 26, 2019

Thrifted or ill-fitting sweaters can be salvaged for the yarn used to make them.

Many a knitter and crocheter has bemoaned the cost of yarn, especially for a large project. Even the less-expensive options tend to run around $5 per skein, and if you need several colors — or a mile of yarn — that adds up quickly.

If you have a little extra time, and don’t mind some creative destruction, you can get your money’s worth of high-quality yarn out of a gently used sweater. Either use old sweaters of your own, or visit thrift stores to find the colors, fibers, or yarn weights you want.

The blue-green serging thread on this sweater indicates that it won’t unravel into a single, long strand.

Before you get too excited about snipping your sweaters at the seams, check to make sure they’re the right type of sweater to unravel. Some commercial sweaters are made of pieces of knit fabric that were cut to shape and then sewn together; if you try to unravel these, you’ll get thousands of short pieces of yarn instead of one long strand. You need a sweater that was knitted to shape before seaming. To check, look at one of the seams on the inside of the sweater, such as a side seam. If the seam is serged, chances are good that the sweater is made of cut pieces of knit fabric. Don’t unravel it. If the seam has two narrow edges of fabric that you can separate to see the stitches holding the seam together, it’s probably a good candidate for unraveling.

If you can pull the tiny edges of fabric in the seams apart, it’s probably a good choice for unraveling.

Cut Seams Open

Step One: Carefully snip a side seam open, starting at the hem and working your way toward the armpit. Work slowly so you don’t cut the front or back of the sweater. You should only be cutting the stitches holding the seam together. Open both side seams.

Step 1

Step 1, continued

Step Two: Separate the sleeves from the body. If you start at the armpit, you should be able to cut carefully around the shoulder of the sleeve. Remove both sleeves.

Step 2

Step Three: Remove the collar. Many sweaters have a collar added after the shoulder seams have been sewn, so you’ll need to remove that section before you can cut open the shoulder seams. Look for a single chain of V-shaped stitches, and snip one of them. If you tug on the collar, it should start to separate from the sweater. Pay attention to which end of the snipped thread starts to unravel. Pull on it to “unzip” the collar from the sweater. If unzipping doesn’t work, you can also cut the collar off, but err on the side of the collar. You’ll lose far less yarn by cutting into the collar than by cutting the sweater body.

Step 3

Step Four: Cut open the shoulder seams, so you have a front and a back piece ready to unravel.

Step Five: Flatten the sleeves by cutting the lengthwise seam. Now all your pieces are ready to be unraveled.

Step 5

Unravel and Wash Yarn

Yarn that’s been knitted for a long time will hold the shape of the stitches even after you unravel it. Some crafters call this “yarn ramen,” because it resembles prepackaged ramen noodles. Rather than unraveling your sweater into a squishy pile of yarn that’ll be prone to tangling, make sure you have something handy to wrap the yarn around as you go. A large, thin book, a straight-backed chair, or a niddy-noddy designed for winding yarn are all good choices.

Find the tail end of one of the pieces; this may be very obvious, or it may be so well-hidden that you’ll need to cut the first row of knitting off to create an easy-to-find end. It’ll almost always be at the top of the piece — the neckline for front and back pieces, or the shoulder for sleeves. Either way, when you have an end, just pull, and the piece of fabric should start to unravel. Wrap the yarn around something as you go to keep it orderly. You may want to make small skeins for each piece you unravel, or tie all the pieces together for a single, large skein. The more yarn you intend to include in the skein, the larger you should make the loop to begin with.

Tie the skeins in a few places with contrasting yarn before you remove them from whatever you’re using for wrapping. This will keep them organized while you wash and dry the yarn.

Fill a large bowl with lukewarm water, and then gently submerge the yarn in it. You may need to press the yarn down into the water and squeeze it to wet it all the way through; if it’s wool yarn, work slowly and gently to avoid felting it. Use one of the contrasting ties to remove the yarn from the bowl without tangling it, squeeze it over the bowl to get as much water out as possible, and then roll it up in a towel and squeeze more. The more water you remove at this point, the quicker you’ll get to use your yarn.

Hang the damp yarn up on a hanger or over a shower rod to dry. You can hook a few plastic hangers on the bottoms of the skeins to keep them under light tension while they dry, which will help “uncrinkle” it. However, you don’t want to weight it down so much that it stretches, because then the first time you wash something you’ve made with it, the yarn will shrink again. When the yarn is dry, you can leave it in the skein, or wind it into a ball and make something new out of it.

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