My Virtual Sanity

Have you ever felt the need to share your thoughts with virtual strangers just so you can pretend that you have adult conversations during the day? Well, that's what I'm about to do. Be prepaired for my life as a stay at home, obsessive knitter, and my attempts to stay connected with the rest of the world.

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Location: Denver, Colorado, United States

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Recycling Sweaters for Yarn

I have been recycling yarn for resale now for over a year and a half. During that time, I have probably wound enough yarn to wrap the world and have handled almost every type of fiber and weight of yarn. I remember the first time that I unraveled a sweater. I swore I would never do it again because it was SOOOO time consuming and obnoxious. I find it a bit ironic, then, that I spend half of every day doing just that. I have gradually learned quite a few tricks and have gotten some new tools that make my life much easier. I have also been planning on doing a good tutorial for quite some time. There are some very good tutorials online, but they aren't as comprehensive as I would like, so I would like to attempt to give you all of the information in 1 place.

Finding the Right Sweater -
Look for fibers that you like the feel of and you like to knit with. I can find a million very nice cotton sweaters, but have learned that I don't like knitting with it. You may love cotton.

While you're walking through the racks at your local thrift store, feel everything, even if you don't think you'll buy that particular sweater. With time, you can begin to tell the difference between fibers simply by touch which helps to eliminate the need for looking at every single label. I like to play games with myself where I feel the sweater, guess at it's content and then look to see if I'm right. I can almost always peg cashmere, wool, cotton, and silk now. I can even usually tell if the silk is combined with nylon. Pick fibers that you like. For the most part, Acrylic isn't worth the trouble, simply because you can buy new acrylic for a small amount of money, but if you run across a super soft acrylic in a to die for color, go ahead. There are no yarn police.
Avoid silk sweaters with nylon! Usually this means that there was a strand of silk combined with a strand of elastic knit together to make the sweater stretchy. I never buy anything that says it has elastic in it, or says "stretch" on the label. Trust me, it's more pain than it's worth.

I also avoid Silk cotton blends in fine gauges. These sweaters tend to be knit with 1 strand of cotton and 1 strand of silk. They are tensioned so that the cotton is next to the skin and the silk is on the outside of the garment. This is fabulous in the sweater, but when you are trying to unravel it, this means that the 2 strands will not unravel at the same rate and you end up with a mess.
Avoid sweaters that look obviously worn or felted. If the yarn looks ratty in the first sweater, it's probably going to look ratty in whatever you made from it too. Felted sweaters can be great for making purses, etc, but are NOT going to come apart willingly and are not worth your time if you're after the yarn.

If the yarn doesn't feel nice in the current sweater, it is unlikely to soften up with washing. So, pick accordingly. If you plan to knit it as is, pick something that feels nice to you. If you plan to felt it, that scratchy wool will probably be perfect, even if you wouldn't wear it like it is now.
Take a second look at your sweaters before you buy!If you're anything like me, you've now gone up and down the isles and filled your arms, or your cart to the brim with potential sweaters. You like the fiber content, they look nice and you're already scheming in your head about what it can become. Before you check out, though, sit down and take a moment to reexamine your sweaters.

Does your sweater have good seams or bad seams? There are good seams and bad seams. Some can be unraveled and some can't.

Here is a good seam:

This is a bad seam: Notice how the threads come up and over the edge. Bad seams are serged. Bad seams happen when the manufacturer knit a gigantic piece of knitting and then simply cut out the shape of the sweater, instead of knitting the pieces to the shapes they needed to be. This means that if you take the time to pick out those seams you will be left with a whole series of strands of yarn that are only as long as the sweater is wide, rather than 1 long piece of yarn. It always makes me mad when I see these. It seems like such a waste of good yarn, but somehow I don't think the manufacturer had me wanting to reclaim the yarn in mind when they made the sweater.
Many good sweaters will have good seams along the sides and bad seams at the shoulders. This is OK. As long as the bad seams run along the top or bottom of a piece of knitting and not up the side, your are good to go. You can cut off these seams. Once you do, you will lose a little bit of yarn, but once you get past the part that you cut, you will have 1 long piece of yarn for the rest of that piece of the sweater.

Are you buying a cardigan? Take a good look at the button holes. On many cardigans, the button holes are simply cut into 1 side of the front and then have button hole stitching around them, just like you would with normal fabric. You will not be able to salvage this piece of the sweater. You may still have a back, 2 sleeves and the other front panel, but this piece is a goner. It's your choice whether the other 4 parts are worth it to you. It usually is to me.

Bad Button Hole

Now, take a good look at the button band. Is it seamed on with a good seam, or is it a button band that wraps over the edge of the front panel and completely obscures what the edge looks like? If it is seamed on, or appears to be picked up from the edge, you are good to go! If it wraps around the edge, you are gambling with this sweater. There is no way to tell what the edge of these front panels is going to look like once you take the button band off. Many cardigans with this type of button band are cut along this edge and the button band is used to keep it from unraveling. Others are just fine under there. If you are still ok with your sweater only having the back and 2 sleeves, then go ahead and buy it, if not, you may want to leave it in the store.

Are you buying a V-Neck? I generally don't have a problem with V-necks, but there are a few things you should know. Most sweaters have a neck binding that looks very similar to the bad button band. You won't know what's under there until you take it apart. Sometimes all is well, sometimes they have cut out the V-neck and that entire top section of the sweater will be lost. If your V-neck doesn't have a neck band, you may still have some loss. 1 side of that V-neck was knit with the same continuous yarn as the rest of the sweater, the other half was knit with a new yarn. I have yet to find a way to definitively tell which is which, it's always a craps shoot whether I unravel the right one first. You can wind the side that is not connected to the body into a separate small ball to use for seaming, etc, or you can just toss it.
Is your sweater a vest? Just like with V-necks, most vests will have a wrap around band that goes around the arm hole. You don't know what's under there and you may very well take it off just to find that the yarn from the neck to the arm pits is cut and completely unusable. Buy these with caution.

Are there stains or holes in your sweater? If there are just a few holes, or a small stain in an animal fiber sweater, I usually don't mind at all. You can unravel to that point, leave out the undesirable part, and then do a felted join to continue to have an uninterrupted piece of yarn. If it looks like some moths have had at the sweater, however, back away slowly. Not only could you possibly contaminate your stash, but there are likely MANY places that you don't see where the yarn has been weakened or broken. It is not worth it, even if the sweater is cashmere.

A quick note on gauge- It may be a good idea to take a ruler along with you to the store when looking for sweaters. You can check the gauge of the sweater and get some idea of what the weight of the yarn will be. I unravel sweaters in every gauge from super bulky to cobweb, but you may not be comfortable with that, or may want a specific weight of yarn when you're done. You can always double, triple, quadruple, or whatever your yarn in order to get the thickness that you want, but you will also be cutting your yardage in half each time you double the yarn. If you do not have a ball winder or a swift, I do not recommend a lace weight sweater! These sweaters can have between 1000 and 5000 yards in them and believe me, you will be hating yourself by the time you're done winding it.

Deconstructing your sweater
Now that you have purchased your sweaters, you are ready to unravel! This will be my example sweater:
This sweater is for my personal stash, and not for resale. It is a Cotton Acrylic blend similar in makeup and structure to Cottonease. 100% cotton has no give and hurts my hands, but I have found this blend to be very pleasant to knit with.
Since this sweater is obviously thicker than lace weight, the first thing I do is check the gauge. I keep this info so that I have a rough idea of what weight the yarn is, and have an idea of what patterns it might be suitable for.
It looks to be about 4 3/4 stitches to the inch to me. I'm going to call this worsted weight. This is a great chart that lists yarn weights and their average gauges.

Next we will remove the tag and turn the sweater inside out.
You'll notice that there's another tag on the side seam. Many sweaters have a tag there. It is good to know. If the label at the neck does not give fiber information, or washing information, you can usually find it here. We're going to use our seam ripper and take that one off too.

Next we'll begin deconstruction. MOST sweaters are knit in pieces, back, front, 2 sleeves. They are USUALLY seamed at the shoulders first, then around the neck, then the arms are sewn on, then the seam from wrist to waist is sewn. If we're going to take this apart easily, we want to take it apart in the opposite order that the manufacturer put it together.

That means we're going to start at the sleeve cuff and do the big long seam first.

MOST sweaters are also sewn together with a crochet seam. This makes taking them apart a piece of cake. A crochet seam looks like this: Notice how the crochet chain forms little arrows? Those arrows show you which way the seam will unravel. In this case, it is pointing away from the cuff and towards the armpit, just like I thought it would. I usually find the chain on the right hand side of the seam, but it can be on the left too. It can also be going in the opposite direction, so take the time to examine it and find out what it's doing.

At the cuff, the end of this chain is usually tucked back into the seam. Pull it out with the tip of your seam ripper and cut right smack through the middle of one of the links. Separate the seam a bit and pull the loose thread from the back of the seam. You can tug on this thread and it will unravel the chain from the wrist to the armpit and all the way down to the hem. It may get caught up a bit in some places, but take the time to gently get it going again. You may even need to snip another link in the chain with your seam ripper. If you don't want to cut the wrong thread, it is important to take your time to pay attention to what you're doing and work it out. If you do happen to cut the wrong thread, though, it's not the end of the world. On animal fibers, you can do a felted join and will probably never even notice you had a break.

I avoid using scissors if at all possible. It is possible to take a seam ripper or a pair of scissors and snip each and every seam thread without unzipping the chain. You do this by pulling the seam apart and carefully cutting the connecting threads. It is very easy, though, to pick the wrong thread and end up with lots of breaks in your new yarn. Sometimes it is necessary to do it this way, but most times not.

Occasionally I will see a sweater that has a good seam, but instead of a crochet chain, you will find what looks like a rope. Please excuse the photo. I usually find these seams on very fine gauge wool sweaters. Usually they are Merino, and usually they are men's. I LOVE Extra Fine Italian Merino, and love to get men's sweaters because they have so much yarn. I do not, however, love these seams.

It is possible to unzip these as you would a crochet chain. Instead of pulling 1 string on the back side of the seam, however, you will be pulling a string on each side of the seam. Sometimes this works out just fine (usually when they used actual thread to sew the seam). If, however, they used yarn, most of the time this type of seam doesn't usually want to come apart easily. Often I am forced to resort to snipping each individual connecting thread like I described above. It is very time consuming and annoying. Luckily, most manufacturers only do this on the long seams and the arm and shoulder seams will be crocheted.

So, now we've undone the long seams on each side and our sweater looks like this:
Next we want to take off the sleeves. I usually find the start of the crochet chain at the right side of the armpit, as indicated by the arrow. Remove the sleeves the same way you undid the long seam and your sweater now looks like this:
The arrows indicate where I am going to begin looking for my next seams. Generally at this point, I would remove the neck band. This sweater does not have a neck band, though. It has a double knit edging to the V-neck in the front, and a small seam at the back of the neck connecting it to the back piece of the sweater. I undid the shoulder seams and then that small neck seam. Now my sweater looks like this:
That little piece of double knitting at the back of the neck isn't enough yarn for me to try to salvage and is going to be broken up at the shoulders anyway, so I'm just to cut it off. Each piece of the sweater is going to either have a crochet bind off, or be surged at the top. If it is surged, just cut that part off and pick out all the short cut pieces until you have 1 long strand again. If it has a crochet bind off, you are going to undo it just like you did all of the other crochet seams. Snip 1 of the chains in the chain and unzip it.
You may have a few short strands of yarn at each end of the curved neck shape. That's ok. Just keep unraveling until you're sure that you have 1 long piece.

If you remember, this sweater is a V-neck. 1 side of this V-neck uses the same strand of continuous yarn as the rest of the sweater. The other side joined a new strand at the base of the V-neck. I like to try to unravel the side that is a seperate strand of yarn and ball it up before unraveling the other. The problem is that I have yet to figure out a reliable way to tell which side is which. I usually make my best guess and jump in. This time I got lucky.
Now my sweater pieces are all ready to be harvested for their yarn.
Harvesting Your Yarn:

First things first, figure out how many wraps per inch your yarn is. Do this by taking a ruler, a wpi tool, or a pencil or something with 1 inch marked on it. Wrap your yarn around and around the object as many times as you can in the 1 inch space. Do not wrap too tight, but make sure that there are no gaps. This wraps per inch measurement will give you a good estimate what weight to call your yarn. Use this chart for referance.

There are many ways to unravel and prepare your yarn. Some people simply wind it into traditional round balls directly from the sweater and call it good. This will leave the kinks, or waves still in the yarn. I find that I don't like to knit with wavy yarn. I think it looks sloppy and uneaven and can't wait to block it. I also think that my yarn gets much cleaner if I wash it in skeins than washing it as a whole sweater. The knitted fabric still provides places for dirt and other things to hide while it's still knitted up. Because of this, I prefer to wind my yarn into skeins.

I have wound skeins in many different ways. When I first started out, I wound them around my arm, my leg (from knee to foot) the top of a baby gate, the back of a chair, almost anything that would make a decent length loop. Since then I have gotten a Mama Bear swift that works as a great skein winder and because I completely trashed that one with the amount of yarn I wound, I just got a brand spanking new electric motorized Fricke skein winder. Fancy tools aren't necessary, though. I would measure how many inches around my current skeining method was and then count the wraps as I made them. I like to know the yardage of my yarn so I can plan projects without worrying.

Once your yarn is wound into skeins, tie it in at least 4 places with a figure 8 wrap. It should look like this: This keeps your yarn from tangling up while it's in the skein, and while it's being washed.

Once your yarn is securely tied, fill a sink with VERY hot water and some hair shampoo or wool wash. The hot water is necessary to relax the kinks. Your yarn will not felt if you do not agitate it. Gently push the yarn under the serface of the water until it is all submerged and wet. Let it sit for at least an hour. Gently squeeze the water out and refill the sink with water the same temperature in order to rinse the yarn. If you used wool wash, you can skip this step. Let the yarn soak for a minute or two and then squeeze the water out again. Place the yarn in your washing machine on the spin cycle and let it spin the rest of the water out. Hang the skeins to dry from a hanger. Mine are currently hanging high over a vent, which makes them dry really fast.

Additional Resources: has a fantastic wraps per inch guide. It lists generally what wpi equals what weight of yarn, how many stitches per inch, and aproximately how many yards of yarn you will need for a plain sweater. I don't completely agree with the numbers on the wpi chart, but everyone else seems to agree. Maybe I wrap my yarn too tight. has some lovely printable yarn labels so you can keep your ever growing stash of recycled yarn organized!

-The Thrifty Knitters Group on Ravlery is a great place to ask questions and get support. You have to be a member of in order to join, though.

If I have left something out, or you would like more information on a certain aspect, please let me know and I'll add it in!