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How to Recycle Yarn from Second-Hand Sweaters

February 4, 2021
Antler Toque Pattern
Ayanda is wearing our free Antler toque pattern, which I knit with yarn I recycled from a second-hand sweater.

As designers, Alexa and I are lucky enough to knit with pretty much whatever tickles our fancy. We often work in luxury yarns. And while we adore shopping for shiny new yarns, we know from experience that this is not what knitting is about. Of all the things our shared craft is about, for knitters across time and place, it is not about shine.

When I first fell head-over-heels in love with knitting, and started a blog about it over 10 years ago, I had just finished university. I didn’t yet have a job and thus had relatively little cash on hand for hobbies. Back then, I looked at the price of new yarns in knit shops, and I honestly didn’t understand how anyone could afford it. What I did have then, in my pre-mommy days, was a ton of time. So, to make my new hobby more wallet friendly, I learned how to recycle second-hand sweaters.

Does this look like the kind of yarn you’d be happy knitting with?! Yup? Well, it’s the result of my own yarn recycling, plus a little yarn-dying love from my friend Nina at Rainbow Heirloom.

I would carefully unravel thrifted garments back into yarn, which I would then knit into new items. For $5-$10, I could find a wool jumper, and with a few hours of effort, have a sweater quantity of yarn. I also experimented with simple dying techniques and ended up with a selection of my own hand-dyed yarns!

It’s useful for me to remember those days. Back then, knitting with recycled yarn or more affordable acrylic yarn was no less enticing, fascinating, pleasurable, and joyful than it is now that I knit with more expensive materials. In some ways, it was even MORE exciting because everything about knitting was still so new. Alexa and I both loved it then, when we worked with what we could access and afford. And we still love it now, no matter what kind of yarn is on our needles.

Shopping for a garment to unravel

If you’d like to try recycling yarn for yourself, I have a few tips to share, starting with how to find the right second-hand sweater.

  • Construction: It’s critical that the sweater pieces have been KNIT to shape, rather than made with knitted fabric that was CUT to shape.
  • Crochet Chain Seams: If the seams look like they’ve been made by a serger (like the seams inside a T-shirt), steer clear. Look for seams that are easy to unpick; they will look like a little column of Vs, as you can see in the image below.
  • Fibre Content: Check the label to see the fibre content of the sweater; I always sought wool and wool blends.
  • Weight: It’s best to look for heavier/chunkier sweaters because they will unravel into yarn that’s a suitable gauge for use in hand-knitting patterns. That said, it is possible to unravel finer-gauge sweaters and then hold several strands of yarn together when knitting.
  • Pullovers: Often, when commercially made cardigans have button bands, the yarn is cut where the buttonholes are made, so you’ll end up having several shorter bits of yarn from unravelling a cardigan. This can be fine if you’re willing to spit-splice often or weave in many ends, but it’s better if you don’t have to!
  • Felting: Is it felted? If the fabric is felted together, it won’t unravel, so look for fabric that shows spaces and rows when stretched (horizontally and vertically). This makes it more likely that you’ll be able to unravel it successfully.
detail of a knit sweater seam
You can tell a couple of things by looking at this seam: the fabric pieces have been knit to shape, not cut (there’s no raw edges), and the seam is a crochet-chain style seam, rather than sewn with an overlocker. Look for these things when choosing sweaters for recycling.
fingers holding a garment tag
Choose wool or wool blends when shopping for sweaters to recycle.

How to disassemble and unravel a garment

a pink sweater laid flat, and a cat
I bought this sweater from a local second-hand shop to recycle into yarn.

Sweaters tend to be seamed last at the body sides and underarms, so that’s a good place to begin unpicking. If you can get ahold of the right end of the crochet chain that seams the sides, you can often just pull, and the majority of the seam will ‘unzip’ like magic. After you’ve taken apart the sides and underarm seams, you can unpick the sleeves from the yoke.

detail of a stitch picker unpicking a sweater seam
I began with a stitch picker, cutting the seam at the sleeve cuff.
detail of unpicking a sweater seam
Once I got started, I was able to simply pull, and the crochet-chain seam ‘unzipped’.
an inside-out sweater with one seam unpicked
The sweater, inside out, with one of the side and sleeve seams unpicked.
a pink sweater taken to pieces
Once you have unpicked all the seams, you’ll have several pieces of knit fabric, ready to begin unravelling.

You may need to cut off the shaped part at the front neckline/back, before unravelling downwards, depending on how the neckline was worked in the commercial sweater. You will find most jumpers have been knit from the bottom (hem, cuffs) upward, which means when unravelling them, you must unravel from the top of the piece (shoulder, neckline) and work downwards. They must be unravelled in the opposite direction from which they were knit.

unraveling a sweater

Once you’ve got a good piece, cut off the top edge, find an end, and start pulling. The yarn can be a bit sticky at the ends of rows, so take it slowly to begin – and expect to spend some time on the process. If there are parts of the fabric where the wool is felted, you may need to cut off a few rows before it will continue to unravel. Spit-splicing is your friend here if you’re working with wool yarns. Otherwise, get comfortable with having many yarn ends to weave in.

a shopping bag with yarn spaghetti inside

I always unpick my yarn into a pile of ‘yarn spaghetti’ in a big paper or plastic bag. As long as no kids or pets get at it, you’ll be able to pull it back up out of the bag without tangling on the next step.

How to prepare recycled yarn for knitting

a pile of yarn spaghetti and a kinky skein
  • Once the yarn is unraveled, wind it around something to form it into skeins. Tie it in a few places, so it doesn’t get tangled when you wash or dye it.
  • If you plan to over-dye your recycled yarn, soak and rinse it first, and then pop it into the dye pot to give it a new life!
  • For recycled yarns you want to use as-is, simply give them a gentle wash with some shampoo, allowing them plenty of time to soak. Then hang them to drip dry, perhaps with a little weight hanging off the bottom of the skein to remove some of the kinkiness.
  • After dyeing or drying, wind up the yarns into balls for use. If you don’t have a ball-winder and swift, follow our tutorial on how to hand-wind a centre-pull ball of yarn. You can work with these yarns held singly or by holding two or more strands together to achieve a heavier gauge.
  • With recycled yarns, it’s necessary to do more swatching, as there’s no ball band to tell you which needles to choose.
a ball of deep red yarn, and a work in progress
It’s so delicious! Knitting with this recycled yarn has been a joy; I’ll share more photos of the finished hat in a coming post.

My best find!

My best-find-ever for recycling yarn was a large sweater in aran-weight 100% cashmere. I unraveled it and over-dyed the yarn from baby blue to this knockout cobalt colour. I then knit up a new sweater using the February Lady Sweater pattern, an adult design inspired by Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Baby Sweater on Two Needles.

a woman in a blue cardigan, taking a photo in the mirror

A couple of other really lovely projects I knit with recycled yarns were a Laminaria shawl, and a Pi blanket.

Buying second-hand in the age of fast fashion

It’s important to recognize that my ability to go thrifting for sweaters made from luxury fibres is, at least in part, a symptom of fast fashion, which is a problematic system for many reasons. When I find cashmere sweaters sold second hand, I know there’s a whole industry behind them – one that’s overwhelmingly damaging to workers’ lives and the environment, producing masses of garments for unsustainably low dollar values. When the cost of new garments is low for wealthy Westerners, dropping bags of ‘old’ clothes at a second-hand shop before going to buy the next season’s wardrobe becomes commonplace.

There’s also an issue with the growing trend of buying second-hand clothing. When thrift shops are frequented by middle class and affluent customers, prices can rise beyond what’s affordable for those with less cash. Those who truly need to shop for low cost clothing can find themselves priced out of the market.

That said, within the system we have now, reusing fibres – and thus saving them from a landfill where they would otherwise end up – still seems to me to be a good thing. And if new yarn isn’t in the budget, recycling thrifted sweaters is one way into knitting with an affordable price tag.

If you’re curious about sustainable and ethical fashion, the problems with fast fashion, how racism intersects with these issues, and how to shop for alternatives, Alexa and I LOVE the personal style and critical thoughts of Aja Barber. Aja delivers both pearly wisdom (seasoned with a generous dash of style inspiration) to our inbox via her Patreon. She also can also be found on Instagram.

Be sure to comment if you have any tips for making knitting more affordable, ethical, and sustainable. We’d love to hear from you!

~ Emily

25 Comments leave one →
  1. Lauri permalink
    February 11, 2021 10:41 am

    Great post! I just unraveled a tweed vest project I had abandoned years ago. Love the tips on how to recondition the wool.

  2. Bridget permalink
    February 10, 2021 9:59 am

    My mum , who is very thrifty, would always do that with old handknit sweaters that she had made and didn’t wear anymore. It was a way to make new ones without spending money. I didn’t know that people still did this. It is nice to know that people are still recycling yarn and putting it to good use with a new sweater. I love the blue cashnere sweater in the picture. It is beautiful.

  3. Christine permalink
    February 10, 2021 2:53 am

    Hi Emily, that’s a brilliant article!
    You’ve brought back childhood memories of holding up washed skeins, while my mum wound them into balls. When charity shops open up again after Lockdown, you’ll have inspired me to go on the hunt for great yarn to unravel.

  4. Kathy Schilling permalink
    February 9, 2021 8:38 pm

    I do that! Opt for the expensive yarn of course, like she said. FUN

  5. Susan Riemschneider permalink
    February 8, 2021 3:04 pm

    My Mother-in-law would unravel sweaters for me and wind them into beautifully tight balls to be reknit! She also gave me wonderful German wool + Nylon yarn to knit into great socks.

  6. February 8, 2021 4:50 am

    Hi I do this to once I’ve unravelled it all I put water in a pan use a lid with a hole in it thread the end of the yarn thought it once its started boiling as i pill the yarn the steam straightens it I then hang it over my curtain pole above my radiator and it dries in no time lovely and straight already for a new project rose x

  7. February 8, 2021 4:45 am

    Wow Em, love the tips and am again amazed at what you can do. Also am going to snag the February Lady Sweater pattern. Such a great find!

  8. Mary-grace permalink
    February 8, 2021 1:55 am

    Hi the best way to get the wrinkles out of wool that has been unwound or being recycled, is to wind the wool round a metal coat hanger which you have shaped to form two straight sides. Next use steam from a kettle or a hand steamer. Just a couple of minutes with the steam removes the wrinkles and then the wool can be rolled into balls.
    Hope you will try this method.

  9. Patricia McClintock permalink
    February 7, 2021 6:35 pm

    Really enjoyed your details on how yo unravel an old garment. I have been in inspired. Thank you

  10. Ingvill permalink
    February 6, 2021 2:46 am

    Supert 💚💚💚

  11. Maria permalink
    February 6, 2021 2:12 am

    I just finished a cardigan from a yarn that was sitting in my cupboard for 25 years. It was originally knitted into a jumper, which I wore a few times and unraveled. Recently I dyed it as I didn’t like the original colour and knitted a cardigan for myself. Have enough left for a kid’s jumper. There was a kilo of yarn originally!

    • Helen Fox-Noble permalink
      February 8, 2021 3:19 am

      This is nothing new. My mother was un picking old knitted garments to make in to something new many years ago. A throw back from the war years of mending and making do I think.
      She was always knitting gloves and hats and cardigans. Every old jumper she got from a jumble sale was un picked and made into a lovely garment to keep us kids smart.
      Today is such a throw away society and nobody ever seems to want to put in that extra bit of effort. Recycle is the way forward.

  12. Belinda Albury permalink
    February 6, 2021 1:30 am

    Thanks very much for this post. A lot of my clothing comes from charity shops (Opportunity Shops, as we call them here in Australia), but I haven’t yet tried this. I really love the combo of supporting a charity plus the sustainability of buying second hand. I do, however, appreciate your reflection on middle-class people pricing others out of the second-hand market. I may be in danger of contributing to that and need to think about that aspect. Thank you!

  13. Paola permalink
    February 6, 2021 1:21 am

    Clear and very useful tutorial, thank you! And your recycled knits are stunning – I especially love the February Lady Sweater.
    May I suggest, when unraveling, that the yarn can be wound directly on a niddy noddy, if available, thus skipping the bag step?

    • February 7, 2021 10:57 pm

      Great suggestion :) I haven’t done it that way, but it could work well, and avoid tangles!

  14. G-Mum in the REAL Washington! (state, not DC) permalink
    February 5, 2021 2:37 pm

    Ooooooh, I am inspired anew! It’s been decades since I have thrift shopped for a sweater to unravel and re-knit. Your tips were a welcome review, and some new steps as well. I never gave it a thought to redye the wool….that puts more choices into the running! Thanks for the washing tips…it might sound silly to you, but I wonder if next time you could say why that’s best….I washed after the garment was remade and worn…EW! is what I am now thinking! I am older now and am less in a hurry to mass produce for gifts; enjoying all the steps and taking the time for each one makes me look forward to learning to treasure each step of this survival craft….I might even mask up and head out to my local thrift stores tomorrow! Thank you so much for sharing!…..and it would be wonderful if you could share the hat pattern! 😉

  15. Tracey Wilbourn permalink
    February 5, 2021 10:31 am

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness of this post, at a time when buying high-priced yarn is out of reach for many. Thank you for sharing!

  16. February 5, 2021 9:11 am

    Have you ever offered to take a thrift shop’s one-or-two-moth-hole-having rejects? I can’t imagine a big outfit like the Salvation Army doing something like that, but perhaps smaller shops would?

  17. Brenda permalink
    February 5, 2021 7:14 am

    Excellent article. Thanks so much.

  18. Liz McCann permalink
    February 5, 2021 6:56 am

    Wow. Good post. Your recycled items are gorgeous. Will need to look into second hand stores and see what beautiful yarns I can find and see if I can unravel and wash. It looks like a job worth looking into. Thanks for your info.

  19. February 4, 2021 5:55 pm

    Love this idea. Thanks for all the tips. Next time I make yarn spaghetti I’m going to try using a bag to keep it in check!

  20. February 1, 2021 9:13 am

    I wanted to share the post about recycling sweater yarn on social media, but the link does not work, alas–the dreaded 404 pops up when you click on it.

    And when I went to your site, the most recent blog post is about Strange Brew sweaters.

    Please advise.

    Many thanks,

    June

    • February 4, 2021 1:29 pm

      Hi! Sorry, we had a bit of a glitch there, but the post is up and running now!

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