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.
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.
How to disassemble and unravel a garment
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.
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.
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!