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How to Knit With Recycled Yarn

February 11, 2021
laughing child in red cabled hat
I knit this lovely version of our free Antler hat in yarn that I recycled from a second-hand sweater.

Did you read our tutorial How to Recycle Yarn from Second-hand Sweaters? Recycling yarn is essentially just unpicking second-hand sweaters and then pulling and pulling, until you’ve unravelled the fabric back into yarn. This is something I did A LOT of when I first began my love affair with knitting. If you’d like to learn how to recycle yarn step-by-step, be sure to check out the tutorial!

Once you’ve got some lovely recycled yarn on hand, what’s next? Let’s talk about knitting with the results! Before you can choose a project, you’ll need to figure out:

1. What gauge the recycled yarn will knit to.
2. Approximately how much yardage you have.
3. What the yarn is made of.

deep red yarn
My recycled yarn was over-dyed to a luscious deep red by my friend Nina, dyer at Rainbow Heirloom.

What gauge will the recycled yarn knit to?

First, there’s the question of what gauge you can achieve with the yarn you’ve created. When working with recycled yarn from a second-hand jumper, you won’t have a ball band to tell you what the yarn is made of, its yardage, or the suggested gauge and needle size. You’ll have to figure these things out yourself.

detail of a yarn end showing multiple plies
The recycled yarn I used for this Antler toque was made up of six plies held together.

The ‘construction’ of recycled yarn may be a little different from what you’re accustomed to. For example, this yarn I recycled is actually composed of six strands knit. It was not plied – it was simply knit with the six strands at once. Now it appears to hold together as a single strand, due to the light felting that occurred with wear and processing. But that’s no problem; it knit up just fine!

Measure gauge from the garment before recycling it back to yarn

unpicking a sweater back to yarn

A quick way to guess what gauge you’ll knit is by measuring the gauge of the original garment you unravelled (before you take it to pieces!). Although the machine-knit fabric of the garment you’re recycling may be a bit more dense than the fabric you want to create, this can provide a sensible starting spot.

Measure WPI – wraps per inch – to assess yarn weight

I like to do a quick wraps per inch (WPI) test on recycled yarn before I begin working with it. You can do this by wrapping the yarn around a ruler and counting how many wraps fit into one inch. Then you can check Ravelry’s WPI gauge table to find the weight equivalent of your WPI. Alternatively, you might find it more effective to compare your recycled yarn to a commercial yarn that you have on hand to see if it has more, less, or the same WPI.

Knit gauge swatches to determine gauge

The most accurate way to determine gauge is to knit one or more gauge swatches on different needle sizes. These swatches will tell you precisely what gauge your recycled yarn knits to, and as a bonus, they’ll reveal the quality of the resulting fabric. And if you’re planning to knit something that depends on gauge for fit, you’ll definitely need to swatch.

How much yardage do you have? 

There’s nothing more frustrating than beginning a project and then discovering near the end that you don’t have enough yarn to finish it. Since recycled yarns don’t come with a ball band to tell you the exact yardage, you’ll need to estimate it. This may seem daunting, but I have a few suggestions to help you figure it out.

Snap Hat Pattern
The Snap hat is knit by creating a marled ombre of scraps!

Calculate yardage by measuring the skein and counting loops

By measuring how long the loop of a skein is (say, 24″ around) and counting the number of strands you have in your skein (say there are 120 loops), you can multiply the two numbers to get the length of yarn in the skein: 120 loops x 24″ = 2880″ total. To convert inches to yards, divide by 36 (because there are 36″ in one yard). For our example, 2880″ / 36″ = 80 yards.

yarn spaghetti and a kinky skein

Extrapolate using weight

If you’ve calculated the length of a single skein by weighing it, you can work out how much you have total in the lot of recycled yarn. (You will need a kitchen scale for this.) Say you know that a skein measures 80 yds, and it weighs 35 g; you can divide the length / weight. In this case, 80 yds / 35 g = 2.286 yards in a single gram of the yarn. By getting the total weight of the recycled yarn (let’s say it’s 250g), you can calculate the total yardage by multiplying total weight x yards per gram, or 250 x 2.286 = 571 yds.

It’s best to remember that all of the above is still somewhat approximate, so take your own calculations with a grain of salt!

Make a smaller project

If you’re still uncertain about yardage, stick with smaller projects like socks, hats, and other accessories. Smaller sized sweaters are also good choices. If you have recycled yarn from a men’s size L jumper, you can probably use the results to make a child’s sweater or women’s size S, as long as the nature of the stitch pattern doesn’t require vastly different amounts of yarn.

Combine yarns in colourwork or striped projects

When you aren’t certain whether a lot of yarn will be enough to complete an entire blanket, shawl, or sweater, you can combine two lots – and stripes are so much fun to knit!

Playdate Cardigan
I worked this little Playdate cardigan in single-row stripes, which blended two colourways together in a satisfying way.

If you’re working with lighter-weight recycled yarns, holding two different strands together as one to make up to a heavier weight yarn could be a good solution. And we have a tutorial on how to knit with two or more yarns held together to create marled fabric that just might inspire you!

What is the recycled yarn made of? 

When recycling yarn, I like to take note of the fibre content listed on the garment tag – that way I know what I’m working with. If the garment has no tag, you’ll have to take your best guess, but you can use your senses to come to a reasonable conclusion. If it smells sheepy when you wet it, it’s probably got some sheep’s wool in it. If it smells a little like a dead bug, it’s probably got some silk content. If it melts when you burn it, you’ve got some plastic in there. Cotton usually feels pretty cottony and doesn’t have any stretch to it. But, of course, the most reliable way to know is to look at the garment tag!

The sweater I recycled was a blend of 80% wool and 20% nylon.

What will you knit?! Decisions, decisions! 

You can make anything from recycled yarn that you can make from new yarn. I suggest selecting a pattern based on the the yarn itself, considering its fibre content and its properties – whether it’s scratchy or soft, elastic and springy (wool and blends), or ropey and smooth without any stretch (cotton or linen).

With this beautiful worsted/aran weight recycled yarn, I decided to knit something simple, selected from among our free patterns. The free Antler toque is a classic, and it makes a great first or second cable project. For an even SIMPLER first cable project, we suggest the free Northward hat pattern.

Have you tried your hand at knitting with recycled yarn? Let us know what has your experience been like!

~ Emily

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Liz Morse permalink
    February 11, 2021 9:49 am

    Any good suggestions for getting the kinks out?

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