How-To: Recycle a Sweater for Yarn

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Shortly after I learned how to knit I read about how one could recycle a sweater for the yarn. Sweet! “Cheap yarn,” I thought! I went to the Salvation Army and picked out a sweater I thought would be good for recycling. Huge, an XXXL, and 100% cotton. It was all cream colored and pretty nice. I took it home and gave it my best shot. Which failed pretty miserably at first. I wasted so much yarn that first time around. I still got enough to make into a sizable bath mat. I used the pattern from Mason Dixon Knitting (what a great knitting book).
After a whole lot of trial and error over the last three years, I’ve been able to get the recycling of sweaters down pretty well.
First you need to pick out a good sweater.

Check the size: Larger is better as it will lead more yarn of the same type and color.
Style of Sweater: A pullover is a dream to rip out. I try to stay away from cardigans because it’s just more seams to take out and sewn button holes are just bad. V-necks and vests often have double knit armholes necks that are just cut edges underneath, so I steer clear of those too.
Colors: Anything with lots of color changes is out. Intarsia is also a big pain, avoid it.
Fiber Content: My favorite is something that is a natural fiber (cotton, wool, cashmere) and has minimal synthetics in it. Look for what you would like to knit.
Gauge: Bringing a ruler to the thrift store to check the gauge if you favor worsted weight yarn (3.5 – 4.5 sts/inch) is a good idea.
Check the seams
Serged seams have to be picked out strand by strand.
Crocheted seams are best, because you can usually find just the right thread, pull it, and the whole seam comes out.
Sewn seams are pretty good too, you can use a seam ripper to pick out the sewn edge.
I’m just going to assume you are going to take my advice and go with a pullover, so you will start with the collar. Find the bind off edge. Don’t use scissors. Or at least, use them very carefully and with great discretion. If you nick the knit fabric, you will get all these little short tangled strands that will drive you mad.
From there, take out the seams.
Find the bind off edge. The yarn end will look like a little lump or a little end sticking out. It should be woven into the ribbing of the collar, go ahead and unweave it and the bind off edge should come unraveled pretty easily.
The arms are pretty straightforward, same as the collar, find the bind off edge, unweave the woven in end and wind it off. The sweater front and back are a little different. You will unbind the one shoulder, then the next, then the bottom of the neck edge.
If you have a ball winder, this is a great time to use it. Just slip the yarn end in and wind your yarn right up.
You now have a sweater’s worth of yarn.
The next step is winding it into a hank and washing it so it can be stored for later use. You may be able to use up a who sweater’s worth of yarn in a couple weeks, but I sure can’t!
The first step is to take all those balls of yarn and put them into hanks. This is for two reasons.
1. Washable in a hank, but not in a skein.
2. It stores better. If kept in a center pull ball it will tangle and get kinked up (like a cake center pull ball) and it will actually loose it’s elesticity from being stored under tension – no good.
You can use two chairs back to back, like this (but winding yarn around the chairs instead of off) or you can use an umbrella swift. I did the latter because I have one, so why not use it right?
Just go around and around until you have a good amount – if you can weigh out the center pull balls and try for about 3.5 oz – 4 oz per hank.
If you can line up the end and the starting thread and tie them together in a figure eight around the hank loosely. Gather up 3 other ties (ribbon, cotton, scraps of fabric all work, just something that won’t bleed dye) and tie off the hank in 4 other places so it’s not a huge tangled mess after washing.
For washing, you really aren’t washing at all, just soaking. I usually use some non-antibacterial soap (like a soap that doesn’t have any of that antibacterial stuff in it) like dishwashing soap.
Add your soap to the sink and fill about 2/3 full with hot water (I just turned the hot and cold taps on full blast). Toss in your yarn and push it into the water – this helps it absorb the water. Let it soak for 20 minutes or so. The longer the better. Drain off the water and fill it again. Keep rinsing until the water runs clear.
Now it’s time for some heavy lifting for that yarn.
Just toss the hanks over your shower bar and put some cans of whatever in the loops to get it to go back into shape. Honestly, a lot of yarns won’t even need this last step. Just the soaking will loosen things up and get it back to good.

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Hi! I am an artist, author, and owner of a modern apothecary called Little Woods in Ames, Iowa.

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