Well, not really, but it’s definitely the cheapest way to get yourself a sweater quantity of yarn quickly–nice yarn, too. I tore apart a 100% silk sweater last night and recently made cashmere/camel/wool mittens out of recycled sweaters, for a total price of….$3, maybe? I got the sweaters at a dollar-fifty-a-pound thrift store here in Boston. The following is a tutorial on the process. Click any of the pictures to embiggen.
In order to deconstruct sweaters, you only really need one thing.
It’s possible to do this with scissors, but I don’t recommend it. It’s way too easy to accidentally cut more than you meant to, ending up with a bunch of short, useless lengths of yarn instead of a lovely long skein. I picked this seam ripper up cheap at Michaels.
A water vessel, and a dust mask. Sweater recycling is dusty, sneezy work without one (she says, blowing her nose.)
This is our victim for today:
A note on choosing sweaters: While in the store, you want to check for “good” seams, i.e., sweaters put together using crochet seams. They look like this on one side:
See the <<<<<< shape made by the crochet chain? The other side of the seam looks like this:
See the purl bumps? If the sweater you’re looking at has serged seams on the inside, it doesn’t matter how nice the fiber is, throw that sucker back. It’ll be impossible to unravel. Go for pullovers; cardigans are possible but between steeks and buttonholes, the front pieces are usually not worth the effort. Be realistic about the fineness of the gauge of the sweater: will you really unravel and entire threadweight sweater, even if it is cashmere/cotton? (Hint: NO DON’T DO IT SAVE YOURSELF.)
Okay, got a good sweater candidate? Turn that baby inside out. I like to take the sleeves off a sweater first, so pick one and look down near the cuff. Most sweaters are constructed so that the seam unzips from the cuff up. Locate the <<<<< side of the crocheted chain.
Slide your trusty seam ripper underneath both legs of the crochet chain, on a link as close to the cuff as you can.
Rip! Then, with your fingers, pull the seam apart a little. There should be a hole in it where you cut the link:
See that straggly bit of yarn below and to the right of my finger? Pull it, and watch the crochet chain unzip! It’ll want to go to the purl-bump side of the seam; let it. You may need to coax the unzipping along by tugging apart the seam occasionally as you pull on the seam yarn.
Let the chain go as long as it lets you; sometimes it continues around the armpit bend and proves to be the side seam as well. Sometimes you’ll need to cut another chain-link to tear apart the side seam of the body. See how the sleeve is now just a floppy piece of flat knit? Woohoo!
This is the essence of recycling sweaters: finding the crochet chain and making it work for you. Go back and find the shoulder seams. Find the <<<<<<, snip it, and you're golden, baby! Go crazy and find crochet seams (usually, one per sleeve, two per shoulder, maybe one per body-side, maybe a neckband.) Undo them all!
You’ll wind up with a pile of detritus, little yarn shreds and thread snips along with the longer yarn seam pieces, which are usually a thinner yarn made up with fewer plies than the main yarn.
They’re prone to blowing about and making a mess, so dunk them in a glass of water to tone down their sneezecausing properties.
Sometimes you'll come across a sweater with a neckline that is not part of the body piece, but instead seamed on separately. Not a problem, they use crochet chains with that too.
See where it’s running, right underneath my thumb? <<<<< is your friend.
Occasionally you'll need to undo tags, like care and content tags. These are sewn on with cotton or nylon thread, Just slip your seam ripper under the corner stitches where the tag is held on the tightest to cut them loose. You may have to do this to a couple of different stitches.
Tags come off in one piece and pretty easily, allowing you to get on your seam-undoing way.
Eventually, you should have a collection of flat-knit pieces. Usually, there are four: two sleeves, a front, and a back. You’ll unravel them from the top down, so look at the top cast-off edge. See anything familiar?
Unravel the cast-off and then you can get down to the business of turning flat-knit pieces into their component yarn! Some people unravel directly onto a swift or niddy-noddy, but I like making yarn balls because it gives me the option of creating thicker yarns by winding two or more strands together before skeining it up. I don’t usually recycle knits as chunky as this, so I find that the most useful.
The yarn is knittable as-is, although the crimpiness of the frogged yarn might mess with your gauge. In order to remove that kinkiness, and because it came straight from thrift store, you may want to wash the yarn: skein it via your preferred method, tie the skein with figure-8 ties in at least four places, and place your yarn into a basin of hot water with a squeeze of wool wash or hair shampoo. Do NOT agitate the yarn, or it will felt! Unless it’s cotton or silk or linen or something, in which case, do your worst if you want to. Let it soak for 20-30 minutes, then remove the yarn, dump the water (it might be a rather nasty color), and refill the basin with new hot water. Soak the skeins in the rinsing bath. Add a little hair conditioner or vinegar to recondition the yarn. After 20-30 minutes, lift the skeins out, lay them on a thirsty towel, and roll the towel up into a yarn-drying burrito. Jump up and down on it a couple of times like you’re crushing grapes, and then hang your damp skeins up to air-dry.
Congratulations! Pour yourself a glass of wine. You just got a sweater’s worth of yarn for a couple of dollars! If you have any questions, please ask them below.