Wednesday, July 13, 2011


If you’ve been to the fabric or craft stores lately, you know that good yarn is not cheap. A hundred yards of fine yarn may cost as much as 7 or 8 dollars. That's one hour or more of the official hourly minimum wage. So, even home production using store-bought yarn doesn't really qualify as an inexpensive craft. Nevertheless, most of us would rather have hand knitted garments and home accessories than manufactured ones. And while there may be fewer items in our closets, handmade items can be real treasures to keep for many years. So, it’s smart to save money and unravel the yarn from old knits to create new things.

Well, you may be asking yourself: “Just who wants to sit down and tear out old sweaters, afghans, etc for the yarn?” Well, Grandma Susan often recycles yarn by tearing out knitted items, and a lot of other people do, too. Yes, it often takes two, three or more hours of work, depending on the kind of knits you're taking apart. So, why even do it?  The answer:  it’s cheap yarn - free if it’s from your own sweater or one given to you or at a cost of only $1-3 at a thrift store. Besides, sometimes it turns out to be more interesting yarn than what we find at the regular fabric and craft stores.  It also points to a philosophical position. Why spend money to obtain what is already available to us at a fraction of the price and at a no-carbon cost to the planet?

Fifty years ago, a lot of women made their own clothes. It was considered a virtue. Why was that? We made our clothing because wages were low and US manufactured goods were expensive, relative to our income. At that time, imported goods were almost prohibitively expensive. Even for those of us who weren’t so handy with a sewing machine, there was almost always a good seamstress in the neighborhood who made us things at a reasonable price. So, what happened? In the 80’s and 90’s a lot of cheap imports began to flood our stores with clothing. R Reagan told us we were going global. We weren’t too sure what that meant, but among our many surprises, it meant that cheap imports would take away almost all our motivation to produce things for our homes, our families and ourselves.

Over time, we came to know more about globalization as we discovered and devoured cheap things from abroad. Unfortunately, in a few decades, that same process led to the closing of much manufacturing in the US. We were told that was also something good. US people were not meant to work in fields and sweat shops, like those poor people in other countries. Instead almost all US people could aspire to office and service jobs. So, every young person should gear up to get the new skilled jobs by going to college or technical schools. Education was to be the key to mobility in the new global order.

But then came the global recession, and now there aren’t very many skilled jobs to be found. Worse still, a good fraction of the population faces unemployment and underemployment. And the few jobs that replace those we lost aren’t paying much more than minimum wage. We are also being made aware that what was cheap overseas labor is getting more expensive. Apparently, those people, too, are hoping (some are fighting) for better wages. Also, the cheap oil that carried imported goods thousands of miles to our stores is getting costlier by the month.

So, once again, the cost of manufactured goods may end up being expensive relative to the average income. And what goes around comes around. We may again be producing food and goods in our homes and locally.  And people who have the time can use it to create worthwhile things. That’s the case in point, and many of us are pleased to produce a part of what we need for our families and ourselves.

My inspiration
Just a month ago, I visited an old friend who is a fine jewelry maker who combines natural and recycled elements in her creations. She told me about how she sells her jewelry in craft fairs all over the South West, and how she'd like to have some hand knit scarves to “show-off” her jewelry at the booths. She believed that a collection of colorful scarves would attract more customers to her booth. Also, she had had some losses from theft in past events and felt that the pieces would be more secure if they were firmly attached to knitted items. Knowing that I’m a knitter, she asked me to make her some scarves. I told her that I would.

And this past month, I sat down and knitted two scarves from yarn that I had on hand from previous projects. Later she told me about a really big craft fair coming up in the fall that features beautiful things made from recycled materials. So, that, too, became part of my challenge. I decide to make some scarves from recycled sweaters that I found at the thrift store. I’ve already unraveled one such sweater and knitted the first scarf. Now, I’m currently unraveling the second sweater and ready to work on the second one. And this is the inspiration for this post - making new things from unraveled sweaters.

Instructions for recycling yarn from old sweaters.
The process is relatively simple, although it will take some time. Be prepared to spend all of one morning or afternoon just unraveling and making yarn balls. The important thing is to choose the items that you wish to tear apart with care. Look for old sweaters that are in good shape and are made from fairly thick yarn. If the yarn is too thin, you'll need to knit together three or more strands at a time. That's not such a simple task. Also, you’ll be much better off, choosing a sweater sewn by hand, not by machine. Look at the inside seams of the sweater. If the seams are made with visible stitches using yarn, it’s got to be a hand-sewn garment. Hand seamed garments unravel in long, continuous pieces, and that  makes them fairly easy to take apart. You’ll lose a lot of time with a machine-sewn sweater making a lot of cuts, row by row and end up with many tie-ends. To make a nice garment, you need long strands of usable yarn not a series of tie-ends.

So, after you’ve located a great - preferably hand-sewn - sweater, get ready to unravel.

1. Locate the seams. Start with the collar. You can usually see the threads on the collar quite well. On one side of the collar seam, you’ll find a thread line. When you look closely, you’ll see that the threads form little V's along the seam. You have to cut and/or pull out the threads on the side opposite the V's to separate the pieces.  If you don't locate any  V's or can't pull out the seams in one piece, procede by cutting the seam threads as carefully as you can - just a fraction of an inch at a time - so as not to break the yarn in the sweater pieces. Use fingers, pointy scissors and a seam ripper as needed. You’ll also have need of a good light. The unraveling process is tiring on the eyes (and really quite boring), so if you become jittery, take a break. Continue finding seams and separating the pieces.

2. After the pieces are sorted out, you're ready to start the unraveling process. Most sweaters are knitted from the bottom up so you will need to start unraveling at the shoulders/neck and work your way down. You’ll probably want to cut off and throw away a few rows that are incomplete or hard to deal with at the tops of the sleeves and at the shoulders and neckline. If the collar is just a few rows long, it may also be a throwaway while the yarn from a larger collar may be usable. Examine each piece and try to find where the piece was finished. This is the starting point for unraveling. Be sure to ball up the yarn as you unravel.

3. The yarn will be kinky, but the process of balling up and reknitting should help straighten out the yarn. If you're still worried about the waviness of the yarn, you can stretch it out, soak it in warm water and set it out in an airy place to dry. You'll also need to ball it up again.

After writing this post, I remembered some important details about unraveling sweaters.  First, for hygiene sake, it's always best to wash any old knitted item in warm water and detergent before handling it. That way you can be fairly sure to have eliminated any harmful bacteria. Second, seam ripping and unraveling will produce a lot of fabric lint. Be prepared for the lint by doing the unraveling outside, on a porch, or in any room other than where you sleep. If you are in a closed room, you may need to wear a dust mask and be ready to sweep up and dust surfaces one or more times.

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Mary Jane said...

I still have the cape that you made me in the sixties. My favorite fall colors. I decided to take it out of the tissue and plastic bag... and use it. Why not? It's still in good shape. I can see me now, sitting on my porch this fall with my cape around me.
I can't knit but I will save any wool sweaters, etc for your next visit or mail it. I'll even card the yarn.
love you Sis,

GrandmaS said...

Thanks for the offer to save me some old wool sweaters. They can also be polyester blends as long as the strands are chunky enough. And you don't have to card them. And, yes, I can see it in my mind's eye: you, sitting on the back porch with that vintage cape on. But have you taken it out and looked at it lately? It may have some holes - from age. (Of course, small holes can always be patched up in some manner.)