Sunday, February 8, 2009

It's All About Wool

First, remember the miniature sweaters and hats from a couple weeks ago? Apparently, they were well received.

It's been so cold in Portland lately, that even Barbie, who usually dresses like a streetwalker wears much less clothing, decided it was time for wool.

And I plied two bobbins of wool on Friday night. This is the Romney cross that Kathleen brought me from New Zealand. It's resting on the bobbin right now, to be skeined and set later in the week.

This is a lovely reddish brown and very soft. I'm not sure what I'll do with it yet, though. I might just put it on the mantle and admire it for a while.

Remember the sweaters from Goodwill? I decided to deconstruct the big wool one and blog the whole thing while I was at it. If you're on a dial-up Internet connection, I apologize in advance. This is a long post and has a lot of pictures. You might want to go get a cup of coffee or tea, maybe a snack, and come back.

Back already? Okay, here we go:

First, when I look for sweaters to recycle in my local Goodwill and other thrift shops, I check the men's racks first. Not only are their sweaters HUGE (providing a lot of yarn), but the quality is usually better, and they're less worn so it's less likely they'll be felted or stained.

I go down the rack just feeling each sweater: "crap", "crap", '"cotton", "crap", "might be wool". When you get to a "might be wool", pull it out and take a good look at it. Here's what to look for:

A label for fiber content. If it's not on the back of the neck, check the side seam; that's where this one was.

OK, it's not 100% wool; it's 15% nylon, but it's still really good wool. And very tightly machine knit, so it'll give a lot of yardage. Next, look at the seams.

If the seams look like this, put it back on the rack. These seams have been serged. That means the sweater was cut out of flat knitted pieces and seamed together, not knit back and forth like a hand-made sweater.

You're looking for seams like this:

This seam does not have any thread wrapping around the edges, but just to be sure, pry that seam open and take a look.

You should be able to see yarn holding the two pieces together and the two slip-stitch edges. Just like Mom used to make. Unless the price is exorbitant, put this one in the cart to go home with you.

Other sections in the thrift shops to look for recycleable wool is the ladies' large section. And don't forget the ponchos; they were so popular a few years ago and now are showing up in the thrift shops. I look for sweaters that are either a single color or in large color blocks. While the stripes look great, unless you're really into fair isle patterns, you don't get enough of any one color to really make the deconstruction worthwhile. Also, check for any glaring stains that might not come out in the wash. I've never found anything with moth evidence, but I check all the same. No need to bring home a treasure only to find your entire stash destroyed later.

If the sweater is really soiled, I'll wash it before deconstruction. This one was pretty clean; in fact, it didn't look like it had been worn at all, so I could gather my tools and go straight to work.

Here's what you'll need: a pair of short, very sharp scissors, cuticle scissors work great; a good pair of tweezers for picking out threads, a magnifying glass, a plastic bag for the waste bit, and good light. I like to work on in our master bedroom where I have plenty of room and good light. I also get a cup of tea, find something interesting to listen to on the telly, and the dog. Ready? Here we go:

First, off with the label! Sorry 'bout that, I was channeling Henry VIII from The Other Boleyn Girl.

This is where the magnifying glass comes in. If you can snip the first stitch or two, the label usually comes off pretty easily. Save the fiber content label and attach it to the relaxed skeins later. Trust me, in six months, you will not remember what the content was.

Next, the back neck label. Snip those threads on top of the label, just to make sure you don't accidentally clip the yarn.

This sweater has twill tape sewn inside the back neck to keep it from stretching out. Neat idea that I'll try to remember for my own sweaters. But, it has to come out, too.

Again, it's sewn in with thread, so start snipping on top of the tape. Once a stitch or two has been loosened up, you can start pulling it away and snipping the stitches.

I don't bother with pulling out the threads; they'll fall out as you unravel later.

Now, it's time to examine just how this sweater was constructed, so we can work in reverse order.

The neckband looks like it has a seam around the inside and the outside, and it goes over the shoulder seams. So, it's probably a separate band that's been attached. But, there's no thread to be seen, so it must be sewn down with yarn. First, let's see if we can find the beginning of that seam.

The seam looks like a crochet chain stitch on the inside of the collar. If we can loosen that up, it should zip right off.

There it goes!

Yep, the neckband was knitted separately then secured from the inside with that chain stitch. Another neat trick to remember for my own knitting.

While there's not a lot of yarn in the neckband, it does have that nice navy blue, which is on the inside of the cuffs and hem, so I'll save it for unraveling. It might make a nice trim for a pair of mittens or on a hat.

Now, let's look at the cuffs and hem. They only show a seam on the inside; again, over the seams, and there's that crochet chain stitch again. Find the end and unzip them.

They weren't separate bands, like the neck; they were knitted right on, so they'll be unraveled when we get to that part.

Next, we have to take apart the big pieces of the sweater: front, back, and sleeves. Let's figure out what order it was constructed in, and we can reverse the order.

This is the side/underarm seam. Since it goes over the sleeve seam, we know it was done after the sleeve was sewn in.

And here's the shoulder seam. Since the sleeve seam goes over it, we know the shoulder seam was done first. So the manufacturer put the sweater together like this: shoulder seam, sleeve seam, side/underarm seam. All we have to do is reverse the order.

First, undo the side seams. This manufacturer used the same crochet chain stitch for all the construction so far, so the side seams just zipped open, leaving a huge flat knitted piece, rather like a poncho.

Next, undo the sleeves from the body. Again, the manufacturer used that crochet chain stitch, so it unzipped easily. If mattress stitch is used, you're going to do a lot of pulling yarn back and forth. If mattress stitch is used, I don't recommend cutting it open as the loose bits will snag the unraveling process on the side of every row. Go ahead, ask me how I know this.

We now have two nice flat sleeves separated from the body. Set them aside for unraveling while we take a look at the front and back of the sweater.

Uh, oh. It's a dreaded serged seam. While the manufacturer took care to use the crochet chain stitch everywhere else, the used a serger here. Know why? Because it's hard to teach machines how to do short rows, that's why. It's much easier to just tell the machine to knit it flat and longer than needed then cut off what you don't want.

But, that means we have a bunch of rows made up of short pieces of yarn. Get your scissors, find a row that goes all the way across the shoulder and snip away.

I know, it feels completely wrong to cut knitting. But you'll find out that it does not magically unravel before your eyes, does it? No, it just sits there. Because this is wool and those little cut bits are keeping the stitches from unraveling. You may find that the neck edge is cut, also. If it is, just keep unraveling until you get to a row that goes from side seam to side seam. But don't completely unravel yet!

You should now have four flat pieces of knitting to unravel: front, back, and two sleeves.

And this is what is the waste out of the sweater. Remember, this weighed about 1 and 1/4 pounds when we started.

Now, let the unraveling begin!

You can do this yourself, but a willing helper is appreciated.

And a reel or swift helps, although you could use two dining room chairs, set back to back a couple feet apart; or a laundry basket turned upside down. Anything to wind the yarn around that's sturdy enough to hold a considerable amount and withstand the pressure.

An audience is nice, but not required. It'd be nice if they show at least a small amount of interest, though.

Unravel one piece at a time onto your reel or whatever. Try not to stretch the yarn; it'll put a lot of pressure on your reel or swift and might break pieces. Plus, if it's tight, it'll be really hard to get off. When one piece is unraveled and wound, you'll need to tie leases on the skein.

I use leftover pieces of acrylic yarn (because I know it won't bleed dye) in a color different from the skeined yarn (makes them easier to find later). Each lease is tied in a figure 8; splitting the skein width-wise into 2 or 3 sections. This will help keep the rounds from tangling. Tie the leases in at least 4 places for the sleeves; use 6 or 8 leases for the front and back pieces. Don't tie them too snuggly, though, you want the yarn inside the leases to absorb water, which won't happen if their too tight.

After the leases are tied, you can clip the skein off the reel.

The yarn will relax back into the shape of the stitches. It'll look like a big pile to Top Ramen noodles. We could knit with it like this, but it wouldn't be fun. We need to get the yarn to relax. And it might be dirty. Let's kill two birds with one stone by giving it a nice long bath.

You can use an expensive wool soak, your favorite laundry detergent, or shampoo from the Dollar Tree. Since this was fairly clean, and really just needs relaxing, I opt for inexpensive shampoo/conditioner for this and save the fancy wool wash for finished items later.

I fill the guest bathtub with hot water, as hot as I can get it. Then drizzle in some shampoo/conditioner and add yarn.

Mmmmm, the smell of wet wool!

Just submerge the skeins gently and let them soak. Do not be tempted to agitate or you might wind up with one giant felted mess. I leave them a couple of hours, until the water is tepid. Pick up the skeins and squeeze the soapy water out of them one at a time. Warning, they'll be very heavy! I lay them on the side of the tub to drain the water out. Trust me, you do not want the skeins anywhere near that drain plug! Then I fill the tub with lukewarm water and give them a quick rinse. Squeeze the water out again, this time getting as much water as possible out. I wring the skeins at this point, but if you do that, be sure to twist the skein in the same direction as the yarn is spun (probably to the right), otherwise you'll be untwisting the yarn.

I hang the skeins on plastic hangers over the tub for a few hours, until they stop dripping. Then, I move them to a drying rack in the guestroom.

I haven't checked the yardage yet. My reel is 2 yards around, so I'll count the strands in each skein for an approximation when it's dry. I'll also label each skein with the yardage and fiber content (you did save the tag, right?) before putting it in the stash.

And those small little bits of blue from the neck, hem and cuffs? They got added to other leftover wool and made into felt dryer balls which will be gifts for my sisters in law and nieces.


  1. Wow, that is a LOT of wool! I'm really curious to learn the final yardage. Thanks for spec-ing out the process. By the way, what are the dryer balls for?

  2. That, my dear, you will have to wait to find out! Actually, it'll probably be in the next post. ;)

  3. Marvelous tutorial! And as an ex-Pendleton employee, I applaud your re-cycling of the superb yarn!

  4. Awesome! I'm envious of how much you got out of the sweater. Makes me want to go shopping at Goodwill for such a find!

  5. Wow that was an excellent tutorial! I never realized that recycling a sweater took that much thinking and effort.

  6. That is cool! I've only frogged sweaters of my own, not purchased. That's impressive!

  7. Nicely done tutorial. Great photos - clear instructions. Is the technical term "clipping the skein off the reel"?

    "After the leases are tied, you can clip the skein off the reel."

    Maybe say pull it off the reel so no one ends up with little pieces of yarn. Well, probably if they are into fiber enough to have a wheel they would already know, but just in case.


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