I have been asked by several people how they can recycle sweaters to use the yarn for their projects. There are several tutorials out there, but as this is something very near and dear to my heart that I've been doing for a long time, I plan on giving my very thorough steps, tips, and tricks with this tutorial. This will end up being a series of posts, perhaps once a week, as if I tried to make it one post it would be very long (and believe me, they will probably be long anyway).
How to Unravel a Sweater Part 1 – Picking A Sweater (Fiber)
So you’ve decided you want to unravel a sweater to use the yarn for something new. Before you rush out and grab your scissors and the closest sweater to you, there are some things you have to think about before you begin surgery on your unsuspecting garment. Not all sweaters are created equal, and not all sweaters are suitable for unraveling. Here are several things to check out and inspect before you buy a thrift store sweater or ruin that cardigan in your mom’s closet.
Some of the choice in fiber content will be based on personal preference and what you want to do with the yarn. I know a lot of people who say that you shouldn't unravel anything but wool because nothing else is worth unraveling. I think that is bull, but it just depends on your needs and what you're willing to put up with. I’ll address the fibers I commonly see in thrift stores, but this is not to say that you won't stumble across some fiber I've never seen.
If you find a sweater that is a protein fiber, more often than not, it will not say anything more detailed than “wool” or “lamb’s wool.” This is the more common protein fiber you’ll most likely come across. Wool is normally a good bet, unless of course you’re allergic. Make sure you like the feel of the sweater though, as wool can vary greatly in feel. Wool is great because for the most part it will unravel with spin still in it, you can dye it with acid dyes (professional or kitchen ingredients such as Kool-Aid and food coloring), and if you accidentally make a cut where you should not have, you can splice the ends together, assuming it is not a superwash wool.
I have to restrain myself from making a scene every time I come across a 100% cashmere sweater in a thrift store. It’s like finding gold to me, and I’m sure almost everyone who has felt or owned some cashmere understands. It dyes and felts like wool will, and you can’t beat the softness. Cashmere, however, is a lot more difficult to deal with when unraveling. You have to be very gentle, as it can break very easily. It is best to go slowly when unraveling a cashmere sweater, and finer (thinner) yarn is a lot of times not worth it. I spent weeks unraveling a thread-thick cashmere sweater, and I probably won’t do it again. Also, the “halo” cashmere has makes it get stuck on its self, which only adds to the need to go slowly so as to not break it.
I’ve never found a 100% angora sweater, but instead blended with wool. Depending on how much angora there is, it can have some of the same problems as cashmere.
Normally, like angora, when I find silk, it’s blended with wool. A lot of times this yarn will come out very under-plied, but that might not be an issue for you.
Plant fibers (cotton, linen,etc.) tend to come out not plied at all, but instead lots of small strands together. This can be a pain to deal with, and if yarn splitting while you knit drives you crazy, steer clear. Also, if you make a mistake and cut the yarn, you can’t felt it back together. I have unraveled several cotton sweaters with success though, especially because I live in Texas and cotton is more practical for lots of things. If you can deal with the underplied yarn, there is no reason why you shouldn’t give it a try, especially if you’re allergic to wool. You will also be able to dye it if you have the equipment to dye plant fibers, like fiber-reactive dye. If wanting to use a safer at-home dye method, like Kool Aid, plant fibers will not work.
Technically a synthetic fiber, even though it’s made from wood chips, rayon has most of the same qualities as the plant fibers. I’ve used several cotton/rayon blends with success. I’ve only unraveled one 100% rayon sweater and I haven’t used it yet, but I wouldn’t think there would be an issue compared to new rayon wool. This can also be dyed with fiber-reactive dyes.
Although it is synthetic, nylon will dye with acid dyes. If I wool sweater has some nylon in it, I will still use it.
Just stay away. In all seriousness, I could see using recycled acrylic for something like dish towels, amigarumi, etc., but I would never use it for garments. That goes for new acrylic as well, though. If you don’t have a hatred of acrylic like me, then by all means, go for it. Just know that it won’t really block and you can’t dye it. You can tint it somewhat with disperse dyes, which are horrible for you and you can only get light shades when dyeing acrylic yarn.