Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Looking for affordable yarn? Try unraveling!

NOTE: Yes, the header is a mess, but I do plan to get to it ... sometime ... and make it both legible and lovely.

Since money is extremely tight and yet I still have the need to spin and knit, I've found a new source of extremely inexpensive yarn: Goodwill. My name is Laurel, and I'm an unraveler. I have become an avid troller of the wonderful world of Goodwill for more than just new-to-me clothes. Where else can you buy a sweater's worth of cashmere for $3.50? How about 100% merino wool for $3.50? Maybe some silk for ... you guessed it, $3.50.

This past trip, I snagged a cashmere cardigan in my favorite green that fit. That baby is now mine, all mine, to have and to hold and to wear. Bwahaha!

There's an art and a science to unraveling sweaters, and I've become fairly proficient at it. At the risk of enabling local fiber aficionados to cut into my turf, I thought it might be fun to try posting a how-to. There are many, many excellent how-to's out there on the intertubes, and I am well aware of them -- seek them out if you'd like more info than I have here.

So, what do you look for? These are the basics:

  • It's gotta have knit seams. No matter how much you love the fiber, a sweater that has serged seams will break your heart if you have said heart set on unraveling it. A sweater with knit seams will (usually but not always) magically unzip, leaving you with opened up sleeves, a front, and a back. Sometimes you'll end up with the turtleneck or collar portion, too.
  • It's gotta be in good shape. A sweater that looks tired and felted will look tired when unraveled and knit up ... if you're able to unravel it at all. Believe me, I've tried unraveling semi-felted sweaters, and it's been the opposite of fun and satisfying.
  • It's gotta be fiber that you love. If you love working with acrylic, then by all means snag that sweater for your stash. If you prefer wool, then only buy sweaters that are 100% or mainly wool. The same rule applies to whatever fiber(s) you're drawn to.

It's important that you check labels. Touch will tell you a lot, but it's not absolutely reliable. Even cotton can sometimes successfully masquerade as silk. Equally important is the sweater's construction. Your best bets are pullover sweaters. A cardigan is going to be frustrating, because that right front (in women's sweaters) is going to have buttonholes breaking up the yarn. Sure, you can pick out the sewed edges, but the yarn is still cut. It's up to you. If you love the fiber and are willing to have lots of short runs, then go for it.

A mild-mannered sweater I found
that's super-soft, but w-a-y too tight
So, here's my donor sweater. I loved the way it felt, all soft, warm, and smooshy. Even though it didn't fit (and I wasn't really shopping for clothes that day, just yarn), I can use the yarn to make a sweater that will fit. As an added bonus, it is a turtleneck, meaning that I'll have extra yardage to fit my extra bustage once I decide what kind of top to make myself.

Excellent! A lovely blend of wool for warmth
and acrylic for less-temperamental laundering

I don't really care who makes my donor sweaters; however, I do have to say that the better-known labels tend to be attached to items with better-quality yarn. And as an aside, I don't know who The Limited is kidding. This particular sweater could be considered large only if the prospective buyer was a child. Harrumph!

Check those seams!
This is an example of a knit seam.

I liked the feel of the fabric. I liked the fiber it was made with. The next step is always to check that the seams are knitted. You can be sure you have a winner if you gently pull apart the two edges and see what looks like a ladder running up the middle. Sorry, but that's one shot I forgot to take. Experiment with sweaters you already own, and you'll see what I mean.

A seam ripper is the best tool for unraveling.
The pointy end will let you gently tease the yarn (as shown here)
without cutting it. Scissors are not nearly as forgiving.

To begin your unraveling, look at the seam, One side will be like what's pictured above. A line of V's will run up or down the seam. In this case, the Vs run from left to right. The key to remember here is "the points of the V point the way," meaning that you should be able to unzip this seam from left to right. Cut just one of those V's, then tease up a loop or two, just enough for you to be able to grab the yarn between your forefinger and thumb.

Let the unzipping of the seam begin!
As long as the sweater hasn't felted, you should be able
to just pull the thread (looks like this one is actually two,
or maybe it's two-ply?) and go. 
This is the same seam, but I've pulled a couple of the stitches out. You can just see the largish holes there between the thread and where the seam picks up again. You can also see that the first V in line there is pulled kind of tight. It's about to come undone. (It was very difficult to stop and take pictures. I love ripping the seams out ... too much, maybe.)

Sometimes the pieces will pull apart, leaving loops of yarn like this.
Sometimes you don't even need to pull the yarn more than just a little bit. The pieces will just come apart, like this one did. In this case, you'll have the loopy bits that were just a moment ago chained together to make the seam.

Goodbye seam!
You'll want to hang on to bits like this, the yarn that formed the seam. Just throw it in a Ziploc bag, along with the tag (for future care reference). You never know when those bits will come in handy.

This seam, which attaches the turtleneck to the sweater body, will
unzip from right to left. Think of the Vs as arrows that point the way.
Just go along and separate the sweater into its component pieces, one at a time.

Off with its head!
This sweater couldn't have been easier to disassemble.

The tricky bit where the underarm meets the body
Often you'll find that the intersection of the underarm seam where the sleeve meets the body is kind of tricky. Just take your time and figure it out. I've found that sometimes the seaming is reinforced, which isn't a problem for the seam ripper, which is slender enough for pinpoint cutting.

Can you spot the knotted bit on the left?
In this case, I tugged on the knot that you can see on the lower left piece, just at about the 8:00 position. By pulling it out, I found that the ends had been kind of braided together. If you want you can fiddle around and unbraid these bits. Me? I just snip the knot off.

Unraveled seam thread and label: save it all

Again, save the unraveled bits and the label. Your future self will thank your present self for doing it, trust me.


Pick a piece, find the beginning, cut one thread (maybe two), and unzip.

The top of one of the sleeves. See the braided knot?
This sweater was perfect for a tutorial. Here's the top of one of the sleeves. The little braided bit (i.e., the beginning) was neatly tucked into the little line of Vs that forms the top of the curve.

This is a bit that you don't really need to keep.
I amputated the knot, and that released the sleeve for unraveling.

Be free!
And that's all there is to unraveling. If your pieces are very cooperative, you might be able to use a ballwinder to unravel. I prefer to wind a loose ball, then wind that with the ballwinder to take some of the tension off the yarn. Then I use my niddy-noddy to make skeins, then wash the fiber.

And that's it! From thrift store find to usable yarn. As a side note, it was all too apparent that the economy is brutal right now. Usually Goodwill has one rack full of sweaters. On this last trip, it was extremely difficult to find them. Here's hoping that things turn around. I don't really need more sweaters to unravel, but with winter setting in, many people in these parts can use affordable cold-weather clothing. All of us -- yes, I mean me, too -- need to donate things that we don't like, aren't using, don't fit, etc. Even though I may not wear the sweaters I purchase, the money I spend at Goodwill is put to good use.


  1. Thanks, Laurel. Great detailed photos, so I promise to do most of my rummaging outside of Bear.

  2. Well ... OK. :o)

    My favorite two Goodwill stores are the one on Kirkwood Highway and the one on Rte. 202, just over the line in Pennsylvania.

    No worries, Anonymous. There's *plenty* of sweaters to go around!