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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Unravelings: How To Unravel A Sweater For Its Yarn

It came to my attention that a lot of my readers had never considered using store bought sweaters, bought on the cheap, in order to augment their stashes. Great finds at thrift stores and Goodwill means that you can get a yarn with cashmere in it, for a fraction of the cost of just buying the yarn.

Thrift is the name of the game for this. But, you have to wonder, is Unraveling right for you?

Should I Unravel?

  • Are you patient? Unraveling takes time and effort, and is not for the faint of heart.
  • Do you have experience with sweater construction? It's not necessary, but certainly helps.
  • Are you looking for a project that helps you be thrifty and put old sweaters to good use?

If you fit into those categories, then read on.

The Hardware and Software of Unraveling:

niddy noddy, seam ripper, scissors and a sweater
  • Hardware:
    • niddy noddy or other yarn winding device (if a niddy noddy is not available, simply use a chair back or legs to wind the yarn)
    • a seam ripper (available at your local fabric store)
    • fabric scissors (I mean scissors you only use for cutting yarn or fabric, not the household scissors)
    • a yarn meter, if you've got one, otherwise just use the niddy noddy and some math

  • Software
    • a sweater with good seams (outlined below)

Step 1: Buying a Sweater to Frog

When you are shopping in your thrift stores, keep an eye out in late winter or late summer for deals on sweaters. You will be looking at both the fiber content and the seam construction in order to determine if it is a good candidate for unraveling.

The seams should look just like those that you create when you are seaming a sweater. (click to embiggen) See those two columns of knit stitches? Those little v's are what you are looking for. If you pull apart the two columns, there should be horizontal bars where the columns were sewn together. If you see those, then this is a good sweater.

Now look at the tag (I hope there IS a tag) and check the fiber content. You are looking for something that you would consider knitting or crocheting with. Hate acrylic? Don't buy a sweater with an acrylic content. Wool usually works best for these types of applications, especially when you are first starting out, but I have had some beautiful results with cotton blends and an acrylic/nylon blend.  Buy something that you would consider buying in a yarn store. And while you're at it, check the care instructions. You'll need to know if the yarn is superwash or if you will need to hand wash it. Don't worry if the tag says "dry clean only". If it is made out of a wool yarn, chances are that the company that manufactured it was just playing it safe. However, if it contains velour or velvet, then you are best to look elsewhere.

Not too big, not too small, just right!
A note on yarn size: Keep in mind that when you are done unraveling, you will most likely want to use the yarn you have procured. Take a look at the stitch size in the sweater, and determine if the yarn is something you wouldn't mind knitting up again. There's nothing worse than unraveling a sweater without taking into account that it was made out of cobweb lace and you hate lace knitting! Make sure it's big enough that you'd like to play with it later.

Step 2: Gather Your Supplies

Once you are home with your inexpensive find, you will need to have few things in addition to the hardware and software.  

First, make sure you have a well lit area to work with, with a table or other flat surface. The last thing you want when unraveling is to go blind because of bad lighting, and trust me, you need to be able to see how the sweater is put together, and how the stitches are oriented.
photo courtesy Steve Grosbois

Second, you will need to set aside a few hours undisturbed in order to do this. The first time usually takes the longest, at least until you get the hang of it, and you know how long it takes to wind yarn after you've frogged it, right?  If the kids are gonna be home, you may want to postpone your project.  

Step 3: Getting Started

Start with the edgings/button bands

When I unravel, I try to go in the reverse order of assembly. Usually the last thing to be added to a sweater is any button bands, neck treatments, edgings, etc. So I try to unravel those first.  In the case of my example sweater, there was a two piece (seamed at the neck) button band treatment, so I started there. If your sweater is a pullover, check to see if the neck is a separate entity from the body of the sweater.

Bulky Seam!
Take a look at your sweater. I've found that a lot of store bought sweaters are manufactured bottom up. So you will want to start at the bottom edge of the button band. Look at both sides. Is there a seam that is particularly bulky? That's where you will want to look for the seaming thread. Just like in your own sweater constructions, you are looking for the end of the thread so you can simply cut and unzip.

Starting at that bulky seam, pull apart the two columns of v stitches and look for where the end of the seaming thread was woven in. You should be able to find it without much difficulty. Cut there, and start unzipping.  Can't find it? Check the other side of the seam (either the top instead of the bottom or the opposite side) to see if the thread is woven in there. Still can't find it? Just pull apart the V columns for the seam and use your seam ripper to cut the horizontal bar between the columns. You can just cut each horizontal bar as you go up the seam. 

save this thread!

As you unzip, save that thread! You'll need it to tie off the skeins once you're done unraveling. 
One piece down, 4 to go!

Once your seam has been completely unraveled, you will be left with a full piece of knitting that you can start to unravel.  This is where the fun begins. In the example, the button band was actually seamed at the top, so I had to undo that seam as well, before beginning to unravel. Keep an eye out on each piece. If you notice a seam anywhere, you will need to take care of that before unraveling.

another seam!

Now take a look at the actual piece of knitted fabric. When you knit, you create little columns of V stitches when working stockinette stitch. Those little Vs build on top of each other. When unraveling, you want to start at the spot where the actual knitting ended. So look at which direction those V stitches are building. The top of the V is the direction you want to start in when unraveling. 

In the example, the Vs were building vertically. IE: The top of the V was at the top of the sweater. So I started unraveling at the top of the column. You should see a little end where the yarn stops. Simply grab that and unzip. Having trouble finding the end? First check all edges, see if you can find it, but if it's still not jumping out at you, choose one side of the top edge of the knitting, and snip the farthest V stitch. You may sacrifice a little in the length of reclaimed yarn, but at least it's started. 

As you go, you may come to points where the yarn breaks.Don't worry about it. Simply set aside that end (I usually set it aside on my leg, so I can find the end again) and then once the piece is unraveled, you can decide if you want to try to splice it together with the rest of the unraveled yarn, or simply sacrifice it for a cat toy. 

Some people suggest that you start winding the unraveled yarn onto your niddy noddy as you go. This is a good plan if you are not too keen on dealing with a pile of yarn on your floor. I don't usually do this, because I have often found places in the knitted piece where I need the end of yarn (that would have been attached to the niddy noddy) in order to untangle a knot. It's really up to you.

Once you have completely unraveled the piece, you can take a look at any breaks in the yarn, and decide if you want to splice. This sweater was a cotton blend, so i simply knotted the yarn in order to get a continuous strand. If you don't like knots in your yarn, this would be the time to start another skein. 

Step 4: Wind It On!

Winding the Yarn
All of this yarn will need to be wound onto the niddy noddy. You do need to make skeins out of this yarn, because it's a wiggly mess and will need a bath.  [side note: This is actually a pretty good work out because you are holding an object in the air and are working muscles in your arms that don't normally get worked!]

Tie it loosely, in at least 4 places
Once the yarn has been wound onto the niddy noddy, you will need to tie the skein securely so that it won't tangle come bath time.  Go back to the seaming thread, and use that. I usually tie it in a minimum of four places. Once at each end of the yarn, and then once on each of the remaining arms that aren't tied. If you are super OCD, you can always tie it up to 6 times, but...any more than.that might be overkill.  Make sure you tie the figure 8's loosely, especially if you plan on overdyeing the yarn (that's another post).  

Step 5: The Rest of the Sweater

After you have completed the unraveling the edging treatments, you will need to work on the rest of the sweater. This is the same as outlined above. Piece of cake, right? Put on some music, and get to work.  

In the case of the sleeves, you will most likely need to undo the shoulder seam before undoing the actual seam on the sleeve (remember, reverse order of construction!)

Below I have a list of the order of unraveling, as the reverse order of construction. Use this if you don't know which piece to do next.

  1. Edgings/Neck Bands
  2. Sleeve 1
  3. Sleeve 2
  4. Front Piece(s)
  5. Back Piece
Keep an eye out. In the case of the example sweater, the fronts were knitted with two alternating strands of yarn. I simply grabbed both ends and unzipped them, one on each side. Just like when you have two different dye lots, and you alternate rows, that's what happened with this sweater. Just grab and unzip!
Two yarns, one piece

Once you've got it all skeined up, count the number of rotations on the niddy noddy and calculate your yardage estimate. This is important so you can see if it stretches during/after bath time (always a good thing to know when knitting: if your project will grow!)

Make sure you write this down, and include the tags from the sweater, and store with the skeins. I like to use the zippy plastic cases that sheet sets come in to keep it all together (then I can put the date of unraveling and all the info in the pocket where the sheet label was), but use whatever is handy.

Congratulations, you have successfully unraveled a sweater!

Up Next: Unravelings: Bath Time!

If you are interested, there is an UnRavelers group on Ravelry, where you can share your finds and projects.

Have you unraveled before? Do you have any additional tips or tricks? I'd love to hear from you! Please share your discoveries and projects!  I'll talk to you in the comments!


  1. This is a pretty good overview - I should have read it before trying to rip my seams from the wrong end and getting very frustrated ;>) My first recycled sweater project is now on the needles, so I linked to you to show others how to get started.

  2. I'm glad that you found it helpful, and trust me, I learned this all from messing up as well. It's part of the fun! :)