How to Unravel a Sweater to Recycle Yarn


This is the sweater we will be unraveling.  Turn your sweater inside-out, grab a pair of sharp scissors and let's get started!  There are good seams and bad seams. This is an example of a good seam.  It looks like two tiny braids side-by-side.  You can cut between those two braids of a good seam and unravel a super-long strand of yarn that you can wind into a huge skein. If you cut a bad seam, you will get short equal-length pieces of yarn which I call yarnlets. Yarnlets are great for carding into art batts!  But if you are planning on knitting/crocheting with your recycled yarn - dont bother unraveling a sweater made entirely of bad seams.  


If you pull the good seam apart you will see a thread which you will be cutting to separate the pieces of the sweater for unraveling.  See the little thread?  This thread is your best friend.  It will lead you to good things in life.  Love the little thread.  Starting at the bottom of the sweater, cut the little thread.
Newbie unravelers will want to cut the thread one bit at a time, which is fine. They will usually have a longer piece of yarn, because they are cautious not to accidentally snip the yarn itself. I cut without a care in the world. Be free. Show the sweater who is boss!  Sometimes you can pull on the little thread, and it will come freely apart from the sweater. Sometimes you have to un-loop the little thread around and around the seam. Different sweaters are made different ways, and therefore are unraveled in different ways. Basically, you are removing the seams so you can unravel the individual pieces of the sweater.

I've cut the seam from the bottom of the sweater to the end of the sleeve.  Ive removed the sleeve off by cutting the seams around the shoulder.  We are going to unravel this sleeve first. You can continue cutting all the seams until your sweater is in several pieces, or you can unravel each piece as it is removed from the body of the sweater.
At the top of the sleeve are little loops! This will be familiar to any knitter. Loops are on your needles when you're knitting (and off when you take the needle out).  Cut in between each loop. Usually there is a braid of thread that has been sewn over the loops to keep them from unraveling. Be careful not to cut the loops themselves.  Look at the end of either side of the loops for a small knot. Untie this knot and the sleeve will begin to unravel!  The entire sleeve is unraveled.  This is what I call Yarn Ramen.
FLASH FORWARD: See the pile of yarn ramen in this photo? Pretend that never happened. Your yarn WILL become a tangled mess if you unravel it this way. Instead of unraveling the loose yarn into a pile ROLL IT INTO A BALL AS YOU UNRAVEL. This will save you HOURS upon HOURS of untangling.

When you unravel a sweater that is made of many colors, you will usually find a knot where the two colors meet. You can either untie the knot, which results in several small balls of different colored yarns; or you can roll the yarn into one big ball, and have different stripes of colors appear as you knit.  Now, to review: starting at the base of the sweater on the other side I begin to cut again...After cutting the shoulder seam, the second sleeve is free from the sweater.  Cut the braid between the loops. Find and un-knot the end. Unravel the second sleeve.
Here is the collar and shoulder seams of the sweater, still waiting to be unraveled.  But what do we have here?  BAD SEAMS!!!  Oh no!!! What will I do!?  On the collar I find a good seam! I separate it to find the little thread and begin cutting...As I cut the good seam on the collar, the little thread reveals itself to me around the neck of the sweater. Oh how I love thee, little thread!!!

This is what a bad seam looks like.  This means that the sweater was machine made. Someone basically knit a huge piece of fabric, and then cut it into pieces and seamed it together before the knitting could unravel. These seams are surged and cannot be unraveled.  
On a whim I pull the little thread. After removing the tag it comes away freely...and now the collar is separated from the body of the sweater! Find the end (at the base of the collar, where it has begun to unravel already) and...The collar is unraveled!  Now all we have left are the front and back of the sweater.
But what do we do about the bad seam on each shoulder?  After spending 15 minutes or so trying to figure out if there was a way to salvage the yarn attached to the bad seams, I grew annoyed and took drastic action and just cut the seam off on both sides.  I then unraveled the bad seam off, and got several short yarnlets which you can see in the corner.  You will always have yarnlets when you cut bad seams.  I easily unraveled to the body of the sweater, which was in the shape of a rectangle after all the yarnlets were removed.  And remember your finished recycled yarn sweater should be in several spheres instead of a pile of yarn ramen. Rolling your yarn into a ball as you unravel will save you hours of untangling time.
Here is the skein-measuring thing (I call it a "ghetto-knoddy" - a ghetto version of a niddy noddy you can buy online. My husband made it for me. It's a long piece of wood with two nails exactly 3 feet apart.  I wrapped the yarn around my cool skein-measuring thing until I reached an end. I tied pieces of yarn where the nails are, and washed the yarn (if necessary).

Tips for specific yarns

- Always unravel wool sweaters before washing them.
- Always wrap the yarn into a ball as you unravel it. This keeps the yarn from getting tangled.
- Wrap the yarn into a skein/hank before washing it. Do not wash it as a ball.
- To wash the yarn: soak the yarn in hot water with soap. Rinse repeatedly until the water runs clear. Drip-dry the yarn from a hanger with a weight on the end to pull the kinks out of the yarn.
- Always wash cotton sweaters in the washing machine before unraveling them.
- Cotton yarn will loose its twist and fray as you unravel, so make sure you roll it into a tight ball as you unravel it.
- Chenille yarn will shed as you unravel, and may bald. I do not recommend unraveling chenille yarn.
- Silk, Alpaca, and Luxury fiber yarns are usually thin and fragile. If you can find Luxury/Wool blend sweater, the yarn will be stronger and will not break as easily.
- I prefer unraveling bulky sweaters as opposed to thin/DK weight sweaters. The yarn is stronger and will not break as easily.
- When shopping for sweaters to unravel, pull the knit apart to see if you can see holes in-between the strands of yarn. If it is difficult to pull apart, or you cannot see holes the sweater has probably felted. Felted sweaters cannot be unraveled. The yarn is damaged and will fall apart as you unravel it.
- Invest in a Ball Winder. This little contraption will roll your recycled yarn into cylinder-shaped center-pull balls. Much easier to work with, since they wont roll all over the ground like big spheres of balled yarn.
- For a felting project with recycled wool yarn, wash the yarn after you've knit it. This way the yarn will felt evenly in your finished project.