unraveling a sweater

The Damsel is bemused by the word “unravel.” So what’s “ravel” then? They seem to mean the same thing–to untwist, pull or rip out some yarn work. (by the way, the current term for pulling out knitting is “frogging” because you rip-it, rip-it, rip-it. Don’t be a hater. The Damsel did not make this up.)

Why would you want to unravel a sweater?

Grandma might have for a number of reasons. Maybe the sweater didn’t fit any more, and she wouldn’t want to waste the yarn. So she’d pull out all that hard work and re-knit it into something else. Waste not want not and so on. Maybe there was a man’s sweater that could become two kids’ sweaters. You get the idea.

Nowadays, three things have come together, like an alignment of the planets, to make unraveling a sweater something worth doing.

1. Yarn work has become more and more popular, even among young folks.

2.  Purchasing nice yarn is so expensive, but who wants to spend hours on a project that uses crappy yarn?

3. Sweaters made of expensive materials can be bought CHEAP at thrift stores.

When the Damsel first heard about doing this, she got excited because she loves yarn and it sounded easy. And it is easy, but there are a couple of tricks to it.

First, choose the right sweater. (of course it doesn’t have to be a sweater…any knitted/crocheted thingy) Look at the tag. If it’s made of 100% acrylic, it’s probably not worth it. You can buy that kind of yarn very cheaply, brand new. Is it made of a nice natural fiber (wools, cashmere, silk blends, alpaca, etc.) ? This kind of yarn can cost $20/skein and up, and there will be multiple skeins in one sweater. Good deal!

Now examine the seams. Are the pieces sewed together the way a hand knitter would, or are they serged? Here’s what that means:

With a regular seam, you’ll be able to part the two edges. This is the kind you’re looking for. This means the sweater was knit in individual pieces and then assembled, the way a hand-knitter would. That doesn’t mean the sweater was hand-knit, or that it needs to be. It means the yarn will unravel in one long piece.

This is a serged seam. The Damsel drew an arrow and little black lines over the serging hoping you could see it better on this crazy yarn. You’ve seen this stitching a hundred times on tee-shirts, etc.

Here’s how serging looks on a tee-shirt, so you can clearly see the kind of looping stitches we’re talking about. If the sweater is put together with this kind of stitching, you can’t unravel it, because it was made from one huge piece of knitted fabric and then serged together…a process that cuts and sews at the same time. If you try to unravel a serged sweater, you’ll end up with hundreds of pieces of yarn a couple of feet long. Not worth it.

Now once you have the right kind of sweater, you have to take the pieces apart. Pull the seam apart and look for the thread that was used to sew it together. It’s sometimes hard to see…often the exact color of the yarn…but usually thinner, more thread-like.

Cut this thread with a seam ripper, being careful not to cut the knitting itself. Take all the pieces apart, including any ribbing that has been sewed on, rather than knitted as part of the piece.

Once all the pieces are apart, the fun starts. Snip the yarn in a corner of one piece and see if the yarn will pull. If it simply knots, you are at the wrong end. Go to the opposite side and try again. Most sweaters are knit from the top down, so they will pull out from the top down in most cases.

Once you get the yarn pulling out freely, away you go. You can roll it into a ball as you go or loosely pile it and then roll. Pile method not recommended if there are sprog or pets about.

The yarn will be crinkly. That’s okay…the crinkles won’t show when it’s reknit. Many unravelers like to wrap it around upside-down chair rungs or something, make the yarn into hanks, and then wash it…and sometimes dye it. Washing the yarn after unraveling it will often make it nice and fluffy and non-crinkly. Warning: Wash the yarn the same way you’d wash something knitted from it. For example, don’t wash wool yarn in hot water with a lot of agitation; use cool water and gentle swishes.

If you’re interested in learning more about this, the Damsel highly recommends the Yahoo group Recycledyarn. The people there are very nice and knowledgeable about recycling yarn.

5 thoughts on “unraveling a sweater

  1. I never thought of unraveling a sweater! Great idea! I save my old wool sweaters for the cat’s box in the winter; they love to sleep on wool. BUT, I will rethink that now, especially for my cashmere, angora, or alpaca sweaters. The cat’s don’t mind that itchy wool, so I can save those for them.

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