Everything You Need to Know to Start Recycling Sweater Yarn – Getting Started & Breaking In V.1

Recycling Sweater Yarn cover

Sweaters fear me. I’ve fully unraveled at least 25 sweaters so far and chopped or altered dozens more. Regardless of whether you make a habit of it, every fiber enthusiast should do it at least once! You can get awesome, unique yarns on the cheap that you can reuse or re-spin. It’s also a helpful skill if you’re in the garment reconstruction game. And so, drawing on my experiences, I have put together a comprehensive step-by-step guide to getting in on the recycled yarn action.

Getting Started


Equipment for purists:

1. Seam ripper

2. Scissors

3. Appropriate sweater

4. Niddy noddy (find DIY instructions here)

5. Plastic bags (for storing your yarn and labels)

6. Plastic hangers (I prefer the notched ones)

7. Drop spindles or spinning wheel (ONLY if you want to re-spin your yarn – this is totally optional)

8. Digital scale

9. Plastic ruler (not pictured)

10.. Tons of patience (not pictured)

Equipment list for the quick & dirty: Appropriate sweater, seam ripper, scissors. Patience optional.

First of all, this can be a time-consuming endeavor. I’ve spent upwards of 10 hours unraveling a single sweater before (it was a lovely double-knit lace weight cream colored 100% English wool – *dreamy sigh*)  and though you can pare down the process by choosing the quicker methods, what you save in money spent at the yarn boutique, you pay for with your time.

Selecting a sweater

Thrift stores, garage sales, your friend’s wardrobe rejects – all good places to find victims. I even once unraveled a sweater I found on the street in San Francisco. GROUND SCORE!

But here’s the catch – you MUST find a sweater with the right seam. It should look like this on the inside seam:

Top: Correct seam Bottom: Correct seam, highlighted
Top: Correct seam
Bottom: Correct seam, highlighted

A correct seam will have the two edges of knitting pursed together in a pair of fat lines.

And incorrect seam, on the other hand, will just have one line, with the knit held together by serger stitches with sewing machine thread. Watch out for one-line seams!

Top: Incorrect Seam Bottom: Incorrect Seam, highlighted
Top: Incorrect Seam
Bottom: Incorrect Seam, highlighted

If the seam is serged together, this means that the knit piece was actually cut to fit, severing the yarn on every single row – and you will get nothing but a zillion short strands of yarn for your trouble.

Hint! – Check all the seams. I have seen sweaters with both types of seams, always with the incorrect seam at the shoulder yoke. You can still get yarn from these types, you just won’t get intact yarn from the entire thing.

Once you find the right seam, CHECK YOUR LABELS! Fiber content is listed on the tag either at the back collar of the sweater or on a tag at the side seam. We’re aiming for wool or cotton. If you ask me, acrylics ain’t really worth it.

Beware of sweaters that have felted. If you look at the stitches of the fabric and they seem blurry, stiff, or blended, then that sweater has been felted (which is probably why it ended up at that thrift store). It’s pretty common if you’re searching for secondhand sweaters. You can’t unravel it, so move on.

Stay away from anything fuzzy for right now. What you want is a sweater composed of good thick solid wool – no alpaca, angora or mohair – or a cotton sweater where the strands aren’t too thin. Anything with any kind of fuzz halo will cause small fibers that have detached from the sweater to wrap themselves around the strands you’re trying to pull from, causing two unconnected strands to appear connected – and, if tugged at, creating a tiny tangled bundle.  I call these “burrs” and they’re not difficult to deal with, but they ARE annoying. Cottons are less prone to this, but even the smoothest wool blend sweater yarn gets burrs. You should aim to reduce them your first few times unraveling by choosing fiber content carefully. Later when you’ve got more experience you can dig into those luscious angora blends.

EDIT (11/11/19): In the time since writing this tutorial, I’ve gravitated to unraveling 100% cotton sweaters almost exclusively. Wool blends are still great, but I find I have more use for the cotton thread and they generally unravel much  much quicker and easier, because burrs aren’t such a big problem. Just FYI!

Breaking In, Version 1

Now that we’ve got our sweater, how the hell do we get to the part with all the satisfying pulling? This is what I call “breaking in” to the sweater, or in other words getting a knit piece free and ready to start unraveling. I am going to give you the long and neat Version 1 first, then some quick & messy methods in Version 2. Messy people, feel free to skip ahead!

Turn your sweater inside-out. The seam-stitch used to join the knit pieces is basically a crochet chain worked through both pieces, with the crochet loops on one side of the pair of knit edges. Look carefully at both sides of that pair of knit edges. One side will look like this:

Left: I marked the loops of the seam-stitch chain with a Sharpie. Right: The entire seam-stitch along one side of the knit edges is highlighted in blue.
Left: I marked some of the loops of the seam-stitch chain with a Sharpie.
Right: The entire seam-stitch along one side of the knit edges is highlighted in blue.

This seam-stitch ends with a free-standing crochet chain of an inch or so that then gets woven back into the seam.

Turn your attention toward the end of the sleeve (where your hand would come out). There will be a little fat part of the seam at the end: this is where you look closely to pull out the hidden end of the seam stitch. Use your sense of touch – it’s lumpier than the rest of the seam.

Recycle Sweater Seam End 1

Recycle Sweater Seam End 2

I’ve marked that seam-stitch end in Sharpie.

Get your seam ripper.  A few experimental tugs with the pokey end will reveal where the hidden seam-stitch end is. (Remember – the more you unravel sweaters, the quicker you will come to recognize where you need to start. The first time I tried to find this thing probably took me about an hour. Now it takes me all of twenty seconds – so don’t despair!)

Recycle Sweater Seam End Collage

Once you spot that sucker, pull it out.  Looks just like a crochet chain – because it is. And just like a crochet chain, a tug at the loose end will start unraveling it. Congratulations! Now pull the hell out of it, undoing the seam for the sleeve.

Recycle Sweater Unravel Collage

Hint! – you can find your starting point on any seam by looking at the direction of the chain loops on the seam-stitch.

The chain loop bottoms form a sort of arrow where they cross, like this:

Recycle Sweater Seam Direction 1

They’re pointing down in this picture. To find your starting point, go in the OPPOSITE direction….

Recycle Sweater Seam Direction 2

… until you reach the end of the seam. Start there.

Now that you’re pulling, you will start to encounter burrs (stray fibers that wrap themselves around the yarn you are trying to unravel).  If a gentle tug does not break it loose, insert the crook of your ripper underneath the bothersome little thing and sever it.

Top: Behold the burr - it's wrapped around the yarn I'm pulling and the next loop on the seam-stitch chain.  Bottom: The same burr, highlighted in red.
Top: Behold the burr – it’s wrapped around the yarn I’m pulling and the next loop on the seam-stitch chain.
Bottom: The same burr, highlighted in red.

Keep pulling out that seam. If you’re lucky, that seam will continue on uninterrupted to unravel the side of the sweater, too. If not, you may have to apply the same seam-unraveling method to the yoke of the sleeve first. No matter where the seam is, just follow the direction of the chain to find where you should start to undo it.

Destruction feels so good
Destruction feels so good

So you pull happily along, parting the pieces of the sweater until – yikes! A tag. Take your trusty seam ripper and carefully remove the threads of the tag. Continue unraveling, using your seam ripper to take care of any hidden tag thread as you work past this point.

Recycle Sweater Yarn Tag

Hint! Save the tags with the fiber content and store them alongside your recycled yarn in the zipper bag – just in case you need to know later!

Once you’ve freed a piece of a sweater completely, lay it out and check out the top (whichever end was closest to the collar).

Version 1 Last Step

There will be a familiar looking series of loops on the top edge – this is where it was bound off. Again, following the loops as described before, you can locate the free end of the yarn.

Congratulations, Version 1 user. You are a detail-oriented type, driven to craft your artistic goals to perfection. Your patience is about to pay off when you unravel yard after yard of amazing yarn, uncut yarn.

Suddenly I am hungry for ramen.
Suddenly I am hungry for ramen.

You may be a methodical type who wants to undo all the seams and get every piece of the sweater separated first. You may want to get to the really rewarding part where you unravel a freed piece as soon as you can.  Everybody is special in their own way. Moving on…

Breaking In Version 2
Unraveling & Finishing


37 thoughts on “Everything You Need to Know to Start Recycling Sweater Yarn – Getting Started & Breaking In V.1

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  1. Wow, this is a great and complete article and I really enjoyed it. Your new handle should be the yarn vampire, just kidding lol. I never even thought about doing this but would do it for the right yarn. I love reading your articles. Thanks so much.

  2. What a great tutorial! I hope you don’t mind, but I am going to link to it as part of a challenge on living on the ration. This is a really good example of how to “Make do and Mend”

  3. If the sweater is from a resale or thrift store I suggest you handwash it, and let it air dry before unraveling.

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