Everything You Need to Know to Start Recycling Sweater Yarn – Unraveling & Finishing

Recycling Sweater Yarn cover

Unraveling / Pulling

Congratulations! It’s time to start building a big fat yarn ball, for a teeny tiny fraction of what it would cost at a yarn boutique.

And this is just the sleeve!
And this is just the sleeve!

You may be tempted to just pull and pull, amassing a huge pile of unraveled yarn beside you. Unless you want a huge headache later, DON’T DO THAT. Your yarn will tangle in a big way when you try to wind it back up. Instead, wind your yarn up into a ball as you go, continuing to wind with every few rows that you pull.

There’s just not a whole lot to say about this part of the process. You pull. You wind. Pull. Wind. It would be pretty Zen except for burrs. Remember those?

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 between the yarn I’m pulling and the next loop on the seam-stitch chain.
Bottom: The same burr, highlighted in red.

They’re little loose strands of fiber that wrap themselves up around two strands of yarn in the sweater, making them appear connected.  They happen most frequently at the edges of a knit piece. The one pictured above is a really mild one. Sweaters with higher content of fuzzy fiber (mohair, angora, alpaca, etc), even sweaters with a high content of regular wool, are prone to bad ones.

At 54% alpaca, this sweater is composed of 100% burr.
At 54% alpaca, this sweater is composed of 100% burr.

If you get a burr so bad you can’t tell what is yarn strand and what is loose fiber, get in there with your trusty seam ripper and poke around.  A gentle tug can help reveal things too, but whatever you do, don’t just pull and pull at the tangle, that will only make it worse.

The only other advice I can offer for defeating these things is just keep at it – practice makes it a lot easier to recognize and deal with them. Once you figure out where the problem is, get the crook of the seam ripper in there and sever the fibers forming the burr.

Another good reason I don’t use scissors is that it leaves the tiny bits of seam yarn hooked around the ends of the rows, making pulling later on somewhat more complicated. The yarn gets stuck on the seam bits, and if you are already pulling a yarn that is prone to burrs this just intensifies the frustrations.

Hint! Recognizing a double knit – It’s not easy to tell a double knit sweater when selecting a victim. Unless you’re really good, you probably won’t know until you break in – when you discover you have two strands to pull instead of one. No worries though, because it’s really not so much harder than having one single strand – but you can’t pull several rows of one and not the other. My method is to pull them together and wind them separately if I want thin yarn, or just wind them together if I want a thicker strand.


You’re almost there! By now you should have several balls of yarn harvested from the pieces of sweater you separated earlier. You will also have noticed that it’s wrinkly and kinky, still retaining some of the shape it took when it was a knit sweater. If’n you prefer, you can leave it just like that and be done with this project. If you do that and then make another garment from this yarn, you may suffer a minor change of shape and size when you wash and block the finished piece. If that doesn’t bother you, then stick a fork in yourself because you’re done.

If you intend to get the kinks out of your yarn, you are going to need something to wind your yarn ball onto to form a loop. The back of a chair works just fine, but I infinitely prefer a niddy noddy, a little handheld device that not only winds your yarn into a convenient loop, but also measures yardage. I made one cheaply out of PVC pipe – the instructions are here at the Anticraft.

Wind your yarn up onto your device until you run out of yarn ball. Use small lengths of yarn or string to tie the bundle in 4-6 different places, loosely, then slip the yarn off of your winding device. Do this with every ball.

Recycle Sweater Niddy Noddy

Recycle Yarn Niddy Noddy

Next, get a bucket, tub, bowl, or clean sink and fill it with enough luke-cold water to cover your yarn. Dunk all of your yarn bundles, making sure to leave them submerged long enough to get it soaked through. Don’t agitate it. Gently press it under if you must (I usually must).

It's not lunch, it's recycled yarn!
It’s not lunch, it’s recycled yarn!

After it’s soaked, remove your yarn and lay it on a towel or hold it over the sink to GENTLY squeeze excess water out. It should still be wet feeling when you’re done, but not dripping water. Grab your hangers – I use two for every individual bundle,  but you can double up – it just takes slightly longer to fully dry if you do.

Recycle Sweater Yarn Drying

Loop the bundle around one hanger and hook the second to the bottom of the loop.

When I first started recycling sweater yarn I used a can to weigh down my yarn after dousing it, until I received some wonderful advice – just use another hanger. Cans are too heavy and will overstretch your wet yarn, not to mention they are difficult to balance on the yarn! Hook the top of a solid plastic hanger at the bottom, give it a little tug, and let it hang.

I have used a steam iron to straighten out the kinks in my yarn before, but it was not worth the trouble at all, and if you’re dealing with a sweater that’s part synthetic materials, you risk accidentally altering the feel of your fibers. These days I leave my yarns to hang in the laundry room and forget about them for a few days until they are dry.

Recycle Yarns
(Left to right) Two recycled cotton sweater yarns and a fun primitive-look handspun.

Hint! If you want to speed drying, wait about half a day and then rotate the bundle on the hangers. The top will have dried more, as gravity pulled the water to the bottom of the bundle. Putting the wetter part at the top will spread the water out again as it flows downward, speeding evaporation.

Once your yarn is dry, it’s done. Wind it back up into the ball or skein style of your choice. This is a good time to have a yarn swift and winder, but as for me I haven’t budgeted for those yet.
You may want to measure your yardage. You can do this using the niddy noddy and counting wraps, or you can do it the lazy way by counting out a few yards and weighing it via your trusty digital scale. Grab a calculator – the formula for grams per yard is total weight / yardage. So say I weighed 10 yards and it registered at 2 g… that would mean the yarn weighs .2 g per yard.

You may ALSO want to measure WPI (wraps per inch) of your yarn – this is also a factor in determining yarn weights and categories, and it’s an easy one. Grab a good ol’ plastic ruler and start wrapping around, not overlapping your yarn but laying each wrap closely beside the other. However many wraps it takes to cover an inch is your WPI.

BUT WAIT! You can re-spin or dye your recycled yarn! Instructions for those things aren’t included here, but maybe someday I will get around to it. You’re probably tired of reading now anyway.

Or maybe you were two posts ago.

Recycled Nylon/Angora/Wool blend, re-spun to add more FLOOF

If you have feedback on this tutorial, I beg of you to leave it here good sir or madame.

Getting Started & Breaking In V.1

Breaking In V.2


48 thoughts on “Everything You Need to Know to Start Recycling Sweater Yarn – Unraveling & Finishing

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  1. I usually am not surprised when I read blogs these days. Despite being very interesting, there is quite a while to wait before I stumble onto ‘unique’.
    Hurrah!!!! That day is today!
    Thank you, thank you for such original content. You are my new blog crush.
    Please keep posting in between designing, unravelling and eating ramen noodles.

    Be Free,

  2. What a great read, not only clear and instructional, but your personality shines through in your writing 🙂

    I am a recycling yarn virgin, but am currently trying to dress as I type to get to our local thrift shops, so inspired!!!

    Thankyou for sharing xxx


  3. You are amazing…. thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experiences. Your instructions are so clear and interesting and said in everyday terms with a bit of humour. I can’t wait to get hold of a jumper victim from the Salvos ( recycle shops in Australia) and have a go, with the yarn I am going to have a go at your Mandala Duster. Big hugs xx

  4. This is a really useful tutorial and walked me through slowly enough that I understood! Many tutorials don’t spend enough time on the little things.
    Quick question: any tips for breaking in at the collar when there’s a collar seam? The collar on my last sweater folded over on itself and was seamed into the shoulder joint, and dear lord I about wanted to cry trying to find the end.

    1. Thank you, I am so glad it was helpful! I am a detail-oriented person myself, so I try to write what I would want to read.
      Unfortunately the collar is pretty often a cursing-and-tears zone for me too. It receives the a lot of friction which makes things burr up quickly and the seams pretty often very tight… I have to admit that more than half the time, I use some of the Version 2 techniques, such as cutting across horizontally, to skip it altogether. As long as your collar isn’t too plunging, it usually doesn’t mean losing too much extra yardage.

  5. You ROCK!!! Thank you so much for this article! I have like 5 sweaters waiting for demolition and I keep struggling with them. I think I’ve read dozens of posts about this, but yours is the most interesting, informative, and funny. I am so hooked! Lol. Can’t wait to get home and try your tips! Thanks again!

  6. I stumbled across your blog by searching mandalas on ravelry, and finding your “Stevie Duster” which is just gorgeous. (I’m curious, what made you call it “Stevie”?). But this tutorial on recycling sweater yarn is pure gold!! (And I never thought of using it for the Stevie Duster until I read Lynne’s comment above – I hope she left a sweater or two at the Salvos because I’m in Australia too!) Love your blog, love the way you write, I’ll be following along from now on.

    1. Wow, thanks so much! I’m really glad you like it 😀 To answer, the duster is called Stevie after Stevie Nicks, because she’s a personal style icon of mine <3 Really glad you like the sweater yarn tutorial too, it was one of my favorite posts!

      1. I wondered, I’m a real fan of her style too and I thought it looked just like something she’d wear.

  7. My mom hates you. I just told her I was stealing a beloved sweater (which no longer fits and she has offered to me for wearing purposes) when I told her what I wanted to do she almost cried. LOL Also, reading what you wrote was so easy I was almost sad when the tutorial was over. 😛 I’ll be rescuing some sweater yarn now and I can’t wait to start. 🙂

    1. Lmao! Tell your mom that it’s not sweater death, it’s sweater reincarnation! I am so glad you enjoyed it and I hope you get to make something awesome with your reincarnated yarn 😀

  8. Loved reading your post. I have since gone and bought a few more sweaters. I even scored a cashmere for $2! My question was about washing the sweaters/yarn. Should this be done at the soak time or before the unraveling stage. Or should I even worry about it?

    1. If you want to actually wash your material, I would do it before unraveling so that you won’t be risking your skein tangling during the agitation of the washing process – although I usually settle for just the rinsing of the soaking process and skip actual laundering altogether, unless it really obviously needs it! 🙂

  9. I am now going to give this a Go! You are awesome and I can’t wait to get some sweaters and crochet the Stevie Duster! I will be following you after enjoying all of your wisdom. Thank you from the bottom of my Heart! Rhonda

  10. Wow! I had always known it was possible to take apart a knitted sweater, but hadn’t been brave enough to actually TRY it until I ran across your tutorial! I’m now anxious to start hitting the thrift stores, to find my first victim, especially after seeing the prices of yarn the last time I needed to buy some. Boy, has it jumped in price! Well, now I have a great new source for yarn at a lot cheaper price! *happy dance*
    Question – about how much yarn will a typical (say, medium sized adult) sweater be able to be rescued out of it? Just so I know what I should pay for a victim in comparison.

    Thanks so much for the tutorial!

    1. Hi Mary Ann! I am so glad you’re inspired to start destructing sweaters, lol! I truly enjoy it even after 25+ sweaters, and still have an ample pile ready to be destructed. To answer your question, it does kind of depend on the gauge of the yarn. I tend to gravitate toward 100% cotton nowadays, which typically yields upwards of 1500 yards of pretty thin yarn, but even chunkier sweaters will give you around 600-700 yards. Definitely worth it even at thrift shops that are a little pricier!

  11. Hi,
    I love this tutorial!! 
    It was easy to follow and soooo informative. I’m going to hit Goodwill and destroy a sweater. Yeah!!
    Thanx for all your information and time.

  12. my aunt used to wind the wool around the outside of a mason jar and fill it with boiling water to get the crinkles out.

  13. Love that you did a whole tutorial on this!! This has been my favorite way to get “new” yarn for a while now, and I have something to add. One time, several years ago, I tossed a very small, short skein of 100% wool into my washer & then my dryer. Dun, dun, DUN! But it was ok!! The yarn felted, but not to itself– the skein was tangled, but not too horribly, since I tied it in four places. I repeated the washings with the other larger skeins, sleeves I left in one skein but body pieces I split in two for ease of untangling later. It is very fussy. Very. But you end up with wonderful texture, and of course, 100% wool yarn that won’t shrink anymore. I don’t do it with every sweater, but it’s a nice tool to have in one’s tool chest!

  14. I just bought your Lotus Duster pattern and was curious about your recycled sweater yarn section, girl, you are amazing and soooooo talented. Thank you for sharing your amazing ideas and patterns. Now I just need to find the time to make the projects, I’m excited to do it!

    1. Well thank you so much! Recycling sweaters really is one of my favorite things to do – though it does take some time to get the hang of it, it’s time well spent because you can get sooooo much awesome yarn for cheap! Glad you liked my post 🙂

  15. Just came across your blog today! So, nice and refreshing! Unique is my love! Thanks for your blogging time, I’ve been reading and surfing your blog for a few hours now! 🤗

  16. I just love your help, I’ve been doing it on and off for 2 years now. Only problem I couldn’t remember water temperature to use to loosen it, so I just re-read your post.

    Again Thank You so much for turning me into recycled sweaters.

    Jenny Gabbard

    1. Yay that is so awesome! This is something that I still do all the time and it’s such a fantastic way to reuse old items of clothing – I’m unraveling some sweaters right now for a big project! 🙂 So glad you found the post helpful, thanks for visiting 🙂

  17. My SIL gave me a skein of yarn to make socks for my grandson. First pair I ever made, and I’m hooked!!! So I went to buy more yarn and got huge sticker shock with the price of decent yarn. Thrift store, here I come! But with my limited sock knitting experience, I am having trouble recognizing fingering weight. Any tips? After unraveling it seems the yarn is too thin or too thick.

    Also, what are you making with those cotton unravels? I’d love to make cotton socks, but I hear that they wear out quickly, and 100% cotton yarn doesn’t have enough bounce to make socks that stay up. Your thoughts?

    BTW, I was determined to make those cotton socks stay up, so I added a border of horizontal rib, 3 rows of stockinette each way to stretch to the desired circumference. It worked on the cotton knee socks. Now I’m going to try ankle socks.

    Thanks for a great and inspiring article

    1. Hi Dee, that sounds like a genius idea for cotton socks! I’m not much of a sock maker, my favorite thing to make with the cotton recycled yarn is my Lotus Duster crochet sweaters 🙂 It’s not easy to tell what weight of yarn you are going to get from a recycled sweater, sometimes I think I’ll be getting a DK weight then I pull it out and it’s actually two strands of smaller thread knitting into one! My strategy is just to collect a lot, and hope I get something I can use… thanks for the feedback! 🙂 🙂

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