Weaver, writer, and all-around curious person

Outstanding Moral Fiber: Weaving with Un-Knitted Cashmere

Bambu and Cashmere Fabric Detail

The concept of recycling anything and everything has become popular recently, but the tradition of un-weaving cloth to reuse the yarn dates back to the beginning of textiles.

In the past, weavers in Ghana un-wove the silk from Indian saris to create special Kente cloth. In Guatemala, I have seen

old huipils that contain bits of reclaimed silk yarn woven into the cloth, and in Afghanistan, exquisite embroideries are stitched from from re-used yarn. And the finest, most valuable, old Navaho blankets (bayeta) were made by unraveling a red Turkish woolen cloth called bayeta.

Today, yarn made from recycled sari silk is readily available. There is even a Yahoo group devoted to unraveling sweaters. Recycling textiles is an wonderful and thrifty idea that never goes out of style.

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One morning in 1985, I said to myself: "Wouldn’t it be wonderful to weave a blanket using wefts of un-knitted cashmere sweaters?"

Cashmere is warm, soft and light—a wonderful fiber, but expensive to purchase new, and suppliers can be hard to find. So I went to the neighborhood thrift store and found six cashmere sweaters and painstakingly deconstructed and unraveled them.

I wound the yarn into skeins, then got bogged down at the idea of washing them to get the kinks out. So instead, I put them in a bag, placed them in my cedar chest and continued on with my life for the next twenty years. Then six years ago, I was telling a friend the "Wouldn’t it be wonderful…" story about my efforts to recycle cashmere, and she commissioned me to weave a blanket.

I opened my cedar chest and fished out the yarn. Much to my disappointment the kinks were still exactly the same. I wound the skeins into tight balls to see if the kinks would relax, and they did to a certain extent—enough for me to weave with. Soon I needed more sweaters and once again began scouring the local thrift stores.

Although cashmere sweaters are few and far between, you can find them if you take the time to search. I asked everyone I knew if they had any old cashmere sweaters and finally came up with the idea of "Cashmere Dollars." This collaborative initiative used the internet to help bring me sweaters from far and wide. For each used cashmere sweater a person sent, they got a certain amount of credit towards a custom weaving from me. I have never had to hunt for sweaters again. I completed the blanket, and it looked and felt better than my wildest dreams.

My collection of sweaters continues to grow and, I realized I needed more hands to help take them apart. Although my 90-year-old mother can no longer knit, she un-knits with great vigor. Un-knitting provides both a pleasant and meaningful shared task adding depth and purpose to our visits. I have engaged my mother’s 85-year-old-sister in the project, and we have become a regular Un-knitting Factory.

The Un-Knitting Factory

I do the basic sweater deconstruction, my aunt gets the raveling started, and my mother completes the task. While we were working one day, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came on the television. In the movie, Harry wins an award for "Outstanding Moral Fiber." I was struck with the thought: "That’s it, the perfect name for my recycled cashmere!"

 

Recycling Sweaters for Weaving

The following tips will help you get started recycling your own thrift store finds into luxurious yarn.

Tools

  • Good light
  • Magnifier
  • Seam ripper
  • Scissors
  • Skein winder (optional)

Tips and Tricks

Un-knitting is easy—disassembly is challenging.

Cashmere sweaters are constructed so they will not come apart. In addition, each manufacturer uses a slightly different method of construction.

  You can have a project in mind when you begin to un-knit, but you can also just wait and see what the yarn tells you after you have un-knitted it.

 

Note: If sweaters are in perfect condition, I lend them to friends until they get a hole or a stain. I can’t bring myself to recycle a perfect sweater.

 

Selecting

Do not buy cashmere that is felted. They feel great, but if you can’t see the knitting stitches clearly, you will not be able to un-knit it.

Do not purchase a sweater that has serged edges. In serged seams, a machine finishes the edges with an overcast stitch and cuts off the seam allowance. Unraveling a serged sweater will cause you to end up with a pile of short lengths of yarn. Most cashmere sweaters are knit to shape. I have only come upon one cashmere sweater with serged edges, but it doesn’t hurt to check.

Check that the sweater is labeled 100% cashmere. Even if it is, be aware that there are many grades and weights of cashmere. I have mixed them together with no bad results. If I come upon a sweater that doesn’t feel the way I think cashmere should, I pass on it.

Cashmere sweaters can be washed in the machine (cold, gentle cycle) and dried in the dryer (low heat) before deconstruction. They come out looking beautiful, and you don’t have to worry about washing the yarn afterwards.

 

Unraveling

To cut or not to cut: I used to be a purist and unraveled every little bit of the sweater. Now I cut off the neck band and the shoulder area and set them aside. They are just too fiddly to unravel and in my estimation, not worth the effort.

Note: Never cut the sides or down the sleeve. This might seem like a fast way to take apart the sweater, but you will cut the threads at the sides and end up with short lengths of yarn, instead of one continuous thread.

Look for the little tail at the end of a seam, usually at the arm hole. Carefully snip the tail with a seam ripper or scissors and then...pull!

unraveling

 

knit arrowsNote: You can tell which direction a seam will unravel by looking at the way the knitting forms little "arrows" in the seam. Once you've opened up the end of the seam, it should unravel in the direction pointed to by the arrows formed by the knit stitches. Start at the upstream end of this seam, otherwise it won't unravel.

Unraveled yarn will retains the memory of the knit stitches and will appear crinkled. Winding the yarn into tight balls helps relax the kinks. You can also block the yarn, by wetting and hanging to dry. For persisitant kinks, you made need to weight the drying yarn to add tension.

When I come to a break in the yarn (and that does happen much more than you would hope), I tie an overhand knot with a nice long tail (so the knot will be evident and can be dealt with during the weaving process.)

For a more in-depth look at the steps of unraveling a sweater, see Ashley Martineau's tutorial: How to Unravel a Sweater.

 

Over-dyeing

When you are using yarn from recycled sweaters, you end up with yarns of all different colors, which may or may not work well together. One way to bring the yarns together into a harmonious colorway is to dye them.

Dyed yarnsA clever friend suggested over-dyeing the burgeoning collection of pastel sweaters before un-knitting. So, I gave her a couple of sweaters on which to experiment. Not only were the results terrific, but they were fun to un-knit.

The power of a variegated yarn, however, is diminished when combined with two strands of solid yarn. So I tried winding skeins of triple strands of yarn first and then dyeing the skeins.

Although my colors came out a little too primary, the finished yarn felt wonderful the way the kinks relaxed to give the yarn a luxurious texture. Winding the yarn onto the shuttle, I had no tangles and it wove like a dream. I sent some of the measured skeins to dyers Connie Rose and Heidi Parra to see what they would come up with, and the results were wonderful.

I wind my recycled cashmere yarn into 300-yard skeins (approximately 2 oz.) which is a good size for dyeing.

Weaving

Since most knitting yarn does not have as tight a twist as most weaving yarn, the recycled cashmere is more suitable for weft than warp. I typically use a bamboo warp (Bambu 12 doubled and sett at 20 epi) as shown in the following picture.

clothTo add additional strength and color interest to the yarn, I combine three strands of the cashmere grouped together as a single strand and wind it onto a shuttle.

Random subtle color changes throughout the weaving creates a richness and depth, a perfect blend of painting and weaving.

Recycled cashmere combines easily, and I don’t pay much attention to different weights and grades. Some cashmere feels softer than others, though, and I tend to favor those yarns.

 

The rag shuttle allows me to manually control all the variations in the yarn. I use the knots and breaks as an opportunity to design the tripled yarn as I go. When I am winding the weft onto the shuttle, whenever I come to a break in one of the three strands, I change colors by tying a large over-hand knot and tying in a new yarn.

I leave the tails of the knot long so they are easy to see when I am weaving. When I come to a knot in the yarn while weaving, I cut it out, overlap the wefts in the shed, and keep weaving.

 

  cutting out the knot

 

Resources

The following links provide additional information about deconstructing and recycling sweaters.

 

Bonnie TarsesBonnie Tarses is an endlessly inventive weaver and teacher living in the Seattle area. In addition to producing great art, she also seeks to do good in the world. She blogs at Weaving Spirit.

She recently opened an online Etsy.com store specializing in her "Outstanding Moral Fiber" creations and supplies.