If the cost of quality wool gets you down then consider visiting your local thrift store and buying wool sweaters there. The average price here is US$3.00-7.00/sweater and 50% off days save even more money. It takes me an evening in front of the TV to unravel a sweater and I think it's well worth the time.
This is 2 pounds of ultra-soft wool salvaged from one new sweater (video cover shown for scale):
Have you priced 2 pounds of wool yarn lately? hoo boy!
The key is to concentrate on quality so you'll be happy with the yarn after it has been unravelled and washed. Think of all the sweaters people receive as gifts that are never worn because they're too hot or the wrong color or the wrong size -- sometimes those sweaters end up at the Goodwill.
I look for when sweater shopping:
*) serged seams (avoid!)
*) fiber content and quality
*) color/dyeing potential
Serging means pieces of the sweater were cut and sewn together so the yarn is not a long continuous strand. This is something to avoid, unless you want hundreds of very short strands.
Look at the inside seams and examine the end stitches where the pieces are sewn together. If the end stitches have not been cut and look intact then you'll be fine. If you gently pull apart the end stitches you should be able to see the strand of yarn that was used to seam them together. (If you don't see any seams then you're in luck, the sweater was knit in the round.)
If the end stitches are obscured by a lot of overstitching then I don't risk it, chances are those seams have been serged. Even if the seams weren't serged it's likely the overstitching has weakened the end stitches and ruined the yarn for recycing purposes. Check both side seams: it's possible only one side is serged, that's still bad. Look at the arm seams as well.
Here is an example of a non-serged seam, shown from the top and side:
Tip: pristine inspection stickers are a good sign the sweater is in new condition.
Unfortunately I can't find a serged sweater in my closet to take a photo of how that looks. Serged seams are fairly obvious, look for overstitching (usually done in sewing thread) and cut end stitches.
It's OK if the shoulders are serged together, that can be cut off when you separate the front from the back.
If you accidently buy a serged sweater then stop unravelling it and throw it in the washing machine to felt it, if you're feeling crafty. Cut shapes from the felted fabric and sew a bag or oven mitts or whatever. Acrylic won't felt, you can google for more info on felting.
Quality and Fiber Content
My ideal source for recycled yarn is a wool sweater that has seen very little or no use. If I can tell the sweater has been worn and washed then I usually put it back on the rack, it's not worth my time. If the yarn looks worn in the original sweater it's going to look used and worn when it is knit into something new.
Always check the insides of sweaters for signs of pilling/matting/felting even if the outside looks ideal. Be especially careful with sweaters that have Fair Isle type patterns where yarn is stranded on the inside. The strands can be worn thin even if the outside looks great and that makes the yarn pretty much useless for recycling into something new.
Cabled sweaters are a good source for wool (cables use up a lot of yarn, the 2 pounds of wool in the above photo came from a cabled sweater) but if the sweater has been worn often enough then the cables tend to felt together or create weak spots in the yarn. Look at cabled sweaters with a critical eye before you buy.
It's OK if the sweater looks perfect except for a few stains, cut out the bad yarn and you'll only lose a few yards.
Not all wool is created equal. It can be luxuriously soft and it can be itchy-scratchy. It's very tempting to buy a 99 cent thrift store sweater that looks great but if the wool is scratchy then it's pointless to buy something you'll never use. You can knit a felted bag with scratchy wool but ask yourself how much scratchy wool you REALLY need before bringing too much home. I'm now at the point where a sweater must pass my touch test before I even bother checking the seams and fiber content.
There's a lot of well-worn junk and a ton of acrylic sweaters in thrift stores; it pays to be picky. It's my opinion that basic acrylic yarn is so cheap it's not worth the time it takes to unravel an acrylic sweater but if you fall in love with the color or texture then go for it. Some novelty acrylic yarns are pricey so if that's what you want then keep an eye out for specialty yarns on the racks. There isn't a guarantee they'll all unravel smoothly so take that into consideration. I have zero experience unravelling novelty yarn but that stuff with high fuzz/fluff or sequins or other additives looks like it could be tricky.
Angora sweaters are so soft and lovely but they can cost as much as $20 in thrift shops and there's a chance the angora yarn will not want to be unravelled. I've unravelled two angora sweaters and one fought me every step of the way but the other didn't cause any problems. I've heard of similar problems with mohair and it's been suggested that mohair sweaters should be put in the freezer to ease the unravelling process.
Commercial sweaters should have fiber content labels but sometimes they've been cut out and you'll have to guess. If you don't see a tag on the neck then check the inside seams on the sides, sometimes labels are sewn in there too. After you've been thrifting for a while you will start to become very familiar with how different fibers feel and you can probably determine if a mystery sweater is made from cotton or wool or acrylic. Cotton is the easiest to determine by touch but acrylic can imitate the look and feel of wool so it's sometimes hard to tell those two apart. If you bring a mystery sweater home drop an inch of the yarn into a jar and cover it with bleach. Put it in a very safe spot (like a high cupboard above the stove that kids and animals can't get into) and label the jar BLEACH/POISON. Wool will eventually dissolve in bleach. If the yarn has dissolved after a few hours or overnight then you have a 100% wool sweater, if it looks unchanged then it's 100% acrylic.
If you like everything but the color think about how it could be changed with a dye bath. Acrylic yarn will not retain dye so don't waste your time and money trying to change its color. There is a lot of dyeing info on the web, a good place to start is the Yahoo DyeHappy group.
Note the gauge of the yarn as it looks knit up in the sweater. Some commercial sweaters are knit with yarn that is too thin for a practical handknit sweater but it can be used (perhaps doubled up) for projects like socks or gloves or a laceweight shawl.
Sometimes thin wool is weak and breaks easily when it's being unravelled. I've recycled sweaters made from laceweight wool without problems and the yarn was perfect, so don't let this warning scare you off.
Remove the neck, sleeves, and side/shoulder seams. There's a good chance the sweater was seamed with a crocheted chain and the yarn seam will ziiiip right off with a good pull. If the yarn doesn't zip out of the seam then try pulling it from the other end. If this doesn't work you'll have to cut each seam stitch by hand with scissors or a seam ripper.
Avoid cutting or weakening the end stitches around the armholes and sides of the sweater. If you accidently cut an end stitch you'll have to start a new ball of yarn during the unravelling process when you reach that cut stitch. This isn't the end of the world but it's a nice thing to avoid whenever possible.
Cut off the neck and shoulders at the seams if you have to, you'll lose a little yarn but save a lot of hassle.
Carefully remove the fiber content label and brand name label -- or cut them off and sacrifice some yarn.
Most sweaters are knit from the bottom to the top so you'll unravel them starting at the shoulders. If the yarn won't unravel from the top then it just means the sweater was knit in the opposite direction, start unravelling those sweater pieces at the bottom. Most sleeves are knit from the cuff to the shoulder so first try unravelling at the top of the sleeve. If that doesn't work start at the cuff.
You can unravel two different ways: 1) Unravel into balls and then make hanks. 2) Unravel the yarn directly into hanks. I prefer #1 because I use my ball winder to unravel the yarn from the sweater. I find this easier than unravelling it directly onto the swift. (See the final section for tips on how to form hanks without a swift.)
ALWAYS secure the hanks so they won't tangle. Loosely tie pieces of scrap yarn in three or four places around the hank. I use acrylic yarn for the ties so there isn't any chance of dye staining the recycled yarn.
This hank (also called a skein) has been tied and is ready to wash. The white scrap yarn is wrapped around the hank like a figure 8 before being knotted. This helps in positioning the hank back on the swift and minimalizes the chances of a tangled mess.
Soak the hanks for a couple hours in hot tap water and a little handwash Ivory liquid dish soap or shampoo. When the water is cool rinse well in more cool water, gently squeeze out water (don't wring), drip dry over the tub on plastic hangers, and then wind into balls. I've never had a problem with that obnoxious thrift store smell after a good hot soapy soak. The hot water also serves to unkink the yarn, just don't wring/agitate wool or it might start to felt.
Some people balk at the idea of "washing" hanks in hot water but it has never been a problem for me. This isn't exactly washing, you're letting it soak. You don't want to agitate the wool or let hot water fall on it from the faucet, treat it gently. (In order to dye yarn you soak it in very hot water, which is much hotter than anything that comes out of the tap.) If you're still worried then test it out first with a mini hank or use warm water or cold water, you make the call.
When recycled yarn is dry there is often a little wave where the kinks were but it looks great knitted up and I've never felt the need to steam it to make it completely straight. Winding the yarn into balls after its dry helps straighten it out even more, but wind gently so the yarn isn't stretched out of shape.
It's washed and wound into balls, now what?
If you're concerned you might forget the fiber content then write down the info and tape a paper label around one of the yarn balls. Another option is to keep a notebook with scraps of yarn taped next to the fiber content info.
OK, it's labelled and ready to be knit up. What does the yarn look like? If your recycled yarn is worsted find a pattern that calls for worsted yarn and then swatch to find the needle size that achieves the gauge the pattern wants.
Another option is to knit swatches to find the gauge you like the best for that yarn. Then you can look for a pattern that requires the gauge you prefer, or make up your own pattern.
What's the yardage?
Weigh the entire lot of yarn on a postal/kitchen scale after it has been washed and dried. Use the digital scale at the post office or grocery store if possible. Measure out 10 yards and weigh that 10 yards to determine how much 1 yard weighs. For example if 10 yards weighs x then you know 1 yard weighs x divided by 10. (I do this extra step for accuracy, you can weigh just 1 yard if your digital scale is sensitive enough to weigh it accurately.) Using the weight of 1 yard and the weight of the entire lot of yarn you can calculate the approx. yardage of the entire lot.
If weighing is a hassle then take the measurements and gauge of the sweater before you unravel it and write this info down. As long as your gauge remains the same (or larger) then you can make a sweater that is close to the size of the original sweater. It's best to aim a little bit smaller, use yarn from an XL/XXL sweater to make a M or L sweater. You'll have to take into account how much yarn you lost in the unravelling process, like if you didn't recover the yarn from around the shoulders and neck. Keep in mind that certain things like garter stitch and cables gobble up more yarn than plain stockinette.
To play it really safe make smaller items like a vest or hats or mittens. Weigh a hat when it's done and then weigh how much yarn is left over to determine how many hats of the same size you're likely to get out of the remaining yarn. You can probably make a matching hat, scarf, and mitten set from one large sweater.
Look in the craft section for bags of yarn and other knitting equipment. Consider looking at the blankets too, people donate new handknit afghans they don't want (a gift that didn't fit in their color scheme?). The main disadvantage is you'll have to make an educated guess on the fiber content and most people use acrylic yarn for afghans due to the amount of yarn they require. It's a great deal if you need a lot of acrylic yarn. You can also look for knitting books, needles, crochet hooks, and other fiber tools.
Call ahead and ask your local thrift stores if they have scheduled sales days. For example, the Goodwill and Value Village in my city both use color coded price tags. Thursday through Sunday they have a 50% off sale where all items with a specified color tag qualify for the half-price sale. Eeverything tagged that color sells for 99 cents on Monday. I've found some amazing like-new sweaters for just a buck on Mondays.
This seems like a lot of hard work, is it worth
It depends. The work isn't hard, but it can be time consuming. It's also frustrating if the seams don't cooperate or the yarn doesn't unravel smoothly. I would not recommend this as something fun to do (especially if you have more money than time) but if your yarn budget is meager this is an affordable way to get your hands on a sweater's amount of quality wool. It also appeals to the thrifty nature in some people.
If you'd rather buy new yarn in a store there is nothing wrong with that either. Support your local yarn shop, if you're lucky enough to have one.
Do I NEED a swift and ball winder?
No, plenty of people recycle yarn without the aid of a swift or ball winder. Doing it without the handy gadgets adds to the time and effort but why not give it a try? Some people prefer winding balls by hand.
If you don't have a swift there are other options: wind yarn onto the back of a chair, around knees, around a sloping lampshade (loosen the screw on top so the shade revolves), or around hand and elbow (like coiling an electrical cord). A niddy-noddy can also be used to make a hank and you can fashion a niddy-noddy from PVC pipe; google for instructions.
If you'd really like a ball winder and swift but they don't fit in your budget then you'll have a ready answer the next time someone asks what you want for your birthday.