In Recycling, Weaving on
April 19, 2017

Recycled yarn and weaving… the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat

I recycle a lot of sweaters. A LOT. Just in the past few days I took five of them from being wearable men’s cotton garments to washed skeins of cotton yarn, which I will use to weave towels for sale. I also recycle sweaters made from wool, cashmere, silk, and other materials to sell as yarn, remanufacture into pieces for sale, and use in personal projects. It is wicked fun to transform these often boring and certainly unloved sweaters into freshly-freed, beautiful yarn, and the fun aspect keeps me going despite sometimes significant obstacles and surprises. Using recycled materials is a mission of mine, but even the most fervent can have their faith tested on a regular basis.

I’ve written about the process of turning a sweater into yarn, and some of the pitfalls to avoid in the process (and I teach about it in more depth in my recycling workshops), but today I’m going to write about using the yarn (specifically weaving with it) and where that can go awry.

These days I’m doing a lot of weaving, and I often quickly turn around recycled yarn to wind into a warp (the threads you put on the loom first, running between the front and back of the loom) or onto bobbins for a weft (the yarn with which you weave back and forth). The first step in preparing yarns for weaving is to wind the warp, which means measuring out the length of yarns needed for a warp in advance of weaving, and then in a series of specific steps you thread those individual pieces of yarn through the parts of the loom so you can weave with them. My warping board accommodates 12 yards of warp, which means that any flaw in the yarn in those 12 yards between one end of the warp and the other can be right in the middle of a woven piece once it’s on the loom.

Unfortunately, commercially-knit sweaters sometimes do not have continuous lengths of unknotted yarn, and this particularly applies to cotton sweaters. They’re knit so tightly that the knots are completely invisible until you pull apart the sweater. And the kind of knots that are tied are usually either square knots or overhand knots, not the super-compact weaving knots that will fit through the slots and eyes on a loom without catching. So I either need to cut those knots and re-tie as weaver’s knots (not completely invisible in the finished project, but better than a big knot that will snag) or I need to cut all the way back to one end or the other of the warp. This really stinks because it means I could be wasting several yards of the yarn I’m meticulously trying to recycle. But leaving in the knots means a lumpy and messy piece with potential weak spots. (Don’t worry, dear weavers… I can still use that cut yarn for wefts or other purposes. I am a maniacal recycler.)

I mentioned in my earlier post that yarn in commercially-knit sweaters is often made up of multiple loose plies. Sometimes this is not a problem, especially when you’re dealing with wool or cashmere yarn that will tend to bond to its ply “siblings” as you wash it. (Mom! Jenny’s sticking to my ply! Tell her to stop!) Cotton plies are more likely to just sit there loosely next to each other, which means you can easily snag a loose ply and break it or pull it to be a different tension than the other plies. This is terrible if I’m planning to use that yarn for a weaving warp where even tension is critical. The loose floaty plies can mean the yarn is less tolerant of the abrasion subjected to the warp when it slides through the metal heddles and reed, causing the yarn to break regularly and requiring me to constantly stop and re-tie broken warp threads. This also inevitably leads to uneven tension, which can cause more threads to break. I’ve learned the hard way that these yarns are better used for weft, where they do not have the same structural requirements.

When using yarn from multiple sweaters for the same project, yarn that looks similar knit up in the original sweaters can look very different when it’s rescued (specifically the thickness, number of plies, and total length of yarn), so I need to keep the scientific part of my brain switched to “on” when evaluating it. (When I say “scientific” I am conjuring up Dana Scully from the X Files. Skeptical, humorless, evidence-based, and with great hair.) When I’m done recycling the yarn, I measure and catalog each sweater’s yield so I don’t guesstimate my way into a nightmare. I use a WPI (wraps per inch) tool to measure the thickness of the yarn (this also informs how tightly I’ll space the warp threads on my loom), and I use a yarn balance to measure how many yards per pound for a particular yarn and weigh the yarn to determine total yards. Typically I’ll record this information along with a piece of the yarn on a project card for future reference. Sometimes I find that (to cite a real recent example) the blue yarn is twice as thick as the gray yarn, so to reinforce the gray yarn so it doesn’t break as easily and so that the fabric is more consistent, I’ll use two strands of gray where I would use one strand of blue.

So, now that I know how ignorant I’ve been, and now am wise, I have a renewed enjoyment of these yarns and see each sweater as a mystery or puzzle to be figured out, not a potentially crippling surprise hiding behind hours of labor.


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