Thursday, September 24, 2009

Recycled Sweaters: Wool Felt Projects

A big Booth welcome to the superhero from It's Not Easy Being Green. This green mom from the burbs will share her stories here monthly.

My grandmother, a child of the Great Depression, lived by the phrase: “Waste not, want not.” Her home was always fairly cluttered and her basement full of boxes and piles and a little more furniture than absolutely necessary.

My mother, a child of the Great Consumer Age (albeit a rebellious one), lives by the sage advice “When in doubt, get it out.” Her home is very lovely and clean and spare and organized, and what’s there belongs there, and what doesn’t belong there just isn’t around. She refuses to let her life be encumbered by more things than she actually needs and uses; the fewer the better. Avoid getting anything new if what’s here works; if it’s here and you’re not using it, give it to someone who will. (Which is how I got my wonderful little immersion blender!) She tried to pass those qualities on to me, but it seems I take more after Grandma. Somewhere I’m sure there’s a happy medium of conservation between the two approaches—each has its green advantages
Upon discovering the whole conservation thing, I’ve been able to embrace my packrat nature far more than ever before, because repurposing is in! So I hold onto stuff I might otherwise jettison, sometimes for years—but eventually a lot of it does get used.

Last winter a friend turned me on to the idea of felting wool. The principle here is this: Wool fibers have scales along them, and whenever they are exposed to really high temperatures they tighten and condense up and link more and more inextricably to other fibers around them, making a solid and un-ravel-able mass of fabric. Remember that really nice sweater that your mother/sister/spouse accidentally dried one day, that came out much smaller and much thicker than it went in? That’s wool felting (or "fulling," its more proper term) in operation.

It’s a much better idea to do this on purpose, though, than to accidentally have it happen to your favorite sweater. One way is to knit or crochet a garment in pure wool yarn, obviously making it much much bigger than you need it to be, and then to felt it down till it fits. (I have some really nice slippers a friend made for me this way.) I started making a cloche hat by this method, but me being me with the multiple jobs and two little kids thing, I never had time to finish it, so somewhere there’s a half-done mass of teal green yarn in a closet somewhere…

The other way to make wool felt items, the I-don’t-have-time-to-knit way, is to comb your own closets and pay a few visits to the local thrift store and gather a collection of sweaters made in at least 85% wool (the higher wool content the better!), felt them down, and use them to sew other garments.

How to Felt Wool
Basically, wash on hot, wash again on hot, dry on high heat, repeat if necessary. You know it’s “done” when, examining the fibers, you can’t see the knit pattern any more and it won’t unravel at all when cut.

It does get a little more nuanced than that, though. For one thing, it helps significantly to wash a couple of hardy clothing items in there as well, like a pair of jeans; the extra agitation annoys the wool more, I guess, and makes it clamp down harder and faster. Washing several sweaters at once is also helpful. (Caveat: be sure that you’re washing more or less like colors with like colors—remember, felting wool is not the only thing that happens when you put clothing in hot water! Don’t throw your significant other’s light blue jeans in with six bright red wool sweaters unless your significant other is someone who would not have gender-stereotype issues with wearing lavender pants!)

One site suggests putting each wool garment to be felted into a zippered pillowcase; I haven’t tried this yet, but it sounds like a great idea—every time I’ve felted wool before, the amount of damp wool fuzz that liberally coats the inside of the machine and all its filters is unbelievable. I’ve also occasionally had problems with the sweaters snagging on things and developing little holes before they have time to felt down, something that’s fix-able if you discover it early but impossible if you don’t see it till after the felting is done. So I’ll definitely try this advice next time.

Repeat the wash. In theory, this won't always be necessary, but I've always needed to.

Dry on high heat. (Empty your dryer’s lint filter before and after!) (More fragile wool garments should probably skip this step and try to do all the felting via the washing machine.)
You should now have a few thick shrunken sweaters with almost no hint of the original knit visible. If they aren’t small and thick enough, go through the whole process again, twice more if necessary.

What to make out of felted wool?

The possibilities here are (practically) endless.

You can make a patchwork blanket, using effectively the same set of instructions I gave on my own blog for making a jeans quilt –with this one you may be able to get away with not even backing it, just binding the edges with blanket binding or even long strips of leftover sweater felt from the cuffs or waist. (To the left is sort of the beginnings of one I'm working on. I think it needs some red or something, though... )

Speaking of those ribbed parts at the wrists and waist: not all sweaters felt the same way here for some reason; sometimes they shrink nicely and keep their ribbed-ness, but other times they stretch out wider. For the ones that do well, a sweater can make for a really easy mittens-and-hat set using these built-in finished edges.

The easiest way to do this is to place your hand (or a hand comparable to the size of the one you’re making the mittens for) on a piece of paper or cardboard and trace around it to make a mitten-shaped pattern about ¾ of an inch around your hand on all sides. Cut this pattern out and place it over the sweater sleeve with the cuff where you want the wrist cuff of the mitten to be. (Make sure the seam of the sweater sleeve is all the way to the “thumb” side.) I’d recommend making sure you have plenty of cuff; don’t make these too short. Trace the pattern out of the sweater and cut the mitten shape out of each sleeve; put the mitten pieces of each side right-sides together and sew all the way around. You don’t need much of a seam allowance for these; I usually sew them fairly close to the edges. I’ve even seen them done wrong sides together with the seam left visible on the outside and/or embellished with pretty yarn sewing. (For this you might err on the smaller side when cutting the fabric.)

These mittens work well, but the out-to-the-side thumb thing is uncomfortable for some people, depending on your hand shape. Another mitten pattern that puts the thumb more centrally located (but requires more sewing!) can be found here.

If you used the sleeves to make mittens, you can use the body of the sweater and its waist-ribbing to make a matching hat. There are hat pattern options all over the place—I still highly recommend my go-to free software of choice from Wild Ginger, their Wild things accessory pattern software, which has patterns for hats and bags and anything you can think of. A relatively easy alternative can be found here. Also, patterns that work for fleece fabric tend to do very well with felted wool; see this, and this (use the ribbing to form the bottom strip), and this... And if you do your own Google searches, you’ll probably find lots more I haven’t checked out yet.

As with the recycled denim projects, the beauty of all these is that once you get started, it’s easy to see a whole bunch of possibilities—when your sunglasses case mysteriously disappears, instead of running out to the store to get another one (or letting them rattle around in your purse and get scratched up, which is probably what I would do, which is why I never spend more than $8.99 on sunglasses), you’ll remember the scraps from that felted sweater and whip a unique and cute case up in 20 minutes. (10, if you have the right color thread in your sewing machine already and don’t need to clear off your work surface.)

Another nice effect you can get if you are feeling really crafty: buy a skein or two of 100% wool yarn (or unravel part of another not-yet-felted wool sweater to reclaim the yarn) and embroider on your wool sweater before you felt it—either specific things like flowers or stars, or just random crazy patterns. Then when you felt it, the embroidery becomes part and parcel of the felt itself.

Here are some ideas just to get you started:

There are some really nice projects in Sweater Surgery: How to Make New Things Out Of Old Sweaters, available at—she has good felting instructions in there too, but her projects go beyond felt into some really cool territory.

So...Since it's the time of year for a lot of people when we're going through all those bins (or bags or random piles or closets that haven't seen the light of day since April) of fall and winter clothes that have been sitting in the closet since spring, and finding what's likely to actually be worn this winter and what is not...if you find any old, out of date, beat up, or too-small wool sweaters, go to town!


Tameson O'Brien said...

Just to clarify...super hot temparatures does not always mean felt. When one washes a fleece it's done with super hot temparatures to get the lanolin and suint out. There are 3 things required for felting(fulling) wool Heat, Water, and Agitation, take away one or two of those and you won't get felt no matter how long it's done.

If you're at all interested in history do a google search for waulking. Waulking was a community even where a group of people (usually women) would agitate the cloth ether with their hands or their feet and sing rythmic waulking song - some of which are incredibly beautiful.

Green Bean said...

Very cool! Just in time for working on homemade holiday gifts, a la Crunchy Chicken.

A friend has a felted bag (that she made) and it is the cutest thing ever.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Ooh, thank you for this! I will definitely explore. (Heck, anything that could combine my love of Making Stuff with my love of indigenous music is something I can't afford to miss.)

Re the heat/water/agitation--you're exactly right; I wish someone had told me this when I started. That's why throwing in jeans or some other sturdy item of clothing makes such a difference. My first few sweaters took three loads to felt well, but once I did larger loads and threw in some denim, it sped up the process amazingly well.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

This is so cool. I'm definitely going to have to try it. And I'm happy to see you here at the Booth!

Kellie said...

I've been saving a few old sweaters that my son outgrew in order to try this. Thanks for the tips!

BTW - Betz White has a great book called Warm Fuzzies. It has lots of wool felt project ideas in it!

concretenprimroses said...

You have great ideas. Years ago I worked in a thrift store and we would get so many sweaters that people had shrunk accidentally. Fortunately moms would buy them for their children, but lots got thrown away. I'm so glad that there is more of a reuse culture now.

Resweater said...

Great post! My recycled wool blog is filled with ideas, if you want any more.

Kris :)

~ Reuse, Recycle, Resweater! ~
Blog ~
Shop ~

Darren said...

I got a ginormous bag of animal fiber sweaters at the thrift store and am slowly getting them all fulled. I put them all in a drawstring mesh bag to keep the escape fibers to a minimum so that my machine doesn't get clogged. Hot wash, cold rinse, high heat dry. Great stuff! Now I just need to start making stuff!

White + Warren said...

Great idea ! I like to have a recycled wool blanket. Thanks for sharing, Visit White + Warren for more sweater design for women, men and for baby.


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