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Zero Waste Week: Unravel and Reuse

My instinct to Reuse, i.e. squeeze the maximum utility out of things before they leave my home, may be driven by my upbringing and environmental concerns but my wardrobe rationing experiment has certainly taken my dogged determination to new levels.

After nearly three years of self-imposed wartime clothes rationing my wardrobe is feeling the pinch as more of my clothes are looking a little threadbare. Like the spirited women of the Forties, I have to make sensible choices about how to use my clothing coupons and what to patch, modify and remake. In recent months I’ve been saving valuable resources (and coupons) by unravelling and reknitting.

There are many upsides to making your own knitwear, a key one being quality. I know what wool went into my cardigans and sweaters and as I always buy quality yarn, it is worth unravelling not to shabby garments if I’ve outgrown them or they no longer work for me.

Several years ago I used some of my go-to yarn Excelana 4ply to knit a gorgeous cardigan designed by Kate Davies. I had admired Kate’s Deco cardi for years but in reality, the design just didn’t do my body any favours. After a few years of wearing it around the house when others woollies were drying, I decided to unravel it or, to use the ‘technical’ knitter’s term, frog it.

As the cardigan had a seamless construction, I didn’t have to unpick any sewing but it still took several evenings to carefully unravel the yarn and wind it into skeins on the back of a chair. Like my wartime peers, I then gently washed the wool to turn it from a poodle like frizz into workable yarn, taking care not to felt it*. The process was hardly sexy or cutting-edge but yielded enough yarn that I could reknit into a more comfortable cardigan. As the yarn had already been knitted, washed and worn, I had to play around with the needle size slightly to get the right tension but apart from that, knitting with unravelled yarn was pretty much like knitting from scratch. All that remains is to find some buttons – the ones scavenged from Mr M’s old shirts are too small – and I’ll have a cosy new knit for the winter.

Zero-waste cardigan

My new cardigan from unravelled and reknitted wool

Unravelling and reknitting wool is possibly an eccentric example of Reuse, and certainly prompts a range of feelings. Due to my clothes rationing experiment it has kindled a deep connection with and respect for wartime housewives whose resource consciousness can rival that of most 21th century environmentalists. However, like many knitters who enjoy “knitting local”, I love exploring the amazing yarns produced in this small island and Reusing wool means denying myself a little fibre novelty. More importantly, as 90 per cent of my woolly purchases come from small yarn producers and little yarn shops, I am aware that my decision to Reuse wool has an economic impact on others.

So how do I square my instinct to be environmentally responsible with a desire to support producers of a useful, sustainable product? As I appreciate the qualities of the wool I use, I would much rather reknit it so I can enjoy it on my body than have unworn knits languish in the wardrobe. And, as three pairs of my hand-knitted socks have been darned to within in an inch of their life and will soon be dispatched to the compost heap, I will invest the pounds I’ve saved from unravelling and reknitting in a few new skeins of British wool to replace the socks. Okay, it’s not quite a perfect loop but it certainly feels like a more considered and appreciative approach than today’s “purchase and dispose” culture.


This post is inspired by Zero Waste Week and its theme of Reuse. For more Reuse tips, check out what other Zero Waste Week ambassadors are doing, follow @myzerowaste on Twitter or Instagram or use #zerowasteweek, or join the Zero Waste Heroes group on Facebook.

* If your sweaters have become felted through years of use or due to an accidental spin in the washing machine or tumble dryer, you’ll not be able to unravel them but the fabric can still be Reused. Felting is the process where woollen fibres fuse into a sturdy, matted fabric. Cut the arms or body of a sweater into pattern pieces and turn them into a pair of slippers, mittens, cushion cover…

  • Rach September 11, 2015, 10:13 am

    Wow, it had never occurred to me that you could unravel and re-knit something! I’ve wanted to learn to knit for years and this makes me even more motivated to do so. Thanks for the inspiring post!

  • Mary September 11, 2015, 11:20 am

    When I lived in China in the 1970s wools was a precious commodity. Everyone wore hand knit sweaters and many wore handknit long johns. In the spring, the garments would be carefully unravelled, washed and re-knit – usually into the exact same garment. Washing the wool, rather than the garment got them cleaner and re-knitting redistributed all the places that had received wear during the winter.

    • Meg and Gosia September 11, 2015, 11:36 am

      This is fascinating! Thank you for sharing.

  • Rachelle Strauss September 22, 2015, 9:29 am

    Well I’ve learned something new – to ‘frog it’. I do love that term. It almost makes me want to take up knitting just so I can say I spent an evening frogging 🙂


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