Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Recycling Wool

I love jumble sales. They are a real antidote to what is wrong with the world. For a start they are almost always for a charity – be it children, wildlife, historic buildings, cats or anything else that needs care. Secondly they rely on people recognising what it is that they no longer need and then offering that up for others to use. Likewise for the buyer it offers the chance to acquire a real range of stuff (far more eclectic than you’ll find on most high streets) at prices that are affordable. It is a wonderful celebration of what life should be like.

However, as anyone who has ever been to a jumble sale will attest to, all these high minded ideals can be a little hard to find once the door is opened and the baying crowd is unleashed on the tables, all overseen by a formidable army of older ladies eager to ensure that every item is found a new home and that, more importantly, every 20p is collected. In the heat of the moment there is little time for cool calm contemplation...

Which is the main reason why that lovely jumper I had been so pleased to find, was in actual fact an XL. I suppose that I could have taken it to a charity shop as there was nothing wrong with it, however it was made from Scottish spun tweed wool and in the end I decided to unwind it and recycle or upcycle the wool.

The jumper part way through being unwound
Ask almost anyone who has a wartime memory (as both my father and aunt do) and they will tell you that recycling wool was a perfectly normal thing to do as fibre had become hard and expensive to acquire. But even today the economics of it are surprising and, although I shudder at the idea of deciding what is worth doing by whether the pounds and pence add up, it does actually make financial sense.

I purchased the jumper for 20p and from that I obtained just over 600g (21oz) of usable Scottish tweed wool. If I was to go and buy that from Rowan it would be £5.90 per 50g (plus P&P), a total of around £72 ($112). It took longer than usual to unwind it (see below), maybe 6hrs, but it was a happy little task that I could do whilst listening to the radio and even in the car (no, I wasn’t driving). Of course if you get jumpers in angora, cashmere or alpaca the savings can be considerably more.

In weaving projects I have done before I have used recycled wool as the warp, but I have decided here to use the wool for both the warp and weft, in a straight forward tabby weave. It will be first time I have used the full 36” width of the loom, having only done scarves and ties before. For weaving I don’t do anything with the wool other than wind it onto a bobbin and then it’s always under tension during the process of weaving. For knitting you would certainly want to steam or gently wash the wool on a niddy-noddy for a while to release the crinkle. This particular yarn has a new texture to it, slightly raised where it has been on the outside of the jumper, however with this type of wool I think it only adds more interest.

How to unwind a jumper

Slightly vintage labels like this can be used
as a reminder of the fibre and its origin.
Firstly it is really important to ensure that your jumper was made in the correct way. There are two methods in making them up. The first uses panels and a stitch up the seams, usually from the same wool as the jumper is knitted in. This can be quite hard to see, but gently pulling the seam should show a thread running back and forth between the two panels. This is the one we want, because the second method – using an industrial overlocker – stitches the panels together (often with a cotton thread) and then cuts the end of the woollen seam. This results in a cut stitch at the end of each row and so lots of short lengths.

Once you are sure that you have the right sort of seams (and that you do actually want to loose the jumper!) cut along all the seams, being very sure to only cut the woollen thread holding them together. If you are successful you will know because you end up with two panels, the ends of which are uncut. Often at the base of the seam it will be strengthened by cotton thread stitching and it is almost impossible to unpick this. You just have to do the best you can and accept a few rows of lost wool - likewise up and around the shoulders. It is a process that is much easier to do than describe.

If you get to a problem (perhaps a damaged or stained area) you can cut out strips, so long as you do so along the row and not down through the rows. Then take off any sort bits until you get continuous rows again.
On this particular jumper the main body came away two rows at a time, which was slower as I had to wind it on to two bobbins.

Calculating how much wool you have.

Calculating the wraps per inch (wpi)
Once you have your wool into a ball or on a bobbin you can weigh it and calculate how much you have obtained. I got just over 600g (21oz) from this very large jumper, with 60g (2oz) of ‘waste’ wool that we will use for stitching or filling, plus there was a zip. If you were going to knit a jumper try to get a size or two above the one you are going to make or one that uses more wool (e.g. a polo neck). If it is vintage or attractive the label can be attached to remind you of the yarn’s fibre.

To calculate the length of the wool take a ruler and wrap the yarn around it, laying each wrap one next to the other along a 1” gap. To make it easier I have set a set square to a one inch gap, one day I’ll make a wooden gap with the calculations on the back. This particular wool is 16 wraps per inch (known as wpi) so therefore I am likely to have around 2400m (2,600 yds) of yarn. How did I come by this calculation? Well by using the many, many charts on the internet – of which each one says something different. You have to have a look at a few and then average them out and certainly when you are planning your project you need to allow a bit for error. A more accurate way would be to wind it around a known length (such as a niddy-noddy) to create skeins.

Old mill bobbins with the recycled wool
So there we have it two 100-year old mill bobbins being used again to hold recycled wool that is going to be used again! Such recycling should be the stuff of life...

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