One benefit of belonging to a large family with a network of mutual friends is no shortage of hand-me-down clothes. T-shirts are one of the most popular items passed between friends and family members. I’ve often looked at a younger niece or nephew and reminisced about when my own children, now teenagers, wore those same clothes at that age. Now that they’re older, my boys happily sport t-shirts formerly owned by their uncles, or even my dad!
Free range teenagers give clothes a real workout! By the time my boys outgrow a t-shirt these days, more often than not it’s headed for the rag-bag instead of shared with a younger family member. A few weeks ago my rag-bag reached the state of overflowing, but I couldn’t bear myself to throw out the old clothes. Sure, stains dotted the fabric in places but it was still perfectly good cloth. In my search to find other uses for the discarded articles besides polishing furniture and cleaning spills, I discovered t-shirt yarn.
It’s no great secret that a desperate knitter without yarn will use almost anything as fiber. In recent years it has become trendy to use other things in place of yarn, and substitutions include everything from ordinary items like newspaper and hemp cord, to more peculiar things like pet fur and human hair. And of course, t-shirts! What many may not know is that upcycling old clothes into yarn isn’t new at all. In her 1988 instructional booklet on the topic, Karen Madigan refers to all stretchy material as t-shirt yarns “because t-shirts are a favorite to recycle.”
Even if an old t-shirt is coming apart at the collar and sleeves or has holes in the armpits, it still has potential for new life as yarn if it meets certain conditions. First, it must lack a side seam. Secondly, the bottom half of the shirt must not have any kind of printed image. Each of these features almost always prevents proper stretching, a vital part of the process for creating this earth-friendly yarn.
If you plan to upcycle t-shirts into yarn, here are some things you will need:
- an old t-shirt
- scissors or a rotary cutter
- a straight edge
- a flat surface
After assembling your supplies, the process is pretty straightforward. Smooth the t-shirt out on the flat surface and, using the scissors or rotary cutter, remove the top half of the shirt. Make the line just below the sleeves or just under any printed image, depending on the shirt you use. Next, remove the bottom hem of the shirt so that what remains is a cylinder of fabric. If using a rotary cutter, please remember to use a protective mat on top of your flat surface.
After discarding the selvage, smooth the cylinder of t-shirt fabric on your flat surface again and fold it almost exactly in half, allowing the bottom to stick out beneath the top by about an inch. Use your scissors or rotary cutter to make a series of horizontal cuts, slicing through the top fold but stopping about half an inch from the bottom one, leaving that crease completely intact. After much experimentation, I found it best to keep the cuts about 1 1/2 inch apart in width, give or take a quarter-inch. The result is a row of cylindrical strips attached to the remaining fold.
The next step requires making a series of cuts to create a continuous strip of fabric. If you were using a rotary cutter to this point, please be sure to use your scissors now. First, open the fabric up. Then, starting with the bottom edge of the fabric, snip through the previously uncut material on an angle, stopping at the next slit. Repeat the motion, making diagonal cuts between each set of slits until you’ve reached the end of the loops. When you get to the last circle of fabric, cut on an angle between the bottom and top ends. The result should be one long, continuous strip of fabric.
Making t-shirt yarn is a trial-and-error process. Nobody should expect to make a perfect ball of yarn on their first try. If any of the process to this point goes wrong and you wind up with shorter strips, try mixing and matching them with other pieces of t-shirt yarn, varying colors for smaller projects, just like you’d do with any other scrap pieces of yarn.
Some people stop with this last step and use the yarn as is. Can you blame them? It’s soft, chunky, and makes a great scarf or vest. I prefer stretching the yarn first. It makes the fiber thinner, extends the yardage, and creates a more sturdy product. Completing this step is very easy. Take an end of the material in one hand, grasp another section a couple of feet long with your other hand, and pull the fabric taut. Be careful not to stretch too hard or it could break. Once you’ve reached the other end of the material and the entire length stretched out, roll it into a ball just like you would any other yarn.
One option for t-shirt yarn is using it exactly as is. However, a few simple embellishments can turn an otherwise ordinary project into a true work of art. Some of my successful past experiments include tie dying the yarn, adding colorful pony beads while knitting or crocheting, or twisting with a specialty yarn (like fun fur or velvet) for different looks and textures.
Some yarn stores, especially privately owned businesses that cater to serious enthusiasts, sell t-shirt yarn along with exotic wools and expensive, hand dyed silks, but books and patterns geared specifically for projects using t-shirt yarn are seriously lacking. Through trial and error I’ve found that existing patterns calling for bigger needles and chunky yarns, like Lion Brand’s Homespun or Blue Sky Alpacas wool-alpaca blend, are a great way to experiment with t-shirt yarn.
USES FOR T-SHIRT YARN
T-shirt yarn is durable! Because the fabric already outlasted several cycles through the washing machine and dryer, anything created with t-shirt yarn should last a good while. A t-shirt yarn rag rug can handle all the mud and dust a family can track through a room, and unlike rugs with rubber backing, these survive being dried in the dryer without melting. Dish cloths created from the sturdy fiber scrub even the worst grime from greasy pots and pans, but is soft enough to clean delicate china and silverware. Some other patterns that could work using t-shirt yarn are baskets, grocery sacks, book or iPad covers, coffee collars, steering wheel covers, and beach cover-ups that boast lacy, fish net designs.
Two other things I love creating from t-shirt yarn that aren’t mentioned above are hair scrunchies and bath scrubbies. A bit of t-shirt yarn crocheted around an existing hair tie gives a fun look to otherwise plain accessories and because the texture is so soft, I don’t have to worry my hair getting tangled like it does with other elastic bands. A couple of years ago I made some bath scrubbies and gave them away as Christmas gifts. They were a huge hit! And they are so easy to make that I’m including the pattern here.
T-SHIRT YARN BATH SCRUBBY
- at least 180 yards of t-shirt yarn
- crochet hook (size K or N works great)
- Round 1: Ch 6, and connect, making a circle (like starting a granny square)
- Round 2: 18 dc in circle
- Round 3: 6 dc in each dc around
- Round 4: Repeat round 3 until the size is what you want, or until you are out of yarn. But watch out – you can wind up with a REALLY large bath scrubby!
- Handle: Make a chain that is twice the length you’d like for your handle, and connect both ends to the middle of your scrubby
And there you have it! It really is as easy as it sounds. The best part is, when it becomes clogged with soap scum and dead skin and whatever else usually destroys store-bought bath accessories, toss it in the washing machine with a load of towels and it comes out just as clean as when it was first created.
After I was first introduced to the concept of t-shirt yarn, how easy it was to create surprised me. In addition to my rag-bag of old shirts, friends and family have begun saving their old t-shirts for me to cut up and turn into yarn. My husband is happy because with all this fiber on hand, I make fewer trips to my favorite craft store. Not to mention, all the pulling and stretching gives my arms a great workout. Why not grab an old t-shirt and try making some yarn of your own? If you don’t knit or crochet, and have no interest in taking up either hobby, present it to someone who does. I’ve never known a knitter to turn down free yarn!