I tend to get asked various questions about my process for ‘rescuing’ yarn from thrift shops, so I thought I’d write a ramble-post under the guise of a how-to 😉 Hope you find this helpful in some way!
How to Begin: Choosing What Subjects to Rescue
I don’t know how your thrift shops sell yarn, but around here it’s divided into two distinct camps. There are those shops that have a basket, basically, of loose little balls and skeins, most of which aren’t labelled…and there are those that just shove yarn into bags and slap a price sticker on ’em, generally with little organization or order. The temptation is always there to, you know, buy it all…but personally, I consider it unwise (how many scrap balls of 80s-esque neon acrylic do you really need???). So I prioritize, and I weigh my risks based on a.) presumed fiber content and b.) cost (how much am I willing to gamble today?) I don’t use acrylic– I find it rough on my hands and just generally unpleasant– so I search for natural fibers, preferably wool, alpaca, or silk, and usually leave acrylic and cottons if possible.
How do I tell what’s what? That’s where the gamble comes in. If the yarn is not labelled, I have to rely on other measures for a basic guess. Natural fibers often aren’t as shiny, and are usually bouncier. They– to me, anyways– feel softer. Wool tends to be skeined differently, as well, with more care (it seems) put into it. But it still comes down to a gamble.
If the yarn is marked, yeah, go for it. If it’s not, weigh it’s possible value against it’s actual cost. Are you okay with paying $5 for a large skein of what may be plastic? No? How about $ .50? It’s all in what you’re willing to risk, and how sure you are that you’re right (and I’ll show you how to find out if you were right soon enough 😉 )
Part Deux: Evaluating, Skeining, Testing, and Dyeing….aka the Fun Stuff
So you bought a big bag of mystery yarn. Congratulations. Now it’s time to see if you’re as good at visual/tactile assessment as you think you are.
I usually do this part outside– no matter how closely you checked the yarn in the store, there’s still the possibility of wool moths, and I’d rather not contaminate my stash! I go through everything in the bag, and set them apart by my guessed fiber content. The ones I think are wool, mohair, or some other animal fiber I skein on my niddy-noddy and tie for dye work. The rest are then tested for fiber content. As I do this, I look for things like water damage, stains, and insect evidence. Sometimes skeins are un-salvageable (like the brown one shown before, covered in moth nibbles and larvae carcasses) and have to be tossed in the trash (or used for compost– clearly they are wool 😉 )
How do I test for fiber content? There are several ways to do this– the burn test or the bleach test, for instance– but I go with the dye test. It’s not an exact science, but it works for my purposes. Basically, if a yarn is a protein fiber (anything that comes from an animal– wool, alpaca, silk, cashmere, etc), or is made of nylon, it will accept acid dyes. If it is a form of acrylic, the dye will just wash off. If it’s a cellulose fiber (cotton, for instance), it will get a faded, ugly stain, but not actually dye.
All I do is snip off a small amount of each yarn (making sure to keep track of which is which) and tie it to a stick of some sort (bamboo skewers work well), and suspend that stick over a glass jar filled with water and one packet of Crystal Light (food coloring works as an acid dye, and the citric acid in the Crystal Light bonds the dye to protein fibers). I nuke it in the microwave five minutes (enough to boil the water and dye such a small amount of yarn), dump it out, rinse the yarn scraps under running water, and evaluate from there. Works well enough for me!
Dyeing is also relatively simple. I stick to food dyes for the most part– Koolaid, Crystal Light, etc. The sugar free ones only (sugar burns to the wool). They all include citric acid, so I don’t have to use vinegar or search out some specialty shop that sells bulk citric acid or anything. Just find a microwave-safe container with a cover that fits the skein of yarn. Add enough water to soak the yarn and go just over it– too much water and the boil will be too active, adding agitation to the process and the possibility of felting (too little water, though, and you could scorch the yarn, so it’s a balancing act). Then just add your dye, cover the container, and nuke your yarn. I usually go fifteen minutes or so. Then I dump it out in the sink, let it drain a little, and move it to my drying rack (a metal screen I keep suspended over a rubber mat).
If you just want to boil the yarn (or wool– I wash and dye fleece with this process sometimes), just follow the same process but don’t add the dye. Simple, right? 🙂 (And if you do decided to take home some acrylic or cotton or something, but want to clean them, then package them in tight skeins and secure them in zippered lingerie bags, then run them through the washer and dryer on gentle. Your mileage may vary).
So that’s my process! If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment 🙂