What are Recycled Yarns & How to Use Them

Recycled yarns and what to make with them article by The Crafty Therapist

“Recycled yarns” conjures up different things for each of us. Some of us think of unravelling thrift store sweaters or cutting up old t-shirts. Even raiding the plastic bag cupboard to make ‘plarn’ (plastic yarn). All worthwhile and satisfying ways to recycle something old into something new.

We can reuse many materials. Denim jeans, sheets and pillowcases too. Such items have been repurposed for generations. They were made into rags for cloths, ripped into strips for rag rugs, and made into yarn too! Some of you may remember older family members doing this. It has become less common in the last few decades because of the ‘convenience’ culture that prevails in the Western world. As a result of this ‘throw it in the trash and buy a new one’ attitude, waste has become an enormous environmental problem.

On the plus side, many people donate the good clothes they no longer want to Charity/Thrift stores, and this keeps re-wearable items out of landfill. Those who have a good Charity/Thrift store nearby, may find a great supply of quality yarn for very little cost. You can unravel knitwear to reuse the yarn in a new project. As these are usually machine knitted garments, you will need to use a few strands together to get the yarn weight you need. If you spin, you could ply the strands together before balling up.

We can also reuse what we already have. How many unfinished projects do you have stashed away? Will you ever finish them? Be honest, if there are any that you know you won’t finish, why not pull them down? You can reuse the yarn on an exciting new project, and it won’t cost you a thing, except a little of your time.

These are all worthwhile and very satisfying, if you have the time. But what if you don’t? Did you know you can buy new recycled yarns?

Recycled Yarns You Can Buy

There are many recycled yarns available to buy, from factory produced yarn by brands that you already know and love, to hand-spun artisan yarns that open a whole new world of creativity.

Some of you may think why buy recycled, what’s wrong with my normal yarn?

Using natural, organic, yarns is the best thing for the environment but that’s not always possible because of many things like cost, availability, allergies, limited colour choices, practicality, to name just a few. Ordinary cotton is much more planet friendly than acrylic but requires heavy pesticide use and high water consumption to grow, and that would deter the ‘greenest’ crafter.

Choosing recycled fibres instead, reuses waste fibres and this is a great eco-friendly option if you want to help the environment. It may also be a very good commercial option. There is an enormous market for recycled products and it’s growing every day. So, if you sell your finished crochet, it might be worth testing it out.

It’s as easy to buy recycled yarns as it is to buy any yarn online and you may even find them in your local yarn store! Let’s look at what these yarns are and how we can use them.

T-shirt Yarn

You will have heard of t-shirt yarn and probably Hoooked Zpagetti, the first manufactured t-shirt yarn. Hoooked now has a range of different weight yarns and there are many other manufacturers of t-shirt yarn. This is great news, both for the environment and us! More manufacturers mean more choice and competitive prices.

T-shirt yarn is made from waste materials from clothing manufacture. In fact, most other recycled yarns are too. 

Hoooked Zpagetti T-shirt recycled yarn recycled yarns
Image Copyright Love Crafts Limited – Reproduced with Permission

You can make wonderful bags, baskets and home décor items like rugs and cushions with t-shirt yarn. Being super bulky, it works up quickly and you can get any colour you can think of.

There is, however, a downside to working with t-shirt yarn. If you have ever worked with it, you will know it can be hard on the hands, arm and shoulder muscles. It’s because of the yarn’s stretch. It often creates resistance as you work with it, giving you a serious workout in the process! My top tip for working with t-shirt yarn is pace yourself. You must take regular breaks, or you’ll end up needing to see someone like me, to release the muscle tension and pain!

Ribbon

Lesser known than t-shirt yarn is Ribbon yarn. It is softer, lighter and has a flat knitted tube structure. It is much easier to work with, there is no stretch and therefore no resistance.

You can make many things from clothing, to bags and rugs. Ribbon is a fantastic, slightly lighter weight, substitute for t-shirt yarn for everything except baskets. It won’t make firm baskets. There are lots of different brands but Hoooked and Paintbox are easy to find. Both these brands have a plain ribbon and a gorgeous sparkly ribbon.

I love working with Ribbon yarn, you can read more about it in my Paintbox Recycled Ribbon Yarn Review. I have designed a few patterns written for Ribbon Yarn. Some are shown below: Just click the picture to go to the pattern. To see all my patterns, see Crochet Patterns.

yellow crochet bag with daisy
Darling Daisy Clutch
Turquoise and Navy crochet bag
Totally Textured Tote
Sparkly star coaster crochet pattern
Sparkle Star Coaster

Barbante & Macrame Cord

Macrame has made a comeback in recent years, and this has brought sturdy strong yarns into mainstream yarn stores. These are amazing yarns to crochet with and create the most incredible stitch definition. And here’s the best news… you get recycled versions too.

There are generally 3 types:

Barbante: a spun cotton-based yarn, that is often bulky or super bulky weight yarn, but actually comes in a variety of thicknesses. It is excellent for homeware items, bags, and plant hangers. Check out Hoooked Spesso and Welcome Yarn Barbante XL.

Rope: firm and not well suited to crochet with.

Cord: a woven cord (confusingly often called ‘rope’!), that comes in a variety of thicknesses. The thicker varieties are the most amazing yarns for creating sturdy crocheted baskets, with no flop in the sides at all! If you want strong baskets that keep their shape beautifully, this is definitely the yarn to use. This heart basket was made in Bobbiny Premium 5mm Rope (pattern coming soon). I have more basket designs coming soon, also made in this great sturdy yarn and t-shirt yarn.

Recycled yarns heart basket

You will find many options often listed by thickness in mm from various suppliers, Bobbiny has several thicknesses. It can be quite tough stuff to work with, even the thinner ones. Its firmer texture is hard on the hands, and can chafe skin if you work fast, but if you take your time, and go slowly, the rewards are absolutely worth it.

Recycled Cotton

There are many spun plied recycled yarns that behave just like non-mercerized cotton and often have a slightly rustic appearance. Some 100% cotton, and others have a small percentage of polyester/mixed fibers, which in most cases really doesn’t matter.

However, it matters for cloths and items that need frequent washing, because of microplastic particles that shed from polyester, acrylic and nylon. Choosing 100% recycled cotton is much better for these items.

Drops Paris Recycled Denim and Wool and the Gang Billie Jean are good options. Paintbox Recycled Cotton Worsted is fantastic and has lovely colours (to learn more about this yarn read my Review). Lionbrand Re-up is a fabulous option in the US. There is also Drops Love You 9, a 4ply (#2 weight) yarn, that comes in lovely fashionable colours and is crazy cheap too.

Holding yarns eco yarn review - Paintbox recycled yarns
Paintbox Recycled Cotton Worsted

Cotton Blends

There are plenty of options for recycled yarns that are cotton blends and really you can use them the same as you would a non-recycled counterpart. These blends are great for clothing and homeware. For warmer weather clothing Hoooked Somen is one to look for, a lovely, recycled cotton/linen blend. Soft Cotton, also by Hoooked, is an 80% recycled cotton blend that has gorgeous colours, wonderful for appliques and home décor. I used it in my Free patterns for Rainbow, Cloud and Sunshine.

Sunshine free crochet pattern, made in Hoooked Soft Cotton recycled yarns
Free Sunshine pattern in Hoooked Soft Cotton

Polyester/Cotton Blends and Polyester/wool blends

Polyester is a very strong hardwearing fibre. Being plastic based, of course it isn’t good for the environment but using recycled helps minimise the impact through reusing existing plastic. There are some polyester blends that are great options. Cascade Rebound, made from recycled post-consumer plastic bottles and recycled cotton is a lovely yarn. Although firmer feeling than acrylic and has less stretch when worked up, it is warm and feels nice to wear. This and other blends are great for clothing and accessories like hats, gloves and scarves. King Cole Forest is a popular choice, launched in 2020, it is a blend of recycled acrylic and wool that is getting great reviews. And a new to the market is Grundl Second Life, a fab Sport weight blend of polyester and acrylic. I have some to play with and will be reviewing it soon!

Acrylic

When I first wrote this article for Happily Hooked Magazine in March 2021, there wasn’t a recycled acrylic on the market, BUT it launched shortly afterwards! I have waited for years for the first 100% recycled acrylic!

Acrylic is cheap, durable, soft (usually), and we just love it – yes I love it too! It’s a staple that most crocheters wouldn’t be without. But it’s bad for the environment! It’s made from plastic and sheds microplastic when washed, adding to this big environmental problem (I’m not trying to make you feel bad please read on). Using a recycled version doesn’t make that problem go away, but in reusing existing plastic or waste acrylic fibres we can divert those from landfill instead of creating more new plastic fibres, and that’s a very responsible thing to do for the planet.

I use acrylic (usually anti-pilling as it lasts much longer) because I love it’s softness and am allergic to wool! If you’d like to use a recycled acrylic, check out King Cole Big Value Limited Edition, it’s not expensive and has some lovely colours. The really great thing about this yarn is that it is a true DK so you can substitute it for any pattern that calls for DK acrylic. I am in the process of writing a review so be sure to come back soon to read it and look out for my new design using it, it’s heading out to testers this month. Here’s a little peek.

Purple and blush pink crochet shawl made in recycled yarn. Pattern by The Crafty Therapist

If you’re concerned about acrylic and polyester’s impact on the environment but still want to use it (like I do), did you know you can minimise the impact of microplastic by washing items made from acrylic and polyester in a filter bag such as the Guppyfriend? These bags are especially dense to catch the tiny particles to stop them being released into the water on washing. I will be reviewing one of these bags soon (another brand I found) so do check back! I’ve been meaning to get one of these bags for some time, I became more aware of polyester in our clothing through my kids unavoidable school uniform polyester content!

Handspun Yarns

There are other waste fibres that are being recycled too, natural fibres. Not by big yarn companies, but independent artisans. 

There are talented artisan spinners producing beautiful yarns, using a range of recycled fibre and I want to shine a spotlight on a particular selection of them. The women living in rural communities in India and Nepal, who spin recycled Sari and Banana fibers into the most beautiful, unique yarns. 

They work with Women’s Co-operatives who sell these yarns fairly traded, around the world. We are reassured then, that the talented spinners receive a fair wage, providing a much-needed income for their families and a sustainable industry for their communities. 

Sari Ribbon – These are strikingly beautiful yarns in amazing bright colours. Sari ribbon can be used for baskets, bags, scarves and jewelry. It is challenging to work with as it has inconsistent thickness, is quite fragile and has loose fraying ends that give a unique appearance and texture. It’s a super bulky weight yarn so you can work up projects fast, but you probably wouldn’t be able to adapt super bulky weight patterns for it easily, so some creativity with standard patterns is needed.

Spun Sari fiber yarn – A spun yarn made from silk fibers that it is easier to work with than the ribbon. You get different yarn thicknesses if you search. It is beautifully soft and is often thick and slubby too with a rustic fluffy texture. This makes it more challenging to work with than a factory spun yarn. But it delivers such a luxurious feeling fabric with a unique appearance, that it’s worth exploring.

Banana Yarn – Quite similar in appearance to spun sari yarn, banana yarn is thick, slubby, and silky to touch. It is less fluffy than spun sari yarn and is often beautifully shiny, especially when spun tighter. It is a plant cellulose fibre made from the bark of banana trees that is 100% biodegradable and vegan. It’s challenging, but fun to work with. Bags and scarves work especially well with it. You’ll gain a very heavy drape from banana yarn, so it stretches a lot in wear. This is good for scarves but wouldn’t work for fitted items like gloves or hats. If you’d like to read more about Banana yarn, check out my review.

Banana yarn multicoloured - recycled yarns
Banana Yarn

All of these ‘artisan’ yarns provide a totally new crocheting experience, they are fun to experiment with texture, but they don’t ‘frog’ well. If you need to pull your work back, go very gently so you don’t tear the fibres.

They may not be fully colourfast and over-dyed. It is best to rinse well in cold water and dry naturally before you ball them up, especially with stronger colours.

Following patterns written for the yarn you want to use is highly recommended. These yarns aren’t like any manufactured yarns so you will need to adapt patterns considerably to make them work out. Simple patterns with basic stitches and no shaping are best.

If you’d like to give banana yarn a try why not try my free 1 skein Easy Eco Cowl or go for a stunning boho look with the Boho Skinny Scarf? It’s also an easy pattern, written for banana yarn and results in a strikingly beautiful, eye-catching scarf that is a great talking point.

Boho skinny scarf crochet pattern. Recycled yarns banana yarn in green and blue
Boho Skinny Scarf

As crocheters, we can make a difference. Not only can we serve a fast-growing market that is looking for more eco-friendly products but in choosing to use recycled materials we are doing a great service to our planet too.

If you would like to read more on recycled yarns, read: The Definitive (ish) List of Recycled Yarns and visit the Eco Yarn Reviews page to learn more about what they’re like to use.

Sharing is caring, please share to help spread some love for eco-friendly crochet and our beautiful planet. Thank you, love Jan xx

Leave a Reply