Usually the shrinkage is minimal, and the garment can still be worn. This is not true with wool sweaters. But I've learned a way to give some of my wool mistakes a new life through felting.
Felting is the process of turning wool yarn into a dense, non-woven fabric. When washed in hot water, the wool fibers become entangled and mat together. Felt is especially handy in crafts because it doesn't unravel. Wool naturally repels water, keeps you warm even when it's wet, holds dye well, is gentle on cutting blades and is fire resistent, according to the book The Sweater Chop Shop: Sewing One-of-a-Kind Creations from Recycled Sweaters. The book's author, designer Crispina ffrench, shares techniques for making all sorts of creations from felt, including pot holders, pillows and blankets, scarves, mish-mashed sweaters and her own "Ragamuffin" stuffed animals. She also shows basics of hand stitching, which is very easy to do with felt.
If you don't have a wool sweater on hand, you can always pick one up from a thrift store. Here are some tips from ffrench's book for choosing wool sweaters to felt:
• Make sure the fiber content is at least 70 percent wool, or other animal fibers, including: alpaca, angora, cashmere and mohair.
• Do not use sweaters made from superwash wool. It has been treated with chemicals to keep it from shrinking or felting.
• Avoid sweaters with more than 30 percent fibers such as acrylic, nylon, Dacron, polyester, Orlon, cotton, silk, ramie or linen. Always check the label, and be wary of sweaters without one.
• Do not use crocheted or open-knit wools.
• Avoid woven wools, which do not felt as well as knitted wool.
• Do not use wool that is not soft, or any colors, texture or patterns you don't like.
• Pullovers have the biggest expanses of useful material, but cardigans and vests are also useful for most projects.
To felt at home, you only need three things: heat, moisture and friction, all of which your washing machine and dryer provide. Use a hot-water wash, a cold-water rinse and the usual amount of laundry detergent. Set the washer for the load setting that will allow free movement of the sweaters, but don't use too much water or they will float at the top and not get enough agitation for friction. For a thicker, more shrunken finish, wash the sweaters in a load with your regular laundry.
Dry the sweaters in the dryer on high heat, which tightens the felt further.
If you haven't gotten the results you want after one wash, repeat the process once or twice more. To determine if your felted sweater has the desired texture, make a test snip by removing the bottom edge of a cuff. Tug and stretch the cut edge a bit, then check for unraveling. Once dry, remove the sweaters promptly and smooth them out to get rid of wrinkles. I made a hanging car seat toy out of some of my felt stash and plan on making diaper covers (wool holds a lot of moisture without feeling wet, making it ideal for cloth diaper covers) from the rest.
Deirdre Long, the Star's Escapes editor, has been sewing for about 15 years, since she was 10 years old. She also knits, crochets and upcycles old items by redesigning them into new creations. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.