Lee Meredith is a delightful fiber artist living in Portland. She dyes yarns from sweaters she recycles into simply lovely wools, which come in perfect sizes for needlepoint. Her site is leethal.net and you can order here yarns in 10-yard skeins from the site. Today we profile her.
How did you get the idea to recycle sweaters into yarn and how do you decide when a sweater will work?
I first read about the idea of unraveling sweaters to recycle the yarn years ago (2005 I think) on a craft blog or craftster, found a wool sweater in a thrift store, and unraveled it successfully. But, it was so much work (it’s super hard the first time you do it!) so I didn’t do it again, until a couple years later when I started dyeing. I realized if I was going to get really into dyeing, I had to find a cheaper way to get yarn, so I got back into recycling sweaters, getting faster and better the more I did it. There are a ton of factors to be aware of when shopping for sweaters to recycle (I wrote about them in a Craft Stylish tutorial) – including fiber content and weight, the way the sweater is seamed and constructed, and the condition of the fabric. I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting sweaters that might work, the knit fabric jumping out at me from the crowded racks; then I check the label for fiber content, check the seams, and decide if it looks like good enough yarn to be worth the time and effort of unraveling.
I just love the colors you use, they are so unusual (at least in the needlepoint world), how do you come up with your ideas?
Well, I only dye with non-toxic food dyes, and mainly Kool-Aid. This may seem unprofessional to some, but I’ve been dyeing this way for years, having no problems with colorfastness/fading, and I’ve found ways of getting almost any color I want, though I often don’t plan out my yarns completely before dyeing. I’ve always enjoyed experimentation, and I always treat dyeing as experimenting! With a background in visual art (I majored in media arts and minored in studio art), I have been working with color theory for as long as I can remember, and I love playing with unexpected color combinations. So, with dyeing, I’ll often start with one color, see how it’s looking, and decide where to go next – decide if I want to add a contrasting/complimentary color to give the yarn a more dramatic look, or add similar shades, for a more subtle yarn. I don’t really look to anything in the world for color concepts, but I’m sure I’m subconsciously influenced by everything around me when I’m doing anything creative, including dyeing.
What’s the process you use for dyeing the threads?
I use Kool-Aid packets and food coloring (with vinegar), sometimes one or the other, often times a combination of the two. I use different methods – stove top, crock pot, and microwave once in awhile – and different processes depending on the yarn I’m going for. If I want a more solid look, I mix the dye in the stove top dyepot, or the crock pot, and drop the yarn into the dye. More often though, I add the yarn to the water first, let it heat up a bit, then add the dye, to get more color separation. If I’m dyeing a self-striping yarn, I separate the yarn into sections and dye each one at a time; for a variegated yarn, it’s much more experimental, dropping the whole hank in at once, and adding different colors to different sides of the dyepot. Sometimes I mix colors in a cup with water first and pour it in, sometimes I sprinkle/drip the dye straight into the dyepot over the yarn.
Some of your threads are stranded, some single strands. How do you decide when a yarn needs to be stranded?
I don’t decide – the sweater makers do. Many (most?) mass-made sweaters are knit stranded; you can’t really tell by looking at them, but once you start unraveling you realize. It would take a huge amount of time and work to un-strand a stranded yarn from a recycled sweater, so however the yarn is when I unravel it, that’s how my yarn will be. Usually the strands are slightly felted together, so I don’t think it hurts the knitting/crochet/needlepoint process much.
Are you thinking about expanding your line to include other natural fibers and blends, like cotton or silk?
I do make yarns from other recycled fibers sometimes, but I make them into spun recycled yarns, not dyed. It’s a whole other process to dye non-animal fibers like cotton and silk, which is toxic and I would need a dyeing area that’s not also my kitchen if I were to pursue it. So, I take recycled cotton, etc, and I spin it with my spinning wheel, and ply it together with other recycled yarns and/or threads. I don’t do as much of this, but now that I’ve started my Quick Knits Club I’m including this type of yarn in the club each month, and I may start adding more to my shop soon.
Tomorrow’s post will be my review of these delightful threads and using them for needlepoint.