winter domestic productivity project #3: the felted wool sweater blanket

so amidst all the as-is runs to find fabric for the braided rug, i started noticing the serious sweater population at goodwill, and an idea popped into my head... i should collect those sweaters, and cut them up and reassemble them as a blanket! then the other day i mentioned this to my friend jessa at one of our clients and she said thats what *she* does! wow. that was pretty cool. of course, then i go online thinking i might be able to find some hints, and it turns out that a whole bunch of other people have had my idea, and some of them have been selling them for years now. leave it to me to come up with a completely unoriginal idea, completely independently! its still cool though.

originally, i had planned to make the blanket of 8" squares, 8 x 8, so 64" on a side. after thinking about this for a bit, ive decided to change my plan to create more work for myself, and make it out of 6" squares, 16 x 16, making a 96" square blanket. i know this is huge, and will require 256 squares of felted sweaters, but 6" squares mean i can get at least 8 squares out of the typical sweater, and more out of larger ones, instead of having to settle for getting 2 8" squares out of the same sweater. so 256 squares will add up faster. most of the sweaters ive found so have been in the black-grey-white gradient, with a few bits of lavender, maroon and tan. i think ill randomly arrange these in the checkboard pattern to end up with my most beloved of "patterns" - mottled! the other thing ive decided, in order to make things easier on the sewing, is to sew groups of 16 squares together into larger, 24" squares with a doubled straight stich, just sewing their edges on top of each other, and then to sew these new, larger squares to each other back to back, creating a clean seam on one side, and then a rough exposed edge on the other. itll make for a neat pattern, i think. well see how it turns out. but now i can at least start cutting squares, now that i have size settled...

progress of the blanket:

19 Dec 03 first haul of the rough material for this project. some of these had already been run through the wash when i found them at as-is, the rest will need to be washed and dried to shrink and felt them. mostly lambswool, but a few bits of cashmere and merino.
22 Dec 03 bought decent scissors today, and tailors chalk, and cut up the 4 sweaters that are actually felted of the 15 or so that i have so far. nice black, a good grey, a beige ribbed, and a good grey cableknit with these ridiculous little balls. 36 squares so far, 220 to go, or roughly 25 sweaters! getting about 2 squares per sleeve too, which i wouldnt have been able to do with 8" squares. some of the bigger sleeves im keeping to make into leg, knee or armwarmers though.
28 Dec 03 9 more sweaters processed, for a total now of 145 squares! this is going faster than i thought it would. more black, a nice off-white, a bit of lavender, some maroon (some with argyles), a tiny bit of beige, and a few different shades of grey. lots of variety in the felting here - some sweaters barely felted at all, while others shrunk up nice and tight. the tricky part is that there appears to be no real correlation between weave or materials and the tightness of the felting! cashmere doesnt felt as well as lambswool or merino, but ive had 2 lambswool sweaters that felt exactly the same pre-wash come out of the dryer completely different.
09 Jan 04 2nd haul, again mostly merino and lambswool, and some plain wool as well, and some blends. nothing less than 85% wool though. the aran sweater at the far right, though, i think im going to save. its just too damn nice to shrink and cut up... i think i need more light greys and whites, though. one more as-is trip tommorrow should finish out the sweater hunt, and then i can run a load of laundry and get to cutting things up.
10 Jan 04 this should be the final load - ill probably be left with extra material after this haul, to be honest... couple nice ribbed sweaters to give some more texture changes than just flat wool, and a couple norwegian-style sweaters to break up the masses of solid colors. only one more reddish sweater, though - would like to have more red/rust/purple, but i think ill have enough - especially now that ill likely have material to spare...
11 Jan 04

11 more sweaters shrunk and cut. theres another 9 that need another run through the wash to hopefully shrink and felt some more. this is probably as good a time as any for some notes on my experiences with "felting" these sweaters.

first thing that ill note, however, is that there doesnt appear to be any real correlation between whether or not a sweater will felt nicely in the wash and *anything* you might expect. tightness of knit, type of knit, thickness, reputed quality of maker, % wool, type of wool... none of that seems to regularly correlate. im typically using items at least 80% wool if mixed with non-natural fabrics, and perhaps a little lower if mixed with cashmere, angora, alpaca or something. cashmere by itself doesnt tend to felt very well, but will shrink down some. alpaca felts pretty well, angora does not. the *best* felting sweaters ive found to date are from old navys "collection" - theyre merino, and have a very plain outer surface - fuzzy and you cant really see the knit. gap sweaters, interesting enough, dont seem to felt as well. tighter knits *seem* to work better, but every now and again youll get a tightly woven sweater that just wont felt as much as youd like it to. so, oddly enough, ive really not found a way to pick sweaters pre-wash that will select for tight shrinkage and felting.

of course, complete felting doesnt actually occur - not to the extent that it would if i were to, say, take the time to felt by hand in scalding hot water. but, i just dont have time for that. typically what ive been doing is washing in a top-loading washer (better agitation, more banging around - friction is one part of the felting equation) set for whites (hot wash, cold rinse... if i could find a washer with a hot rinse, id be a happy man...) and then into the dryer on maximum heat until the sweaters are complete dry to the touch. for items that dont shrink as much as you would like, a second round can work, but doesnt shrink as much as the first time through.

thats pretty much what ive discovered so far. also, nothing felts nice and flat like you would want it to - theres always a bit of a ripple, which leads to squares that arent ever exactly square, no matter how precise your marking and cutting... what thats going to cause, well see in a little while...

the 2nd pic down is the plan, all scribbled out on paper. if you can read it, theres a key to the letters at the bottom, and counts of each color range (showing that im still a little short according to this pattern...

with almost all the 6" squares cut out, i couldnt resist sewing up the first 24" square (3rd pic) - this one is #1, top row, far left in the above diagram. i think it looks pretty good for a start! a little rough, but thats part of my plan. kinda tough sewing the squares together - the sweater material is a bit thicker than the machine likes, tends to clog the feed - but ill get the hang of it...
16 Jan 04 ok! all 6" squares cut out, sorted into piles by large 24" square according to the pattern, and bagged and numbered, ready to sew! im so organized. of course, in true joel fashion, ive got enough leftover material (seen piled here in front of the bagged squares) that i can probably make a whole 2nd blanket with it. im already forming ideas...
17 Jan 04

sewed up 24" squares 2 3 and 4, and then stitched them together to finish the first row of 4 for the full blanket! pretty neat so far - despite the massive irregularities in how the pieces are going together, its all coming out fairly square, or at least close enough for my tolerances... image at the bottom is of the 2 different methods im using to join the squares: flat on top of each other for the 6" squares, and back-to-back for the 24" ones
24 Jan 04 one more row sewn up, and the blanket is now half-finished. not too bad so far. still coming out fairly square, despite the incredible inexactness of everything... straight seams? nope. perfect squares? nope... but it still comes out even. the larger it gets, the happier i am that i went with the smaller squares. it looks really good so far. its gonna be HUGE, but i can live with that.
25 Jan 04 just churning it out now. the sewing part is *so* much less time-consuming than the prep. all that washing and cutting and measuring and cutting again... 3/4 of the way done now, and the huge part still is hitting me. hey, it was *my* idea to make an 8' square blanket... cause you know... hey - i might have a really big bed someday! right? is 6' x 8' now, which would be big enough for a double, which is what i have, but stop there? noooooo...
26 Jan 04 just a bit of work this evening - id been saving all the cuffs and collars and whatnot from all the sweaters i cut up, for no reason in particular, and then i had this great idea.... i could use them as edging for the blanket! looks like ill have enough, but wont know for sure until i either a) measure the long strip ive now made or b) finish the blanket and see...
30 Jan 04

ist pic: done! well, with the main body of the blanket - the only thing left to do is to add the edging. it is in fact HUGE, and i couldnt get an angle in my room where i could take a picture of the whole thing. measured up the edging i made up from the leftover cuffs, and ill probably add that either tonight or sunday night.

2nd pic: ok done for real. edges finished off, nothing left to do!

3rd pic: detail of how i finished the edges.

heres swatches of all the sweaters used in this blanket:

01 Feb 04 so, just as with the rug, there was material left over. i mulled things over for a while, counted squares, and worked things out, and this is what i came up with as the most attractive pattern using what i had left (ie not adding anything to the leftover pile). i think it turned out pretty well! about 5' square, just enough for a lap blanket or something.

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