Learn how to felt wool and you can try out one of many ideas to upcycle sweaters into an array of useful household products and fun gifts — no sewing machine required!
The following is an excerpt from The Sweater Chop Shop by Crispina Ffrench (Storey Publishing, 2009). Using recycled textiles to create home accessories, sweaters and even furniture, Ffrench has rescued nearly 500,000 pounds of clothing from landfills throughout the past two decades. In The Sweater Chop Shop, Ffrench shares her techniques and designs for more than 20 recycled sweater projects — functional art that’s good for your wallet and even better for the environment.
Pot holders may sound a little hokey — like something you may have brought home from summer day camp. I like “hokey,” and find pot holders useful every day. They can really add a bright, inexpensive handmade spark to a kitchen.
Making pot holders is quick and simple, and they are a great gift any time of year. Plus, because these are constructed with wool, they are fire-retardant and insulating, making them super-functional yet cute (of course).
The simplest design is to use a single 7-inch-by-7-inch square top. After you’ve learned the basic technique, try patching pieces together to make colorful tops.
- Felted wool sweater (see “How to Felt Wool,” below)
- Sharp fabric scissors
- Rotary cutter, pad and extra blades or a 7-inch-by-7-inch pattern made from cardboard
- Permanent felt-tip marker
- One 7-inch square of woven cotton cloth for backing (an interesting patterned cloth is nice)
- One 1-inch-by-6-inch strip of non-raveling cotton jersey (such as T-shirt material)
- Extra-long straight pins
- One size-16 yarn darner needle
- Persian wool or embroidery floss
How to Felt Wool
Felting wool requires three conditions — heat, moisture and friction — which can be provided by your home washing machine and dryer. Here are a few tips for successful felting.
- Use a hot-water wash, a cold-water rinse, and the usual amount (per load) of whatever laundry soap you have on hand.
- Set your home washing machine for the load setting that will allow free movement of your goods, but don’t use too much water or they will float at the top and not get enough agitation or friction. If you desire a thicker, more shrunken finish, wash the sweaters in a load with your regular laundry. The weight of jeans and towels agitates the wool and enhances the felting process.
- Dry the sweaters in the dryer on high heat. This step tightens the felt further, and sometimes makes felt that lacks body become full of it!
- If, after one cycle of washing and drying, you still haven’t achieved the desired felted texture, try repeating the process one or twice more.
- After your sweaters have felted enough to hold a crisp edge when cut, remove them promptly from the dryer, smooth them out, and stack them flat to store until you’re ready to use them. This keeps wrinkles at bay and the need for ironing to a minimum. It also allows for maximum visibility of your material palette.
Even with the most complete and detailed instructions, felting is an inexact science. The very nature of felting is unpredictable, and two sweaters with the same fiber content may give two very different results. I stress that you must check your sweaters frequently during the felting process, or you may discover your wool has shrunk too much and too densely. After an item has crossed that line, there’s nothing you can do. Felting is an irreversible process, but remember that no matter the final result of your felting, there is a use for it somewhere.
If you have a sweater that is already felted (shrunk) that you would like to use in a project, you can clean it by washing on delicate (and a short agitation cycle), with warm wash and warm rinse. Dry flat or in a cool dryer.
Preparing Your Materials
- For each pot holder, carefully cut a 7-inch-by-7-inch square from both the felted sweater and the woven cotton material you have selected. If the felt is thin, cut two or three squares to increase the thickness. (If you have traced around a cardboard pattern with a marker, be sure to cut just inside the line so no marker shows on the square itself.)
- Place the wool and cotton squares wrong sides together with the cotton on top. If you are using more than one wool square, stack them together, carefully matching edges, and then add the cotton square to the top of the pile, right side up.
- To make a loop for hanging the pot holder, fold the 1-inch-by-6-inch rectangle of cotton jersey in half, short ends together. Insert 1 1/2 inches of the two short ends in one corner between stacked layers.
- Pin all four corners in place, being certain that you have “caught” both ends of the hanging loop.
- Thread your needle with a 2-yard length of Persian wool or embroidery floss. Beginning at the corner with the hanging loop, insert your needle under the cotton top layer and push down through the hanger and the wool bottom layer(s) of fabric. Pull yarn through to the bottom of the pot holder, concealing the knot under the top cotton layer.
- Make a reinforced X-stitch through the hanger and all layers in that corner. Stitches should be neat and strong and can show on both sides of the pot holder. This stitch will anchor the hanger and keep the layers in place. It also allows pin removal in this corner, making it easier to hold and work on the next steps.
- Finish your X-stitch with thread coming out of the fabric about half an inch in from the cut edges of the layers, and begin to blanket stitch around the edges of the pot holder. Be sure you are catching all the layers with each stitch. Keep your corners neat and square by double stitching the first and last stitches of each side seam.
- When you get back to where you started, tie an overhand knot close to the surface of the material. Run the needle and yarn between the layers about 1 inch to conceal it. Snip the yarn off at the surface of the pot holder.
- Iron the finished pot holder with lots of steam to make a nice, flat finish.
Fun fabrics for the backing of your pot holders are often easily found either around the house — look through your old clothes, tablecloths or other items no longer being used — or at the thrift shop.
Any type of garment will work as long as the fabric is not polyester or another synthetic that is prone to melting with prolonged heat exposure. Just look for a pattern or palette you like.
From Single-Fabric to Patched Tops
After you’ve mastered the single-square pot holder tops, you can create a playful look by patching together a variety of fabrics. Begin with four squares all cut to the same size. Cut one of the squares into four shapes of your choosing. Use these pieces as patterns to cut the other squares into the same shapes. Now mix and match the shaped pieces like a puzzle to form four complete squares. Join the pieces together with either ladder stitch variation or edge-to-edge X stitch to make a new set of four pot holder tops. Complete the pot holder project, beginning with Step 2, above.
Reprinted with permission from The Sweater Chop Shop, published by Storey Publishing, 2009.