Jimmy Beans Wool owner, Laura Zander, inspects leftover fibers for the wool-alpaca blended Yarn Citizen line.
Although we dutifully fill our bins with cans, plastic, and paper, only a small portion of consumer recycling actually makes its way into new products. That hasn’t deterred the craft industry. Today’s makers are using their creativity and experience to build their own recycling opportunities, producing innovative products and valuable marketing opportunities.
Sometimes recycling opportunities start small – as small as the thin thread that ties a hank of yarn. For years, Beata Jezek, owner of Hedgehog Fibres, saved the ties, dyed in bright colors along with the yarns they held in the dyepot. Jezek had a plan for using them although it took time to find a mill that understood her vision. Often yarns using recycled fibers are rough or rustic-looking. Jezek wanted to change her customers’ idea of what a recycled product could be. “We wanted to combine recycled fibers with premium Falkland Merino wool,” Jezek explains. The result? Hedgehog’s lush Tweedy yarn. The yarn is made of 50% Falkland merino, 37.5% recycled fibers sourced from the wool industry, plus 12.5% of Hedgehog-provided yarn waste. The base yarn comes in neutral shades such as gray and beige as well as soft hues like blue and pink, with bright pops of color from the Hedgehog fiber bits.
Not content to recycle their own yarn waste, Hedgehog went one step further. Over three years ago, the company began asking customers to donate their leftover yarns and thread for use in recycling. In exchange, Hedgehog sends customers discount codes based on the amount of yarn or thread they donate. The response has been overwhelming. As of this writing, Jezek estimates that Hedgehog has recycled 3750 kilograms of fiber from customers, along with 1250 kg of Hedgehog Yarn waste.
Laura Zander, co-owner of Jimmy Bean’s Wool, was also inspired by yarn waste, albeit on a different scale. While touring fair-trade mills in Peru, Zander watched artisans sifting through fiber, sorting it by softness based on touch alone. As remnants piled up, Zander learned that thousands of pounds of wool and alpaca yarn waste like this were generated each year. Zander decided to give these leftover fibers a new life, creating a special line called Yarn Citizen. Right now, Yarn Citizen comes in an all-wool formulation and a wool-alpaca blend, each offered in two or more weights.
Zander sees Yarn Citizen as a way to bridge the gap between affordability and luxury. The yarns are spun from high quality fiber left over from processing luxury yarns, but because they are spun from remnants, Jimmy Beans can offer them at a more attractive price point (for example, $10 for a 100-g/211yd. skein of worsted weight wool). Zander assembled a top-notch crew of designers for pattern support, including Amy Gunderson.
When Gunderson first started knitting, she unraveled thrift store sweaters and reknit the yarn; using yarn containing “waste” that would otherwise end up in landfills “feels very close to this and takes me back to my roots.” She describes the yarn as “drapey and lovely and amazing.”
Other Kinds of Upcycling
Repurposing materials goes far beyond fiber. Bur Oak Studio turns discarded aluminum knitting needles and crochet hooks into jewelry, key fobs, wind chimes and other unique items. Founder Jennifer Davies learned how to knit decades ago, when long aluminum needles were the only game in town. Around 2005, still knitting but on newer bamboo and circular needles, she wondered how she could re-use her old favorite tools:
“I’d been dabbling in jewelry making and took some needles to my handy husband and asked him how I could chop them up to see if they were hollow or solid.”
(There are both kinds, they learned.) Jennifer now uses pieces or slices of needles and hooks to create her fun and stylish product line.
Davies sources her needles from estate sales, thrift shops and other secondhand sellers, but she’s also reached the point where customers drop off needles and hooks for her to use. (In case you’re wondering, needles sizes 9 through 13 are the most frequently used; orange and purple needles are the hardest colors to find, hence most desirable.) Davies loves seeing new customers’ faces as they realize exactly where the metal in the products comes from. She also does custom orders for people who want to make something memorable when a knitter or crocheter in their life passes away, using their loved one’s tools.
Discarded shards of glass don’t sound very appealing, but Laura Bergman of Bottled Up Designs saw the beauty of antique glass at an early age. She spent her childhood on a farm containing old glass and bottle dumps. A lifelong collector, she was combing through old glass dumps with her children many years later. “One day the glass was spread all over the dining room table and I said to my daughter ‘This glass is as pretty as any gem. I wonder if I could make jewelry out of it.’” Although she’d never made jewelry before, Bergman started out grinding and cutting glass. Later she purchased a kiln to melt the glass and refashion it into consistent shapes so she could produce regular product lines.
Bergman pairs vintage glass with sterling silver to create rings, bracelets, earrings, and necklaces. You might be surprised by the colors in her work: vintage Noxema bottles make cobalt blue, black or pink shades come from depression glass, emerald is produced by vintage beer bottles, while customer favorite aqua is made from old mason jars. Best of all, she is removing glass which clutters the environment and often harms wildlife with its sharp edges.
Top/left: Earrings made from reused, vintage glass and sterling silver by Bottled Up Designs. Bottom/right: Hat Hedgehog Fibres made with Tweedy.
While reusing and recycling are important ends themselves, using recycled materials in products creates built-in ways to market those products. Jennifer Davies found that by using recycled materials, additional venues for selling items opened up. She takes her recycled needle products not only to knitting- and crochet-related events, but also to craft shows that feature only items made from recycled/upcycled materials. Bonus: customers who drop off needles for recycling may also be tempted to purchase again while visiting her booth.
Jimmy Beans has made its yarns’ provenance a key marketing focus. Products pages and blog posts show photos of fleece sorting, yarns at various stages of the process, and of course the sheep who gave the fiber. Even the name of the line emphasizes the yarns’ connection to the larger world. “Yarn Citizen” carries all kinds of positive connotations: being a “good citizen,” say, or fostering a sense of belonging as a citizen of the world. And a more affordable price point, the direct result of using recycled fibers, is itself highly attractive to customers. Bottled-Up Designs also emphasizes the recycled nature of its jewelry in its marketing, touting the beneficial effects of removing glass from the environment. Laura Bergman includes a card with each purchase called “The Story of the Glass,” which explains the age and history of the specific type of glass used.
Perhaps the most fun aspect of recycled products, though, are the unique emotional connections that they provide.
Laura Bergman notes that her products “bring recollection and nostalgia to so many, either by products they remember coming in those glass jars, or a grandmother’s house they remember being filled with depression glass pieces.”
Beata Jezek agrees. Hedgehog Fibres found that customers love sending in yarn scraps that were too pretty to throw away. And contributing yarn that ends up in a new product makes customers feel like part of “the Hedgehog Fibres family.”
Carol J. Sulcoski is an attorney by day and a knitting author, designer and dyer by night. Her latest book is “Yarn Substitution Made Easy” (Lark Crafts 2019). She lives outside Philadelphia with her three nearly grown-up children and a fluffy orange cat.