How to make t-shirt yarn – a cheap and versatile crafting ingredient

Picture shows how to make t-shirt yarn with a strip being cut, a portion pulled, and another section already bundled for use.

I use t-shirt yarn for crafting, for sewing, and around the house. It’s a very strong cord that can be cut to a wide range of thicknesses. The colour range is huge. (How many colours do t-shirts come in?) My favourite way to use up t-shirts is to make t-shirt yarn. Stains and holes don’t matter. Long pieces and short pieces all have their uses. And the process is dead easy. In this post I’ll show you how.

Tools and materials

All you need is a clean t-shirt and scissors that cut fabric. If you’re nervous about cutting an even line, you can use a ruler but being absolutely even isn’t important. This is a very forgiving product.

You could use a rotary cutter and mat instead of scissors. The cutting will be faster but if you want a long continuous strand, you will have to join the pieces after they are cut.

The best t-shirts have no side seams. The body of the shirt is a tube with slits cut in it for adding the sleeves. That long tube lets you cut a spiral that gives you one very long piece of t-shirt yarn. T-shirts with side seams are still useful but the pieces will be shorter unless your yarn is cut very wide.

How it works

There are two basic steps to making t-shirt yarn:

  • cut the strips
  • pull the yarn

The strips are cut wider than what you want the finished yarn to be. When you pull it, the edges automatically curl in and the yarn gets longer. It will still have some stretch to it but it will not bounce back to its original flat length and width. Because the edges curl in, all the thread ends and the uneven edges disappear from sight. You have a nice smooth cord to work with.

Very wide strips will only curl at their edges instead of making a cord. You usually need to get beyond 5 cm (2″) width for that to happen.

Getting ready

Remove the hem stitching at the bottom of the t-shirt. On the outside you will see two rows of straight stitches. On the inside there will be a thread looping back and forth between those two rows of stitches. Don’t pull or cut the loopy thread! If you pull it, the stitching will tighten up and be almost impossible to remove. If you cut it, you will have hundreds of tiny pieces that each need to be removed individually. Instead, pull out the two rows of straight stitches and the loopy thread will come off in one long (probably tangled) piece.

The outside and underside of t-shirt hemstitching are shown and labeled.
Pull out the straight stitch rows and the loopy threads will come right off.

Even if you want very wide t-shirt yarn, the hem should still be removed. Otherwise, the edges won’t curl where the hem is so the yarn will be stiffer there.

Cut

If your t-shirt has no side seams, or if you are cutting a very wide strip, you can cut a spiral. Just start cutting on an angle until you get the width you want. Keep going around and around until you’re done.

If the t-shirt has side seams (or if you are cutting the sleeves), use scissors or a rotary cutter and mat, to cut rings. When you pull them, they will come apart at the side seams.

You can cut pretty much any width. My default size is the width of a standard t-shirt hem. That’s about 1.5 cm (.75″).

Ruler shows cutting width of t-shirt strip as 1.5 cm or .74 inches
My default cutting width is 1.5 – 2 cm (.75 – 1″). That yields a cord about .5 cm (1/8″) diameter.

Always cut your strips parallel to the hem. Long sleeves may give you longer strands if you cut perpendicular to the hem (ie along the length of the sleeve instead of across it) but they won’t be nearly as strong. When you cut parallel to the hem, the threads that make up the knit fabric run the length of the cut strips. Even if they unravel, you still have a bundle of long threads that will hold together. When you cut perpendicular to the hem, those threads run across the width of your strips. They don’t need to unravel very much to significantly weaken the t-shirt yarn.

Avoid cutting parts that have paint, glue, or other stiff stuff on them. They won’t curl or stretch. That bit of yarn will be noticeable and possibly weaker than the rest. Unfortunately, that includes a lot of the pictures and custom printing on t-shirts.

Pull

When the first 15 cm (6″) is cut, grab both ends and pull it. It will stretch and curl. Make sure that’s the width/weight you want. Adjust your cutting width if needed, and keep cutting and pulling as you go.

Flat strip of t-shirt is shown above a piece that has been pulled and is therefore curled and stretched.
When the flat strip (above) is pulled, the edges curl in and it gets longer and thinner (below).

I prefer to pull all my strips before winding them into a ball or bundling them for storage. They are easier to handle that way. It also lets me see at a glance what their finished size will be instead of having to guess.

Join

There are many ways to join t-shirt yarn strips into longer strands and what works best depends on how you plan to use it. So I’ll just say here that it can be done and it doesn’t need to take forever. However, there are so many ways to use shorter pieces of t-shirt yarn, that I rarely splice it. I save the long spirals for projects that need them, and the shorter pieces for everywhere else.

Use it

The waistband of a re-woven shirt is shown.  It was woven with t-shirt yarn pieces.
The horizontal strands in this re-woven shirt waistband are t-shirt yarn. The colour variations caused by stains on the shirt are actually an asset. So is the slight stretch the t-shirt yarn gives to the waist.

T-shirt yarn is so versatile I find myself saving every scrap. Some projects call for 3 cm (1.25″) pieces so it’s hard to find scraps small enough to throw away. It’s yarn, so anything you would use yarn for , you can use t-shirt yarn for. It’s cord, so anything you would use cord for, you can use t-shirt yarn for. There are also specific techniques that work best with t-shirt yarn instead of other yarn or cord. Those are the ones I will focus on when I post instructions for using this fabulous resource. But don’t wait for me. Cut up an old t-shirt and start playing. Whatever your preferred fiber art is, you can probably find a way to incorporate t-shirt into it.

Partially completed rug made of t-shirt yarn strips
T-shirts aren’t the only source of t-shirt yarn. This rug hooking project uses strands from pyjamas too.