Upcycle a UFO (Utterly Failed Object!)

I love the concept of upcycling: turning something old and useless into something beautiful and useful. I have taken worn but well-made vintage garments and transformed them, either whole cloth or in bit by lovely bit.

How to upcycle a caftan sweater?

 However, it's one thing to give new life to a gorgeously crafted item, and it's something else entirely to transform something that was an abject failure from the very beginning.

I have very few failed sewing projects on my hands. With sewing, you can always undo, add, subtract, and redo, to ultimately arrive at a satisfactory product. But I can say that at knitting, much as I love it for its Zen-mindset properties, I have been an unqualified failure several times. I have more unfinished knitting projects than I care to count, but that doesn't stop me from starting another. For me, knitting is definitely the journey, and in the end, I have had to accept that I should stick to scarves.

Most of my mistakes have been related to my choice of yarn for the project and my own loose gauge. In fact, I have one hilariously large sweater that sheds mercilessly no matter how many times I hand-wash and block it. Seriously, as I walk down the street, big puffy fluffs float off the sweater. Yet, I find it impossible to discard the sweater, as patently unwearable as it may be. And I still drag it out for a humorous stroll at least once each winter.

There was one project that was particularly beyond all reprieve–a sleeveless turtleneck (a garment at odds with itself to begin with) knit up in a lovely, light-teal, bulky wool that I absolutely adored but was patently unadvisable for this particular pattern. When I finished it, and I actually did, I had to acknowledge that I would never, ever wear it.

Then I lit upon a brilliant idea. I would take the sweater apart and use it to cover the back of a pillow. Now, this isn't a particularly new idea, but at the time, several years ago, for me, it was revolutionary. Here was a way I could still enjoy the wool, which was the whole reason I had knitted it up against professional advice to begin with.

So I did just that. Fortunately, the side-to-side garment measurement matched the width of my pillow, more or less, so I just took the front of the sweater, turned under the selvages, and attached with needle and thread. The top and ribbed bottom of the sweater front took a bit more courage as I actually had to cut my work. But cut (carefully) and stitch I did. The result was a two-sided pillow, one with the original face and the other with the project remnant. That pillow has worn like iron, and I have spent many a nap with my cheek against my beloved failed project.

Now if I can just figure out what to do with that oversized caftan sweater.

If you have failed projects lying discarded and useless, you can find plenty of ways to repurpose them by checking out the Stitch back issue sale in the Sew Daily Shop.

How do you like to upcycle? I would love to know—maybe it will give me some ideas!

Happy stitching!

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About Amber

Amber Eden is the editor of Stitch and SewDaily.com. She LOVES sewing and editing Stitch and SewDaily.com. She also loves dance, yoga, iced decaf triple espressos, and her two golden retrievers. She divides her time between Boston and New York.

15 thoughts on “Upcycle a UFO (Utterly Failed Object!)

  1. I loved this article- what a chuckle! I have the same zen thing but with crochet. it is the one craft I do that I don’t feel pressured about if I fail at it. Just recently I found I have an enormous stash of yarn from started and unfinished crochet projects, or ones I bought yarn for and have yet to start. At the same time I was doing a closet clean out. I started cutting some of my old jeans, shirts and sweatshirts into strips and crocheted them into baskets to hold all of my yarn. Also just lately I have really been into adding texture to my “canvases”. I save failed drawing/ paintings, bad prints, junk mail etc and use what images I thing are interesting in my work. At the very least leftover paper is used in paper mache. Old cloth and yarn are reused in scrappy quilt blocks, or sewn into art to add texture and hopefully interest. Sorry for the wall of text. I am a mega craft nerd. o.O

  2. I hear you. I have stacks of projects to be and projects in motion! I am great at starting and incapable of tossing anything! In fact, I need to go through my fabric stash this week and that won’t be pretty. I love every piece but there are far too many!

  3. Re: the caftan sweater, if it is 100% wool, I’d felt it and make a tote bag out of it. Or, if it’s not real wool, I’d make hats and mittens sets from the ribbing on up into the body of the sweater. Re: the rest of it…a lampshade? (just kidding!)

  4. I occasionally get a project that there does not seem to be a way to save it. With these, I can keep them and keep feeling guilty for not finishing them/using them or I can move on by giving them to the Salvation Army. Then maybe someone else can enjoy them and I am free to move on to new projects!

  5. Oh, how I laughed and commiserated with you, particularly the “at odds with itself ” concept of the sleeveless turtleneck. I have a gorgeous wool lap blanket that gives me hives to even look at it, but I adored the colors and it reminds of the trip where I got it. It lives on the back of a rocking chair I rarely sit in. Very nice article!

  6. In addition to felting and making bags, you can also use left over bits for applique embellishments on jackets or coats, or other bags. You can also make hats and mittens, or felted vest or pillows. Once wool is felted, you don’t need to finish the edges since the won’t fray or ravel. If you have a REALLY big piece and it is knit fairly firmly, why not use it as a warm interlining for a jacket or vest?

  7. I love to knit. Others have probably told you to make swatches. You can upcycle the swatches into a blanket. Also, a great knitting term is frogging. Just wash the yarn with the recommended method and use for another appropriate project.

    Think of swatches as the muslin pattern you would use in sewing.

  8. I knitted a cardigan in Noro yarn that turned out too small and I couldn’t get the same yarn to reknit in a bigger size. So I pulled it down and knitted a very nice cable scarf and a sweater for my chihuahua – both getting a lot more use than the cardigan would have done. Although sometimes I raise a few smiles when I unintentionally go out with my chihuahua in matching knits!

  9. When I was little, my mother knitted some great things for me and one of our favourite yarns was what we called ‘Angora’, very fluffy stuff. To stop the inevitable shedding, it was kept in the refrigerator or freezer. Apparently the cold has some effect on the shedding. It may help with your problem. Although it would undoubtedly make a very cute tote it would be a waste of effort if it couldn’t have at least a season as a caftan and you wouldn’t want to cause an identity crisis would you?

  10. This made me laugh out loud. I am really good at scarves. When I look at your caftan I see mittens with the ribbing used for the cuffs. You can use a lightweight polarfleece to line it if it’s scratchy wool. Or you could make boot toppers with length into the boot to keep your legs warm and the ribbing folded over the top of the boot.

  11. Very Late comment–was just browsing Upcyling–this was SO funny! I have stacks of partially finished projects like most crafters from beadwork to crochet (and knitting needles though I’ve never learned even!)–so totally got this.
    Felting is a great idea for that caftan if it’s 100%wool! I recently bought Nicky Epstein’s Crocheted Flowers book and she does an awesome job teaching various flowers–but she did some really nice felted roses! Those can easily be adapted to headbands, bags, hats of various types, and even used on packages as part of the decorations!
    As to Upcycling, I just got another book from the library called, Feisty Stitcher and THAT I think I will buy also. It has a number of really kool projects but one I’m particularly into is ironing those horrible plastic bags into some MUCH sturdier that can be sewn together to make a good messenger bag! I’m rather excited to play with that one but have to run out for a couple items first–1 an used Iron cuz NO WAY am I about to use the iron I use on my hubby’s clothes on it and it be ruined and him loose his mind–yikes! And also some parchment paper–just ran out. Overall I love the idea for that bag though and there are enough other ideas that I think it’s worth the investment 🙂

  12. Love this article–totally relate! definitely do felting! Saw (bought after library check out) in Nicky Epstein’s Crocheted Flowers book some really awesome roses that are felted…many things you can do with felting.
    Recently got at library another book called Feisty Stitcher–will be buying—great upcycle of plastic bags—have to get a few items but will definitely be making several of these projects.