Knitting: Making Tarn

“Repurposing” is an entire universe of creative activity that I have only been marginally aware of till now.  We all know what recycling is, of course — turning old newspapers into new paper towels, or old plastic bottles into new park benches. Repurposing is less drastic.  It is artfully snipping old soda cans into airplane mobiles, or welding pieces of farm implements into garden sculptures — or cutting old tee shirts up into knitting yarn.  “Tarn” is the word for this, just like “plarn” is the word for yarn made out of plastic grocery bags.  I learned how to make tarn just recently, and hasten to pass the knowledge on.  As an exercise in practical topology it’s amazing.

You start out of course with tee shirts, as many as you can lay hands on. Old, well-worn ones without side seams are best. (In theory shirts with seams are useable, but I haven’t had good luck with them.)   The one pictured here has an imprint as well — desireable or not is up to you.  Also, a pair of good sewing shears and, if you have such a thing, a circular cutter.  Feline assistants are optional.

Begin by cutting the hem off the bottom of the shirt.  At this point you could just start cutting a spiral strip off the bottom, around and around the garment, until the entire body of it (up to the armholes) has been turn into a long skinny strip of fabric.  But this is tedious and fussy work, and will take you more than half an hour for an adult sized shirt.  Faster, and more fun, to call the powers of topology into play.

To do this, lay the shirt carefully flat, lining up the bottom cut edge exactly with itself.  Fold it over once (or twice, if you’re using the circular cutter), keeping the cut edges lined up.  Keep one folded edge free up at the top.  In the picture here I have folded the flat shirt once.  The free folded edge is at the bottom, extending about one inch out from the upper layer. Then cut the shirt into strips — I’m keeping each strip about 5/8 inches wide.  Leave the free fold uncut.  Go right on up the shirt, cutting it into strips and powering right through any imprint or logo, until you get to the armholes.  As you can see, you end up with a sort of  hula skirt of strips, dangling from the uncut fold.

Run your arm through the neck opening of the shirt, and down the uncut fold, opening it out.    At this point you will have a cascade of ribbons hanging down on each side of your arm, supported by the uncut edge on top.   Contemplate the very first cut you made, at the bottom edge of the garment.  This is going to be the beginning of the long strip you are going to create.  Use your scissors and extend that first cut diagonally, to the bottom edge.  The first loop, now cut through, will fall off your arm, attached at the other end to the main shirt.  By cutting each strand off, connecting the second cut diagonally across the fold to the tail end of the first,  you can turn the hula skirt into one single long strand of tee shirt fabric, 5/8 inches wide.  Magic!

But wait, there’s more!  It is possible to knit a flat strip of fabric, but not much fun.  Tee shirts have one great trick when cut — they curl.  So after you have your one long strand of material, pull it.  I just snap a short section taut, a piece at a time, until the whole length has been pulled.  As you can see the flat fabric rolls onto itself and becomes tubelike, all the raw edges hidden inside, and very knittable.  The logos and imprints do not roll, but this can be a feature, not a bug.  If you don’t like it, don’t use that piece of the shirt.  Wind your tarn up into a ball.  The entire process of turning this tee shirt into tarn took me less than fifteen minutes.

One adult-sized shirt makes a ball of tarn about the size of a softball.  Since it’s so thick (you can’t cut the fabric much narrower, because it unravels and breaks) a big needle is called for.

I am knitting a swatch on #10s, which is still kind of tight.  It’ll be too bulky to wear, but should make charming bags for holiday gifts — here is one that just grew from the swatch into an entire bag.  And although I used a blue tee shirt to show up better in these photographs, most of my old tee shirts are white.  So I have a dozen balls of white tarn that will knit up into a dense snowy fabric.   The idea of a knitted suit of Storm Trooper armor comes irresistibly to mind.  My son does not much like wearing Mom’s knitting, but I bet he would wear armor …

My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out exclusively from Book View Press.

I also have stories in Book View Cafe’s two steampunk anthologies, The Shadow Conspiracy and The Shadow Conspiracy II, as well as in BVC’s many other anthologies.



About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.


Knitting: Making Tarn — 5 Comments

  1. Brilliant, Brenda.

    I’m right-brained, so I’d have to follow along with cutting up a tee shirt to really get this, but I will definitely post this link in my blog. Another thing to do with old tee shirts!

  2. Some people can learn easily from written directions, some people have to have a photo, and some people have to actually see the parts moving and the scissors snipping. For these people, YouTube:
    There are many, many videos demonstrating how to make tarn, which a quick search will kick up. The final remnant can only learn a new skill by being physically taught, and it is these people who take my beginning knitting classes.

  3. This is such a great idea and a way to practically use those old shirts (worn and gifted from trips). thanks so much for sharing on Knitlist. I’ll post thanks out there too!!

  4. I think the big problem will be the preponderance of white and gray tee shirts in the world. A random scarfing up of tees got me perhaps a dozen white ones, two blue, and two green. I am making a series of small dumpling-style bags as gifts, but a white or gray bag is not very interesting. What to do, with all the white tarn? Bath mat?