Greg Goeken and Sean Saenger have a career that's unraveling.
Yard by yard, they are gathering wool from old discarded sweaters and turning it back into fresh fiber ready to be fashioned into blankets, shawls, hats, mittens or even another sweater.
Call it yarn 2.0.
Their new Austin company, Yarn Harvest, is devoted to recycling and repurposing a valuable natural fiber before it ends up in a landfill or in the rag trade.
It's a green company that deals in every color you can think of.
Multihued sweaters spill off an old couch in the garage of Goeken's East Austin home, where the business is based. More sweaters fill a tall box in the corner. Red, yellow, blue, pink, brown, gray, beige, black and green skeins of yarn hang from the walls. "Instead of growing new wool, we grow sweaters and harvest the yarn as opposed to raising sheep for wool," said Goeken, managing director of the company. "It's finding a different thing to harvest."
And the crop of castoff wool sweaters just keeps growing in America, fertilized by a throw-away culture.
Yarn Harvest gets sweaters from thrift stores, yard sales, wholesale textile dealers and donations. The second-hand sweaters are unwound; the yarn is washed in all-natural soap and fabric softener and then hung to dry so the kinky yarn will relax. Then, skeins of 126 yards are twisted and labeled to sell.
The two young men behind Yarn Harvest are unlikely yarn wranglers. Neither one knew how to knit, crochet or weave.
They have been friends since attending high school together in Johnson City. They were raised on ranches just a few miles apart and often rode four-wheelers to visit each other.
After high school, Saenger, 25, joined the Navy and spent five years working as an electronics technician on a frigate. He's now attending Austin Community College in hopes of obtaining a degree in mass communication. He also plays drums in a country band called Hilltown.
Goeken, 26, went to the University of Colorado in Boulder and earned a degree in economics in 2006. He then spent a year in Serbia working with teenagers interested in activist politics. One of his Serbian friends asked Goeken to help him import U.S. clothing once he returned to Texas.
While researching the clothing business, Goeken ran across information about how to unravel old sweaters and reuse the yarn.
He and Saenger were interested in starting a business together, so they settled on the little-known recycled yarn world.
"It was definitely kind of random," Goeken said.
The two friends spent last summer learning about fiber and the discarded clothing trade. They also worked up a way to unravel a sweater that's more efficient than the fiddly method of pulling it apart by hand. Saenger, relying on his mechanical and electronic skills, rigged up a mechanized way to turn a sweater into yarn. It takes an average of about an hour and a half to unravel a sweater, wind it up, wash it and hang to dry, they said.
Yarn Harvest skeins sell for $8.99-$9.99. They are sold at Austin gift stores Parts & Labour and Goods East, and HOPE Farmer's Market, held every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 414 Waller St. Several fiber and yarn shops sell the Yarn Harvest line, including Yarnorama! in Paige, Old Oaks Ranch fiber arts center in Wimberley and the Tinsmith's Wife in Comfort. A limited amount of yarn is available on the Yarn Harvest Web site, www.yarnharvest.com.
In March, the Stitch Lab sewing and craft studio on South First Street hosted a trunk show for Yarn Harvest. Austin's most famous knitter, Vickie Howell, bought two skeins of cream-colored Yarn Harvest wool after she finished teaching a knitting class. Howell has written six books about knitting, crocheting and the craft community and has hosted a DIY network television show about knitting. She has just been named the new spokesperson for Caron International, a major U.S. yarn company based in North Carolina.
"Yarn Harvest is the eco-knitter's dream come true," Howell said. "Beautiful natural fiber is given new life."
Sales for Yarn Harvest are steady, and the two partners have pulled apart about 150 sweaters since the business was launched last October, funded by the men's personal savings.
"Things are on track," Goeken said. "We are doing well enough to pay our bills and continue production, with just enough left over to save for the future. So we think things are going very well. We're happy with where we are now, but excited and ready to keep growing."
Unraveling sweaters and reusing the yarn is not a new concept. Fiber enthusiasts have been pulling apart their handmade items for centuries to get yarn for new projects. But during the past decade, the green movement has provided new momentum for repurposing yarn. And the Web has allowed crafters to sell recycled fiber, or thrifted sweaters ready for repurposing, on sites such as eBay and Etsy.com. Even Rowan, the highly respected British yarn company, is selling a line of yarns made by carding the fibers of used garments and respinning the yarn.
The Yarn Harvest partners say they have been embraced by the Austin community.
"I feel like we're part of Austin," Saenger said as he unraveled a large red J. Crew wool sweater. "We're really fitting into the nature of going green and being environmentally friendly. So far, we've only had great feedback."
They are doing everything they can to make the fiber go farther.
Some wool sweaters knit with multicolored designs do not lend themselves to easy unraveling. Yarn Harvest has started washing those sweaters in hot water to shrink them in order to sell the resulting felted fabric to crafters interested in sewing purses, hats and leg warmers. Yarn Harvest also sells buttons from discarded sweaters for 10-50 cents apiece.
These two first-chance entrepreneurs with a second-time-around product hope for a long fiber future.