How to make a sweater stocking and a whole lot more

I know:  The Christmas crafting boat pretty much left the harbor at least a week ago.  For most of us the preparations are done and we’re in the thick of celebration.  This post, however, is not really a quick and easy tutorial on how to whip up a Christmas stocking out of an old sweater at the last minute.  (If that’s what you’re after, I encourage you to go here.)

This is a tutorial on how to make a Christmas stocking out of a cherished sweater, with the kind of careful attention that went into the making of the original piece.  It is also an homage to my grandma, who kept me warm for years with her works of fiber art, and a rumination on family and tradition, which does seem fitting for a Christmas Eve post.

Grandma hugging me at Christmas time

Unfortunately, I'm not wearing one of her sweaters in this picture from more than a few Christmases ago (gotta like the Harry Potteresque glasses)--but you can see that she has other ways of keeping me warm, as well.

 A little background

My grandma will be turning 95 in February, and it’s been more than a few years now since she’s put her needles down.  But I probably had at least one hand-made sweater from Grandma in my wardrobe at all times throughout my childhood.

For a while in the ’80s and early ’90s, she turned out stunning sweaters for me on a regular basis.  I still occasionally wear this one, made for my 19th birthday, when I was a freshman in college:

me wearing a blue sweater made by Grandma

Sadly, most of her sweaters are gone.  But in addition to the one above, I have two others I’ve held onto through two marriages and six moves:

You'll see this sweater a lot in this post, in varying shades of green/blue. It's a deep, almost teal-ish green.

I haven’t worn them for years.  The green one is just too big, made when oversized was the only size for a sweater.  (I remember Grandma asking, Are you sure you want it to be this long?) The red one is from the same era, and it has a boxy shape that’s way less than flattering now.  They’ve been living in storage for a long time, and I ran across them a few weeks ago when I was looking for Christmas decorations.

I’ve read a lot in the last year about decluttering and simplifying.  Most minimalist writers recommend letting go of pieces that have only sentimental value, even family heirlooms.  They often suggest taking pictures to remember the items and passing them on to someone who might use them.

Much as I’ve come to appreciate a life with less, I just couldn’t let these sweaters go.  I put them back in their box and resolved to think about it later.

A few nights ago, looking at our stockings hanging from our mantel, I had a brilliant idea, one I was sure no one had ever had before:  I could make the sweaters into Christmas stockings!  I could preserve my grandmother’s beautiful needlework and make something that will actually get used (as opposed to taking up real estate in my garage).

(As it turns out, lots of people have had this brilliant idea–leading me to understand that I am not destined to be one of the people who comes up with original brilliant ideas, at least in the area of craftiness.  I’m OK with that, though.)

So, how did I do it?

In a word:  slowly.

I will spare you all the thinking and pausing and thinking again that went into my process.  I was so worried that I’d ruin the sweaters and my chance of making stockings from them that I did a lot of thinking before I made the first cut.

My grandma’s craftsmanship is impeccable.  Her yarns are beautiful.  The idea of cutting into her sweater seemed a bit like slicing into a Van Gogh to make a collage.  I needed the thinking time to make sure I wanted to do this.  I needed the planning time to have a chance to fully examine and appreciate Grandma’s work.  I needed time to reflect on what her sweaters mean to me, and what it means to transform them now–to make sure that was really the right thing to do.

When I was sure, I knew I was ready for step 1.  Or maybe 1.5.  Maybe the pausing and thinking is the true step 1.

Step 1.5:  Make a pattern.

I used my existing stocking to make a pattern, which is just a cheap red felt stocking.  This stocking has a story, too.  It’s part of a tradition from my years of marriage to my children’s dad, made the year I was pregnant with Will and Grace.

stocking decorated with glitter

Grace has always loved my old glittery stocking, which is why it’s the one I’ve used the past three years.  She’s long been a fan of sparkly things, and I think she likes the story behind it:  I went a bit crazy with my stocking that year because I was in my first month of bedrest (but only the 4th month of the pregnancy).  What else was I going to do with my time?

I love that Grace loves the stocking, but for me it is a reminder of painful things.  Because of its history, I like the idea of using it as the basis for a new stocking, but I also like the idea of making a new stocking in order to let the old one go.

To make the pattern I simply traced around the stocking on tissue paper, then added a half-inch for a seam allowance.  (At this point, I thought I would be sewing the stocking on my sewing machine.  I ended up not doing that, but I’d still recommend a seam allowance.)

marking a seam allowance on a self-made pattern

I just put the measuring tape's half-inch mark on the stocking outline and drew a short line using the top of the tape.

Pattern with seam allowance being drawn in.

After putting marks at intervals around the stocking, I drew the outside edge free-hand.

Step 2:  Place pattern on sweater (to see how it will all fit).

My sweaters are large enough that I’ll be able to make two stockings from each one.  The bottom edge of the sweater needs to be reserved for the cuff at the top of the stocking, which means that the body of the stocking needs to come from the upper body of the sweater.

close-up of ribbing at bottom of sweater

This finished edge makes a great cuff at the top of the stocking.

Before doing anything with my grandma’s sweaters, I practiced with an old sweater Cane had put in the Goodwill pile.  I pinned on the pattern and cut it out, and then I just free-handed the cuff piece.  Doing this made me feel confident about the plan for Grandma’s sweaters.

cut-up sweater with pattern attached to it

It wasn't hard at all to cut up this grungy old sweater, and although I didn't make any major goofs with it, practicing was well worth the time it took in the certainty I gained.

If the sweater has any kind of pattern to it, you’ll want to consider how you want that pattern placed on the stocking.  For the green sweater, I decided that I wanted the smooth part of the pattern at the top of the stocking, so that it would nicely set off the ribbing that would be on the cuff.

In my plan, I decided to make the cuff a sewn-on piece because I wanted it to fold over.  If you want to go a simpler route without a fold-over cuff, you can place the pattern such that the ribbing is the top of the stocking.

Step 3:  Detach sleeves and undo side seams.

As I worked with the sweater in step 2, I realized there was no way I could sew the stocking on a machine.  My machine is ancient and I don’t know it well enough to make it work with a knit.  And, the sweater is too bulky.  I didn’t want to take a chance on wrecking my “fabric” somehow.  I decided that I would need to hand-sew it, using yarn to attach the pieces.

I first considered using new yarn.  I thought about doing some kind of decorative stitch in a contrasting color on the outside edge of the stocking to join the two pieces.  I decided, though, that I want the stockings to be simple.  I want to showcase my Grandma’s work, not mine, and I want the stockings to have a classic, timeless look.  

I also decided that I want the stockings to be as wholly hers as they can be, and I don’t want to discard the extra pieces.

For all these reasons, I decided that I’d use yarn from the sleeves to sew the stockings, which meant I’d need to unravel them.  I wasn’t sure how to unravel a sweater, so I went looking for information and found this great tutorial from Neauveau Fiber Art.

Grandma’s work was so nicely done that it took me forever to find the yarn/thread to snip in detaching the seams.  (She used yarn in some places and thread in others.)

close-up of hole where the sleeve meets the body of the sweater

There was the smallest of holes where all the seams come together (in the "armpit" of the sweater). I was able to find a thread here to untie. (Sorry about the weird blue hue. White balance was off, and I can't recreate the shot!)

Eventually it came free, though, and I was able to unravel the sleeves to get the yarn I needed.

2 balls of yarn

I wasn't perfect in my snipping and unraveling. That's why I have two balls, not one.

I decided to undo the long seams at the side of the sweater so that I could lay it flat to cut out one piece of the stocking body at a time.

Step 4:  Cut out the stocking body pieces.

After laying the sweater out into one flat piece, I pinned the pattern to it.  I placed the long side of the stocking at the sweater’s edge.  I knew I’d be dealing with raw edges for much of the stocking, but I wanted to take advantage of that long finished edge.  Seemed like it would be more stable and easier to work with.  (It was.)

pattern pinned to sweater

Then I carefully cut around the pattern. After I removed it, it looked like this:

sweater with first stocking piece cut out of it

It was hard for me to see the sweater like this. I had to keep reminding myself that I'd rather see Grandma's work transformed than to see it continue to sit in a box.

I placed the pattern right in the hole left by the first piece because I want the sweater pattern to match at the seams.

If the sweater is thin enough, you might be able to cut both pieces at the same time (as I did with my practice sweater), but I didn’t try that with Grandma’s sweater.

Step 5:  Sew the two body pieces together, placing the right sides together.

For the sewing, I used a simple whip stitch.  A little quick research indicated it would be the strongest stitch.  You can learn how to do it here.

yarn pieces being sewn with a whip stitch

Sewing it together with a whip stitch.

My stitching wasn’t the most beautiful or even.  I had to make a lot of stitches, particularly in the parts of the stocking that didn’t have finished edges.  This is what it looked like when I was done:

stocking pieces sewn together


Step 6:  Cut out the piece for the cuff.

As mentioned earlier, you’ll want to use the bottom edge of the sweater for your stocking cuff, so that you can make use of that nicely finished edge.  To know how large to make it, I first measured the top of my stocking:

tape measure stretched across top of stocking

I was a little concerned about how the cuff would work because the ribbing at the bottom of the sweater made the bottom of the cuff tighter (and shorter across) than the top of the cuff.  As you can see above, the top of my stocking was 8 1/2 inches.  I decided to make the cuff piece 18 inches long, to allow for a seam and to make sure that the cuff wouldn’t be too tight.

tape measure on cuff piece

I trimmed that little bit hanging beyond the edge of the top piece.

Once I had the right length for the piece, I needed to make sure it was a consistent height.  I decided to make the cuff 4 inches high (from the bottom of the ribbing.  The length is determined by how large a cuff you want.  I just measured four inches at regular intervals, and marked the length with a pin.  Then I cut across the top of the pins.

scissors cutting the cuff piece

Once the piece was cut out, I folded it so that the right sides were together, and I stitched the open edges together.

Step 7:  Pin the cuff in place.

Before sewing the seam to join the two ends of the cuff, I pinned it in place to make sure that it would fit.

Just so you know, I once scored in the 2nd percentile on a test of mechanical reasoning.  That means 98% of the people who took the test scored higher than I did.  Figuring out exactly how to put the cuff together with the stocking, so that when I turned the stocking right side out the cuff would fold over the top of it, also with the right side up, took far more effort than it should have.

I’m not going to be able to explain why you need to do it this way–and maybe there are other ways this can go–but this is what I did:

cuff piece pinned to stocking body

The stocking body is turned inside out. The cuff piece is also inside out. You place the cuff piece over the outside of the stocking body, with the raw edges of the cuff lined up with the raw top edge of the stocking. This means the right side of the cuff is against the wrong side of the stocking body.

another view of the pinned cuff

Here's another view, in case it's more helpful to see the whole stocking.

And then I realized I would need a loop, so I could hang the stocking.

I thought about just sewing one onto the stocking after it was finished, but I wanted the stocking to be as well-made as I could make it.  That meant figuring out how to sew the loop into the cuff seam.

But even before that, it meant making a piece to use for a loop.

Step 8:  Knit a small piece for the hanging loop.

Because my grandma taught me the rudiments of knitting when I was 8, knitting a piece for the loop wasn’t a big deal.  I was surprised to find that my fingers had some sort of muscle memory for how to cast on stitches.  (I used yarn from unraveling the sleeve, and I have needles because my grandma gave me hers a few years ago.)  If you want to learn the basics of knitting, I like the illustrations and instructions you can find here.

I only needed to cast on 6 stitches.  Not sure how many rows I knit, but I just eyeballed it and cast off when it looked twice as long as I wanted the loop to be (because you fold it in half to make the loop).

Then I needed to figure out how to pin it into the stocking/cuff business.

Again, I’m going to spare you my painful thinking process.  This is what you need to do:

First, figure out which way you want to the toe to point when the stocking is hanging.  (It could go either way with mine because the stocking is the same on both sides.)  You’ll need to insert the loop at the seam that’s opposite of the seam that runs down to the toe.

You place the loop in between the stocking and the cuff.  The raw edges go up and the loop goes down, in between the cuff and stocking.  All the raw edges are facing up, and they’ll all get sewn together.   

close up to show where to place loop

Step 9:  Sew the cuff to the stocking

This part was tricky for me.  I used a whip stitch again, but I had a hard time getting to all the loose ends sewed up.  You’ll want to make sure that you put yarn through any open loops you see.  Like this:

needle stitching cuff to body

You really need to get yarn through all those open loops, otherwise you'll have holes and the sweater can unravel.

Step 10:  Find the holes

At this point, I turned the stocking right side out, and was hoping to revel in the glory of my awesome project, but I discovered holes in my seams–places where the cut yard hadn’t been bound up by my seam sewing.  So I went around all the seams, poking a bit with my fingers.  If my fingers poked through, I reinforced the area with more whip stitching.

Step 11:  Revel in the glory of your awesome project.

A while back, Cane and I did some thinking/writing about art, and about the difference between art and decoration.  If decoration was all I was after–cool-looking stockings that I could make easily and quickly–I’d definitely use Remodelaholic’s method (linked to at the beginning of this post).  There’s much to like about how she did it:  It is easy, it’s attractive, it’s inexpensive, and it repurposes sweaters that might otherwise end up in a landfill.

But that’s not what I was after here.  I’m not claiming my stockings are art;  however, they are much more to me than decoration.

finished stocking hanging from the mantel

For my entire childhood, until I was in my mid-20s, I spent every Christmas Eve with my Grandma and Grandpa Ott.  It’s probably been more than 20 years since I’ve been able to do that, and while I’ve had some lovely Christmas Eves since then, none of them have really felt like Christmas Eve.  I suspect that no Christmas Eve will–at least, not in the way those early ones did.

There was something really wonderful about that constancy.  It’s been a source of some sadness to me that I haven’t been able to create that kind of steady holiday tradition for my own children.  Because of marriages, divorces, age differences, and geography, their family life has been more complicated than the one I grew up  with; as a result, what my kids have done for Christmas has varied from year to year.  I know they will not attach Christmas so firmly to a particular place and to particular people as I have.

The past few years have shown me in many ways the only constant in life is change.  A 20+ year Christmas tradition was a rare and wonderful gift, one I treasure all the more for seeing how special it was.  I don’t expect to have that again, but now, thanks to my last-minute craft, I suspect that for the rest of my life, I will have a little piece of constancy in my Christmas–and a tangible symbol of the things that made those early Christmases so wonderful for me.  My mantel might change, and the people gathered near it might change, but I think that from here on out, I will hang from it the same stockings, made from the sweaters my Grandma made for me.  I’m sure that at times they will make me a little sad for what once was and is no more–but what I will feel more often is gratitude for all that I was given and still have.  

I think my grandma will approve.

Wishing everyone a peaceful holiday-



I’ve linked this post over to Sorta Crunchy’s Green Resource/Week 14, where you’ll find a collection of ideas for living just a bit more green–something I’d like to do more of in the coming year.  This also linked me automatically to The Greenbacks Gal and A Delightful Home and Live Renewed–all places I’ll be checking out for further info.