I use re-knitting as a umbrella term for a broad range of processes which can be carried out by individuals to alter existing items of knitwear. Re-knitting transfers a knitter’s practice from the creation of new items to the re-making of existing pieces.
In the past, re-making was an integral part of the practice of knitting for many people. Annemor Sundbo's wonderful book, Everyday Knitting: treasures from a ragpile, includes this picture of stockings which 'illustrate the practice of knitting new heels and toes on old stocking legs... stocking legs may be 100 years older than the feet'. (Reproduced by kind permission of the author.)
In Traditional Knitting of the British Isles: Fisher-Gansey Patterns of N.E. England, Michael Pearson describes how gansey sleeves are knitted down from the shoulder, 'to enable one to repair any worn parts by simply pulling back past the hole and knitting back down again to the cuff.'
Re-knitting was particularly prevalent during periods of material scarcity, such as the American Civil War (read No Idle Hands: the social history of American knitting by Anne L Macdonald for more) and World War II. The knitting books published in the 1940s by Odhams Press (such as Knitted Garments for All by Jane Koster and Margaret Murray) include significant sections devoted to 'the making of new garments from old'. They show numerous examples of re-knitting, with sorrowful 'before' and glamorous 'after' photos, and inspiring captions, for example: 'It's difficult to believe that this smart jumper is made out of the wreckage of the cardigan opposite'.
Although some people still re-knit today - there are lots of accounts online of unravelling jumpers to re-use the yarn - this practice seems to be marginal within the knitting community, and even more so in the wider world.
Re-knitting techniques can also be discovered as part of creating knitted items from scratch, whether ripping back to correct mistakes or fixing problems of fit which only become apparent when the garment is finished. It can even be a planned method of construction - such as Elizabeth Zimmermann's 'afterthought pocket' which is worked once the piece is fully knitted and sewn up. (She describes it in most of her books, including Knitting Without Tears.) Another process which works back into a 'finished' piece can be found in nordic knitting, where cardigans are knitted in the round, cut open and trimmed.
Click here to read about how I used these sources of re-knitting knowledge to develop the re-knitting spectrum, which maps out the full range of 'treatments' that could be done to an existing item of knitwear. While some of the treatments are familiar - replacing cuffs, lengthening panels, reworking whole garments - others might not have been documented, or creatively explored to their full potential, in the past.