Skeins or hanks of yarn must be wound into balls before you can use them. The easiest way to wind a skein of yarn is to use a yarn swift and yarn winder. These tools help you wind the yarn into a center-pull ball that sits nice and flat while you work. Center-pull balls won’t jump down and roll around the floor as you work!
The following instructions assume you have both a swift and a winder. You don’t have to have both, but it does make things easier.
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How to Use a Yarn Swift
A yarn swift holds the opened-out hank of yarn while you wind it. The yarn photographed below is Lorna’s Laces Shepherd Sock.
Yarn swifts come in many different styles. Some clamp to a tabletop or counter; some sit on a table. They may be metal or wood. Some open and close like an umbrella, while others have pegs that can be adjusted for the diameter of your yarn hank.
Depending on the type of swift you have, begin by clamping your swift securely onto the tabletop or placing it on a sturdy surface. Make sure there is plenty of room for the swift to rotate without hitting anything. Remember that in the case of an umbrella swift, you’ll be opening it up to a wider diameter once the skein is in place.
If the yarn band is wrapped around the entire skein, pull it off and set it aside. If it is tied to the skein, leave it in place for the moment.
Your yarn came in a gently twisted skein, with one end tucked inside the other. Untuck that end and allow the skein to untwist into a circle. There are two or more smaller pieces of yarn tied around the hank to keep the strands in place. Don’t cut these yet!
Place the circle of yarn onto the swift and adjust the swift to the desired diameter. The yarn should be held securely but not be stretched in any way.
Now you can find the yarn ties that hold the skein. Carefully cut one of these ties next to the knot. Release the strand; it probably goes in a figure-8 around the hank. You may have uncovered one or both ends of the yarn skein or you may have simply discovered a shorter piece of yarn. Cut the remaining ties in the same manner. If the yarn label was tied to the skein, it should have been released and removed when you cut the ties.
At this point you should have found both ends of the yarn. Pull one end gently; it should start to unwind from the swift without much effort.
If you find that it is getting tangled and not unwinding smoothly, stop and make adjustments to the skein. See the video below for more explanation.
How to Use a Ball Winder
Yarn winders do the work of winding the yarn into a center-pull ball. They clamp onto the table surface and have a center spool that holds the yarn. You thread the yarn through one or more yarn guides that place the yarn in the right position to roll onto the spool. Most yarn winders are hand-cranked, allowing you to control the speed. There are, however, electric yarn winders on the market.
The brand of yarn winder pictured here is no longer made (as far as I can tell), but there are plenty of similar ones available. Check out the links below for options.
Secure the yarn winder onto the work surface. I’ve found that it’s best to leave about 18-24” [46-61 cm] between the yarn winder and the outer edge of the swift, if you have the space.
Thread the yarn end through the feeder eyes on the winder and insert it into the slot at the top of the spool. The exact path of the yarn may vary; check the instructions that came with your yarn winder for specifics.
Begin turning the handle of the yarn winder slowly. The yarn should begin to wrap around the spool. Place your finger on the yarn end for the first couple of rotations to make sure it stays in place. Once you see that the yarn is coming off the swift and onto the spool without a problem, you can increase the cranking speed. Don’t try to go as fast as you possibly can, but aim for a nice steady rhythm. I like to place my hand between the swift and the winder and allow the yarn to run through my fingers. That way, I can stop winding if I feel a knot or unexpected slub in the yarn.
When all the yarn is off the swift, stop cranking. Place your thumbs on the top of the spool and use your other fingers to lift the yarn off the spool. The center of your yarn ball may collapse and close the hole where the spool was, but the yarn tail should still be visible.
You are ready to use the yarn! Simply put your lovely new yarn cake on the table and pull the yarn tail from the center.
Watch the video to see me wind yarn using both the small winder pictured in this post and a jumbo winder.