Yarn Ball Handling

Yarn Ball Handling

Some yarns come in already wound balls – ones that you can work with from either the outside or from the center.  But some comes in those pretty-looking but impossible to knit-from skeins like the blue one in the picture.  So how do you wind those skeins into balls?  Here’s some tips on how I do it.


  1. Minimum – your two hands and the floor
  2. Intermediate 1 – your two hands and one or two chairs, someone else’s hands, or a yarn swift.  A Yarn Swift is an adjustable device with jointed arms, rather like an umbrella, that opens out to adjustable circumferences to fit various sized skeins.  It clamps on a table or other surface and can usually be used in either a horizontal or vertical position.  My swift is a KSM brand “Reeling Machine” made in Japan – it’s aluminum and plastic and is much less sturdy than the wooden ones.   I’ve been using mine for years, BUT found that the plastic part of the clamp broke shortly after I bought it, and ever since the clamp has been held together with a small C-clamp from a tie-flying apparatus.  One of these days I plan to try out one of those bigger all-wood kinds of swifts.  To see a picture of a swift, try websites that sell knitting tools.
  3. Intermediate 2 – like Intermediate 1, but add a nostepinde or other “stick” to wind the ball on.  A  Nostepinde is a stick used to help you wind a center-pull ball.  For info on notepindes and how to use them.
  4. Most tool-intensive – your two hands, a yarn swift, and a ball winder.  A Ball Winder is a mechanical device that clamps on a table and allows you to wind a center-pull ball by simply winding a handle.  Works very well when used in conjunction with a swift.  Here’s a picture of the ball winder I use (taken from the side of the box it came in):


STEP 1:  Open the skein up into a single ring of yarn, put your two arms inside and pull the ring as open as possible & snap your arms wide a time or two to help align the strands as nicely as possible.

STEP 2:  Position the skein so that you can have access to the whole circumference of it so you’ll be able to wind a ball.  This can mean that you lay the skein out on the floor, put it over a chair back (or two backs if the skein is large), hang it from a hook, or put it on a yarn swift and adjust the swift’s circumference to hold your skein tautly.

Other great tips, Fantastic Cross Stitch Tips

STEP 3:  Find and cut (or untie) the knots on the threads holding the skein together.  Usually there are 2-3 ties on a skein, and one knot will be the two ends of the yarn tied together.  Tuck one end out of the way and start gently pulling the other end and unwinding it.

STEP 4:  Wind a ball, using your hands, a nostepinde, or a ball winder.   However you wind the ball, be sure that the yarn is loosely as well as securely wound into a ball.  The yarn should never be tight in the ball or the elasticity can be stretched out of it – some people rewind their balls several times, so that the ball is as loose as possible (they rewind it because winding directly off a swift or skein can put the yarn under too much tension and the ball can end up too tight).   My preferred methods are the “minimum” (when I’m away from home or when I’m too lazy to get up and find my swift), the “intermediate 1” (I use a swift or sometimes hang the skein from the lamp shade of my goose-neck lamp) which I use the most often for yarns heavier than sport-weight yarn, or the “most tool intensive” method which I always use for fine yarns or huge skeins of thicker yarns (or I could be hand winding the skeins for days!).

Here’s how I hand wind balls to keep the yarn as loose as possible.


STEP 1:  Set up the skein, cut the ties on the skein, find a loose end, unwind a foot or two, then wind the end 4 or more times around the thumb of the hand that you will be holding the ball with (I usually start by wrapping these rounds around my right thumb, but later I hold the ball in whichever hand feels comfortable).  Be sure the end of the yarn is under the wraps so that it doesn’t unwind.

STEP 2:  With the yarn end still around your thumb, wrap yarn around two fingers 20-50 times to start the center of the ball.

winding yarn ball 1

STEP 3:  Leave yarn around thumb, but pull the ball beginning off the two fingers and hold between thumb and index finger.  Then wrap yarn around the center of the ball AND your finger 10-30 times.

winding yarn ball 2

STEP 4:  Pull end of yarn off thumb and let hang loosely.  Pull ball off of index finger.  Hold ball between thumb and 2 fingers with the end toward the palm of your hand.  Wind yarn about 20 times around ball AND fingers.  Do NOT wrap the ball yarn around the yarn end.

winding yarn ball 3

STEP 5:  Pull your fingers out of the ball and rotate ball, then wrap yarn 10-20 times around ball AND fingers before turning and winding again.  ALWAYS be sure not to wrap the yarn around the center pull end of the ball.  Repeat until you have a completed ball, tuck the outside end under the wound yarn and pull from the center end to knit with.

winding yarn ball 4



As I said above, I find a ball winder indispensable only for fine yarns (fingering, lace, huge hanks of sport, etc.).  I enjoy hand winding balls of thicker yarn (and I prefer the roundness of hand wound balls, too, which I always wind to have the center end hanging out so I can pull from the center if I want), but the yardage of skeins of those thin yarns makes my hands hurt long before I’m through hand-winding the balls — so a ball winder wins out almost every time.

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As an alternative, though, let me tell you a story.  One of my knitting/crocheting friends called me once to ask to borrow my ball-winder. But I was away on vacation, so I didn’t get back to her until about 2 weeks later.  Then I called her and asked if she still needed it.  She said “no”, because she had found a very useful alternative — she had borrowed her husband’s electric drill, put a long nail with a flat head in the drill bit, and wound the yarn around the nail while using slow speed on the drill.  She said it worked great!  I laughed when I remembered that a knitting friend of mine had said she admired any woman who owned a drill (implying that she thought that that drill-toting woman was a handy repairperson around the house) — so I made sure to tell that other friend the ball-winding drill story, so that she would know that she too could own a drill and find it useful even if she never drilled a hole in a wall!


I find that I use my swift more than I use my ball winder.  But I do recommend that if you buy a swift, that you buy a good quality one.  My swift (one of those metal ones that’s rather like a cheap umbrella) cost me $27 more than 10 years ago, and I use it all the time, but part of the clamp broke shortly after I bought it, and ever since has been held together with a small C-clamp from a tie-flying apparatus.  The metal swift is rather small and portable and rotates well, while the wooden ones are bulkier and I know a few people find they rotate rather reluctantly, but the wooden ones are more sturdy.


I don’t wind my yarn skeins into balls until I’m ready to start the project, and even then I may only wind a few balls to begin with.  In part, that’s to make sure the yarn is left in the relaxed skein (if it already is balls or wound skeins that you can knit from, I sure don’t rewind those!).  But also, it’s more acceptable to bring back the original skeins to your yarn store if you need to exchange them or bring back extra skeins.  And, most importantly to me (hey, I NEVER bring yarn back unless there’s something wrong with the yarn – I can always use an extra skein in some future project), if I wind yarn from a skein into a ball and then don’t get back to it until later, I’m not certain that it’s a full skein of yarn.  And for a designer, it’s really important to know how much yarn a project uses – to help with that, I’ve started sticking the band from the ball under the last few wrappings of the ball, and I write on that band if I’ve used any of the yarn already.


Try using one of my favorite knitting “gadgets” – Zip-lock plastic bags (not the ones with the zipper “pulls”, use the ones with the zip-it-shut-with-your-fingers).  To keep my balls from rolling all over the floor or popping out of the basket they’re in, I “unvented” my own ball “bra” by cutting off the corner of a  zip-lock bag.  I take a gallon-size bag and diagonally cut off one corner at the end of the zipper.  Then I stick the bag of yarn in, pull the yarn end out of the clipped corner, and then zip the zipper shut.  The gallon size is big enough to hold most of my small knitting projects (socks, mittens, drawstring pouches, beginning of lace  shawls, etc.) AND needles when I’m not knitting (just throw it in your lunch  bag or tote bag when you’re heading out the door).  It works great.  I’ve even used the 2-gallon size for bigger lace projects that are on a cone, but I rarely use the quart size for knitting because it’s too small to hold most needles, and big yarn balls don’t easily rotate in the closer confines of the quart bag.  Also, the bags are reusable from project to project.

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