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I bet you already know the answer to this question! 

Or do you?

Oh skeins*, beautiful skeins. We all love them, hanging or piled up so enticingly at the yarn store! YUM! (*Here skein refers to the twisted circle of yarn also known as a hank, I am not referring to the pull-skein that many mass market yarns come in and are really an elongated version of a yarn ball.)

Then you get them home (or while you are still in the store) you pop a skein onto a swift and start winding on the ball winder. 

You do it because you know you can’t knit from the skein.

You do it as quickly and efficiently as possible so that you can start knitting or so that you can admire your lovely yarn cake as it sits in your stash. 

But wait, not so fast!


What to consider before winding your yarn into a ball

There are a few things you need to consider when winding your yarn into a ball or cake. 

Before you even decide to wind your yarn, think about how soon you plan to use it. 

  • If you plan on using it immediately, by all means, wind away. 
  • If you don’t plan on using it soon, it’s perhaps better to wait. 

Yarn wound into a skein is relaxed and unstretched. When winding it into a ball or cake, it’s easy to add extra stretch to the yarn. Keeping yarn stretched like that for a long period of time can lead to stretching out, to gauge issues, and a loss of elasticity.

And this doesn’t just apply to balls or cakes. Some skeins that are really tightly twisted that you can see how much pressure is being applied to the yarn and you are probably better off to untwist the overtwisted skein and retwist it more loosely for storage.

If you decide to wind your yarn now (whether you plan to use it soon or not), make sure not to stretch it as you wind it.

Does that mean you should never wind your yarn into a ball?

Absolutely not! You should unquestionably wind your yarn into a ball or cake before using it. Otherwise it will invariably become tangled, even if you stay in one spot to knit the whole project. 

My point here is to gie some thought to what you do with your skein or hank of yarn as soon as you get it rather than automatically wind it into a ball. Just take a moment to consider if this is the best course of action.

When it does come time to wind your yarn into a ball

When you are just about ready to use your yarn, you want to carefully wind it into a ball or cake.  You can use various methods of both holding the skein and for winding the yarn into a ball. But first you want to prepare the skein for the best winding experience.

Before you start winding

To prevent the yarn on the skein from tangling as you wind it, it is important to align the strands. The thinner the yarn and the stickier the yarn, the more essential this step is. 

  1. Untwist the skein or hank. Do not remove the ties until the yarn is on the swift or whatever else you decide to use.
  2. Lay the skein on a flat surface like a table or on your lap. Check for any errant strands of yarn and follow them with your hands to see where they belong. Once the skein looks correct, put your hands in the centre of the skein with the skein resting on your fore-arms. Gently move your arms apart until the skein is somewhat taut. Move your arms in and out a bit to align all the strands, give it a couple of good pulls. Give the skein a quarter turn and repeat. 
  3. Now the strands should be spaced out on your forearms. There will still be many crossed strands and that’s OK. The majority of the strands are roughly aligned and, most importantly, no strands cross the center of the circle of yarn. 
  4. Carefully move the circle of yarn onto whatever will be holding it while you wind (swift, hands, chair back, knees)
  5. Cut the ties. 
  6. Start winding.

Methods of holding the yarn

You can use a yarn swift, a tool especially made for this purpose or you can use several other methods to hold your yarn if you don’t have access to a swift (or are too lazy tired to set up your swift), I have a few alternatives for you:

  • My favourite way of winding a skein of yarn is to use my swift. I have an umbrella swift like the one pictured below now, and another from Stanwood (got it as a set with the ball winder) but used a homemade peg swift (aka Amish swift) for years. Either one works well.
  • Use a friend’s hands. It only takes a few minutes. I have a vague recollection of holding skeins of yarn for my mother to wind and it seemed to take hours (but I was tiny and everything I wasn’t interested in seemed to take hours).
  • Use the back of a chair or two chairs placed back to back for more control over the size and tension.
  • Use your knees. Get on a low seat so that you are close to the floor and your knees can be bent at a fairly sharp angle.with lots of space around them. Prepare the skein, drape it on your knees and use your knees to hold the yarn while you wind. Quite honestly, there are times when I use this method because it is fast and convenient. 

Methods of winding the yarn

I prefer to wind my yarn into a centre pull ball or cake. Even if I don’t pull the yarn from the inside, it is nice to be able to access that yarn if I need to. For example, it’s handy if I want to test out an idea for my project and want easy access to the other end of yarn for a swatch, or need to cut off a scrap to use as a stitch marker.

You can create centre pull balls using various equipment:

  • Again, my favourite is my Stanwood ball winder. It is fantastic and creates a beautiful cake of yarn easily and efficiently. But I also love my little ball winder that is much like the one pictured below from KnitPicks.com. It is compact and easy to set up and does a great job. 
  • A Nostepinne (or really big knitting needle). You can get some gorgeous handmade nostepinne on Etsy. If you do get one, ensure that the winding portion of the nostepinne is smooth and slightly tapered and doesn’t have any bumps or ridges that will prevent the yarn ball from sliding off once you wind it.
  • Your hand or thumb
Yarn Ball Winder | KnitPicks.com
Laminated Birch Yarn Swift | KnitPicks.com

If you are using a swift and ball winder

When you use a swift and ball winder, it is easy to get enthusiastic and wind like the wind (i know, terrible pun). So, here are some pointers to get wind you yarn effectively. 

Wind slowly

Not ridiculously slowly, but at a steady and comfortable pace. 

Generally, the faster you wind, the more tightly the yarn will be wound and you increase the chances of your yarn tangling and creating a big mess, both on the winder and on the swift. 

I don’t know about you, but I have done all of the following when I have tried to wind yarn too swiftly (see what I did there, swift-ly?):

  • created quite the snarl on my swift.
  • needed to cut yarn off my winder after it got so entangled that nothing else worked.
  • had a ball of yarn fly across the room leaving a huge snarled mess as innards came out on its trip. 
  • wound a ball so tightly that I could actually see the strain on the yarn.

Leave lots of room

The more room you have between your swift and your ball winder the more control you have over the tension and the more likely you are to have an evenly wound ball of yarn. 

With some unruly yarns, I will add a bit more room and tension by lightly catching the yarn in between the swift and the ball winder. The yarn travels from the swift, around my finger or a knitting needle I am holding and to the winder in a triangle. Again, I only so this if the yarn is being difficult (it tends to stick or snag or misbehave in some other way. 

Otherwise, I just keep the swift and ball winder a few meters apart and wind steadily and relatively slowly until I have a lovely ball or cake of yarn.. 

What about knitting directly from the skein as it is?

Whatever you do, do not try knitting directly from the hank unless you know what you are getting yourself into and you are up for a challenge. The following section has some considerations for those brave enough to try this method.

If you decide to give working directly from the skein a go

Do not just untwist the skein and lay it out in a circle and start knitting. It will become tangled unless you are watching it to make sure things don’t do awry every time you tug more yarn from it. The centre opening really needs to be held to make this work. Again, don’t attempt this unless you are ready for a big challenge. 

Sure, it is the fastest way to start knitting with your new yarn. And if you don’t have a swift and ball winder handy and you really don’t want to wind it by hand it might be very tempting, but at what cost?


Also, if you are working directly from the skein, there is no added tension put on the yarn. It stays relaxed through the entire process. This will affect your gauge. 

Unlimited opportunities for tangling 

However, the opportunities for tangling are almost endless.  You will have to be vigilant the whole time you are knitting to ensure that the yarn does not tangle. Sudden interruptions (and there are always sudden interruptions) may cause havoc unless you remember to carefully take care of the skein before dealing with the interruption. 

Some yarns have strands that stick together and can easily tangle, even while the yarn is draped wherever it is draped and you have to be extra vigilant. 

Other yarns are so slippery that they will slide off wherever you drape them and cause a mess. 

Whenever you start to knit, you will need to undo the skein, align the strands and place the skein on whatever will hold it while you work. However, here you have more options. I have worked from a skein draped around my neck (like a necklace) or hanging from my shoulder. These are not great options when winding yarn, but as knitting is a much slower process, they work well when knitting from the skein. You can also drape it over the arm of your chair or any other place when you can drape the circle of yarn without it falling off easily. If it falls off, it will likely tangle. 

Knitting from your swift

You can knit from a skein held on a swift, your knees, or even, I suppose, held by a friend. But that is cumbersome and either takes up a lot of room, is very uncomfortable for the friend (or your knees) that is holding the yarn the whole time that you are knitting, and is not very portable. 

When you need to stop

When you are done knitting for the day, leave the skein where it is. Or you can twist it back up into a twist until you are ready to drape it again and work from it. 

In Brief

It is always a good idea to wind skeins of yarn into balls or cakes before working with them. The question is when to do the winding. While it is certainly convenient to wind the yarn into balls immediately or even the yarn wound at the store, it is not always the best choice for the yarn. Especially if you are not planning to use it for a long time. 

When you do choose to wind the yarn, do it carefully, steadily and relatively slowly. 

If you choose to defy all the advice and knit directly from the skein, it is possible, but do consider it carefully before making the attempt and take the necessary precautions.

This entry was posted in Kitting Tools and Materials, Yarn, and tagged equipment.

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