Winding Yarn with a Swift, Ball Winder or by Hand

February 24, 2022

Most yarns found in a big box craft store come wound in a nice, self-contained shape with a label holding it all together, which I will henceforth call a ‘cake’ (or ball if you want – I sometimes go back and forth…). They are all nicely tucked away and can be used right away. When purchasing a higher quality yarn from a yarn store or festival which is most likely hand spun or hand dyed or both, the yarn usually comes in a hank or skein. A hank/skein is just yarn wound into a big, spiraling loop, held together with a little bit of string to keep it in place. I am going to use the term ‘skein’ throughout, Hank just doesn’t sound right to me when talking about yarn, maybe I should call it Frank or Larry 🤣.

If you do not wind the yarn and try to use it in that big loop, you are pretty much guaranteed to get some massive knots. And I don’t know about you, but I would rather be knitting than undoing a knot. (I will be honest, undoing knots is rather therapeutic and I really don’t mind doing it, but that means I’m not knitting or doing anything productive since this is a completely avoidable situation.) If you want to know more about yarn itself, read this post here. If you want to read about how much yarn to buy the next time you’re out, read this post here.


Center Pull

I encourage my students to use their yarn as a center pull ball. What does that mean? It means you take the end that is tucked inside the middle of the ball and use that end to knit your project. Why? This way is the most convenient for knitting at home, on travel or when using a knitting bag. Pretty much any place you knit, it is easier. Have pets at home, especially cats?

You’ll see why this makes more sense in this short video.

The only down side…

Using a skein already wound from the store

Image of pre-wound yarn from the store

Fishing around for the end that is tucked in the center

The major side effect of center pull cakes are yarn vomit (or you can also use the term yarn barf. I’m not a big fan of the word barf so I will be using the word vomit, which isn’t much better). When you are trying to find the yarn end tucked in the center and pull on it, you’ll be lucky if you don’t get a wad of yarn vomit in your hand. Consider it a win for the day!

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What to do about yarn vomit?

What is yarn vomit you ask? Just keep scrolling…

image of hand reaching into center of yarn already wound, trying to find end located in center of ball

Finding some yarn vomit. Oh well, it happens 85% of the time. At least it isn’t real barf.

Image of hand holding messy bits of yarn from the center of yarn all

Yup, that’s yarn vomit. Find the end, that’s why we have pulled out this mess to begin with…

Image of the end of the yarn pulled out from the center of the yarn ball

Starting at the yarn closest to the full ball, take the yarn and make up small looped sections so we can shove it back in without worrying about it being tangled. The amount you wind on fingers should be the amount you would want to have free from the ball in order to work a few rows.

Image of small wound section of yarn vomit rewound to fit back into center of the ball

Unceremoniously shove them back in, but don’t go too wild. We want them to pull out nicely later.

Image of hand pushing little tidied wad of yarn into center to keep it from falling out

This is what the it should look like when done. Then repeat until you are at the end and run out of yarn. These little balls of yarn will/should pop out one at a time when you get to them while knitting.

image of ball of yarn with ends pulled out

By creating these little yarn vomit balls, you are slowly organizing the yarn from the inside out. When you pull out a tiny, yarn vomit ball, you will have a small amount of yarn to work with until you need more. It keeps the rest of the yarn in the center, ready for use and not on the floor gathering dust bunnies. When you need more, just pull out another little yarn vomit ball. Keep repeating until you reach the smooth section inside the ball after the first yarn vomit ball you created. I think I just like saying/typing yarn vomit ball, sorry. Not sorry.

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Winding a new skein – finding the ends and untying the skein

If you have one of those large loops of yarn that needs to be wound (aka a skein), don’t just yank at an end until something comes loose. You will lose your freaking mind if it gets knotted at this point.

STOP what you are doing and listen to this (read):

This is what a skein of unwound yarn looks like straight from the store. And before you all start emailing me, asking what this yarn is… It is from Malabrigo, super bulky weight called “Rasta” in the colorway “Matisse” and can be found at Jimmy Beans Wool or on Amazon. It is glorious but I would personally say it looks more royal blue than purple in sunlight. It is always hard to tell what color yarn will be when it arrives in the post. And if you are looking for something amazing to create with this yarn, check out this Blanket Scarf Pattern which looks amazing, I think I’m going to have to get more super bulky yarn for this one…

Image of bright blue skein of yarn twisted as it would be bought from the store

Gently undo the big ‘twist’.

image of yarn partially untwisted, almost ready to be wound

The large ‘loop’ needs to be completely untwisted. Don’t touch it too much or play with it, it can get totally messed up at this point and you’ll be crying…

image of skein of yarn opened up into the large loop

There will be a place where the actual ends of the yarn are tied together. This is usually obvious because the yarn is the same color/thickness as the rest of the skein and the same yarn fiber. Plus you can tell that they are the ends if you trace them with your fingers and find that they are indeed making up the yarn loop.

image of yarn tied up to keep the yarn loops from tangling

Often a skein will be tied multiple times but the other places it is usually tied with another kind of fiber/string. Do not cut or untie the actual yarn ends, leave them for last. Look around the loop and when you come up to another tie, carefully undo it or cut it:

image of cutting the tie that is holding a section of the yarn loops together
image of tie being gently pulled out to release the yarn loop

Do this as many times as necessary. Gently, you don’t want to spin the loop at all or twist it in anyway.

Do the actual yarn ends last.

image of scissors cutting the ends of yarn apart

Just set it down gently on a table top surface. LEAVE IT ALONE until you read the next section, I’ll tell you when it is safe to touch it again.

Which end to use for winding?

You will want to find out which end is which before you start winding. There will be one end that ravels the inside of the loop and the other will be on the outside of the loop. Doesn’t matter if it is by hand or by machine, need the same one to do either method. Here is a diagram to help you out. This is super important, another way to avoid a knot from you know where… You might need to slightly move the loop to figure out where to pull the end from, sometimes the loop twists and it is not obvious.

Image of yarn held after cutting ties and yarn ends
Diagram of yarn loop showing end in the center and the outside end.

Once you find the ‘outside’ end, you can get started winding, either by hand or yarn ball winder. Make sure you are not touching in unnessarily. Otherwise it will look like this, with loops hanging down and out of place. Not helpful.

Image of yarn skein wrapped around back of chair, waiting to be wound

Now you may touch the yarn. Reminds me of telling someone they can kiss the bride….

Making a center pull ball by hand

It is easy to make a center pull ball out of a store bought yarn or one already wound on a ball winder. Simply grab the end in the center and pull. Of course knowing that you might get a little yarn vomit in the process.

But if you are winding a ball by hand you need access to the center and help holding out the end, so it requires another quick step. This easy way requires a straw. The straw needs to be bigger than the yarn is thick. The yarn needs to fit down the straw and come out the other side. Cut a notch in the end of the straw to hold the end in place. You’ll see this in an image below. If the straw isn’t doing it for you, you can order this cool tool from Knit Picks… or Amazon.

The big loop of yarn/skein needs to be held so that you can access the end of the yarn that is on the outside of the loop. This can be done several ways. If I am by myself away from my studio, I will either put it around the back of a wooden chair (see below) or I will put it around my knees (this is the way to go when traveling and if you forget to bring a chair with you 🤣).

The yarn should not move or spin around on the chair or your knees. (Technically, you could put the loop around a car seat or other thing that it fits on without being damaged, like around a child that you need to stay still so you don’t lose your mind. Perhaps?) The knee trick is helpful for winding yarn while on travel. I didn’t have my straw in this photo so I wasn’t able to easily make a center pull ball. I will have to start storing one in the glove box.

Image of a pair of legs holding the yarn loops in order to wind yarn while traveleing by car.

Another way is to have someone hold the yarn loop on their hands or forearms, making sure the yarn is taut but not stretched. I just show my husband and kids the unwound yarn loop and they know what to do. Always train your people about your knitting needs, it makes life easier and you save time.

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Back to winding a center pull by hand. Hold the yarn and straw in one hand and gently use your other hand to unwind the yarn (off a chair in this example) and rewind onto the straw. See how I started the winding with some simple turns around the straw, but then I started catching the yarn on one end of that original row of yarn and went to the opposite end, making lots of big “X’s”.

Image of te beginning of a hand wound ball of yarn, the yarn is wound on a straw that has one end of yarn secured in it

Keep going until you end up with something that looks like this.

Image of a hand wound ball of yarn with a straw in the center holding the end of the yarn to create a center pull ball

Done. Now just repeat on all of the yarn skeins for your project.

Using a swift

If you are like me and like gadgets, you can use a swift. A swift holds the yarn loop out and spins easily to allow you to wind without having to move the ball around the yarn loop. Note that the common word for newly wound yarn done on a “BALL” winder is ‘cake‘… yikes.

It spins almost effortlessly and the extendable arms adjust to accomodate just about any size skein. You do have to keep an eye on it, sometimes a single loop or an end will pop off and get in the way of the spinning motion and bring everything to a halt. When using a swift, you will need to regulate the spinning because if you pull hard, it will spin faster than you can wind. An elbow works well for this, or a child standing around doing nothing…

Here you can see this basic swift is all set, the outside yarn is ready to go. I did have to make sure the skein isn’t twisted so that the outside end will come off easily. (You’ll notice this is a different kind of yarn otherwise I would have to make the bright blue yarn into a skein again, which is working backwards. I don’t like working backwards.)

Image of large skein/loop of yarn placed on the swift for winding yarn

Winding yarn with a swift and ball winder takes a little finesse. Using both a swift and a winder is the most efficient way to wind yarn. You can see the benefits, especially if you are going to tackle a sweater for your gargantuan nephew who plays center on the basketball team… Hand winding takes a bit more time…

You will need to have some sort of guide between the swift and the winder. I like to simply hold the yarn with my non dominant hand, letting it go through easily. If you go too fast you may get yarn burn! If you go too slow you will not get an evenly wound ball. If you hold too tight, it will mess up the tension of the ball.

I’m right handed so I place the ball winder on the right of the swift with a few feet between. The winder and swift will have a way to attach to a table top. Luckily, they just fit my very thick table top.

Other than getting the yarn tangled, the worst thing that can happen is if you accidentally get the yarn under the twirly spinny thing on the winder. It can really mess you up.

To buy a ball winder similar to mine, click here.

To buy a swift similar to mine, click here.

Video of winding yarn onto ball winder using a swift

Here is a quick video demonstrating the process. I do it in real time, with very little editing so you can see it and you can see that even though I’ve done these countless times, I still have to go slow with some little missteps. I don’t like watching videos that are so edited you don’t get a sense of the real time involved.

Yes, I’m forgetful. And no I don’t care that I messed up! I am human.

What to do if your yarn is long and the ball winder won’t hold it all?

Did you watch the video above? This is demonstrated there…

The hats I am working on require one skein of the main color (abbrev. MC) and a half skein of the contrasting color (CC). When I wound the yarn, I had to split all the skeins because the yarn was too bulky and I wanted them even. So I got out my trusty brain and eyeballs and guestimated how much I would need for both. LAZY!! (or I just have some practice and it worked out pretty well. Still lazy though…)

If you try to wind yarn that is too long for the winder, it will go off the edge of the winder and get stuck under the gears of the winder. Pain. In. The. A$$. AVOID THIS AT ALL COSTS.

If the cakes need to be precise, do this:

1) Pull out the kitchen scale.
2) Weigh the full skein without any of the ties holding it together.
3) Write down the weight if you don’t think you’ll remember it.
4) Wind what you estimate to be half the skein.
5) Weigh the remainder of the yarn from the skein on the swift or chair.

*IF the remainder weighs half of the original weight, cut the yarn to separate the ball from the remainder of the skein. This can be hard to do, no one wants to cut yarn in the middle. Just do it.


*IF they aren’t close enough, you can wind some more onto the ball or put some yarn back on the skein until you reach that half weight.

6) Then after putting the yarn loop back on the swift, wind up the second half.

What to do if there is just a little bit more but not enough for another cake

If there is a little bit remaining on the skein, you can take the wound cake off the ball winder and simply hand wind the rest around on the outside of the cake. It still works the same as long as you can find that center end when you start the project.

Other variations

You can of course wind yarn with any combination of tools that you have. Winding yarn with a ball winder requires three hands if you don’t have a chair or swift handy. Two to hold the skein and one to turn the handle of the ball winder.

Winding a skein from a swift into a hand wound ball is good too, just make sure the swift doesn’t go too fast.

Pros to winding by hand

– a straw/yarn stick thingy specially made for making center pull balls

– can do it anywhere/anytime

– only need knees, a chair back or a willing volunteer to hold the skein

Cons to winding by hand

– Takes longer to do

– Can’t pull yarn from the center unless you plan for it – See above where we talk about the straw

– Does not produce as an even a ‘pull’ from the ball compared to a cake wound on a ball winder, which is especially useful for traveling with knitting in a bag

– End up with a sphere of yarn, hard to store on a shelf without a way to contain it

– Rolls away from you when it is dropped

– Pet magnet, they will come running when it hits the floor

Pros to winding with a swift and ball winder

– Nice even results

– Can pull yarn end from the center without planning ahead

– Balls will stack nicely on a shelf/in a bin

– Fun to do and watch

– Good job to keep a child interested and busy

– For those perfectionists among us, it results in beautifully even cakes

Cons to winding by swift and ball winder

– Have to buy them or score them as a gift

– Have to store them after you acquire them

– They are a single purpose item, not much else you can do with them

Keep your labels for future reference

Just like this. You’ll want to know what brand, weight, color etc. of the ball… You think you’ll remember but when you have two skeins that are similar and it has been 5 years since you bought them, you will likely not remember.

Image of a yarn label tucked into the center of the newly wound ball, keep your labels

This post wound up being longer than I thought… 😂.

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  • Reply LaJuan Pledger May 18, 2023 at 11:47 am

    Thank you for video I am fixing to purchase a ball winder this helped me so much.

    • Reply Marissa May 23, 2023 at 3:54 pm

      Glad to help! They are so helpful, I don’t know how I functioned before owning one!

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