Thursday, October 9, 2014


Can I tell you a secret? I don't own a ball-winder. Nope. I wind my yarn by hand. I know what you’re thinking—really, I do. But I consider it pure pleasure. Want to know why?

To begin with, there’s the tactile experience. Whether I’m knitting with it or just holding it, touching yarn makes me happy. When you wind a ball by hand, the strand is continually running through your fingers. If it’s a yarn you’ve never used before, it’s sort of like a first date. You can begin to get a feel for how it will behave on the needles, how it will drape, and how it will feel next to the skin. If there are knots, you can deal with them. And because the yarn is moving more slowly through your fingers, if there are any small slubs or bits of vegetal matter, you can easily tease them out as they go by.

Then there’s the movement. Some people like to place the loose hank of yarn around their knees to wind from. Others use the back of a chair. There’s even the time-honored method of getting a family member to hold the yarn on outstretched arms—but I like to take my yarn for a walk. Here’s what I do: I put the yarn on my swift. If it’s a nice day, I’ll set it up out on the back deck. Holding the end of a strand, I walk away from the swift as far as I can go without the yarn dragging on the deck. Then I walk back toward the swift, gently winding the yarn around two fingers, making sure to keep it very loose. The idea is to create a fluffy, open pocket at the center of the ball. When I get back to the swift, I pull my fingers out of the center, and repeat the process, winding the next length of yarn crosswise to the previous bit, still keeping it loose. Winding on the return trip allows any tension created by pulling out the strand to be released, creating a soft, squishy ball.

There’s a lot of sitting in knitting, and winding yarn this way allows me to get up and move around a bit. I’m not sure I’d say it was exercise exactly, but if I wind enough fingering-weight yarn for a cardigan all in one go, I’ve walked the better part of a mile on my out-and-back trips.

There’s also the aesthetic consideration. I love the look of a tidy round ball, whether sitting in the palm of my hand or dancing around my yarn bowl as I work. When I have a travel project, I place a small plastic bowl in the bottom of a project bag, and let it spin happily away in there.

Then there are the yarns that prefer to be wound by hand. Airy woolen-spun yarns don’t always appreciate the rough treatment that a mechanical ball-winder can dish out. Toothy yarns like linen, and fibers that are haloed like mohair and qiviut can be challenging to work with from a center-pull cake because the fibers latch onto each other, creating tangles. Working from the outside of a ball that is free to spin eliminates these problems, and gravity helps to separate the fibers that want to grab.

Yes, winding by hand is a little bit slower, but on the whole, knitting is not a very fast business. I can spare a few minutes.

I know I’m not alone in my love of the hand-wound ball. How about you?

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