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How to wind a skein of yarn by hand – without getting it tangled

How to wind a skein of yarn by hand can be the first fundamental step of any knitting or crochet project. At YAK every time we sell a skein of yarn to someone we say, “don’t forget to wind your skein!”. For every 10-20 customers that say “yeah, yeah, obviously” we will get 1 completely blank look. It is for this 1 person that we always say it.

Almost all of us know the horror of a tangled pile of yarn. To say that a tangled skein of yarn takes hours to untangle is not an understatement. Such a job will leave you frustrated to the point of tears. And you will never forget to wind your skein ever again.

In this post I wanted to explain how to wind a skein of yarn by hand because this is the best place for a beginner to start. You don’t need any special tools. 

WHY DOES YARN COME IN SKEINS?

When I first opened YAK amongst the yarns I stocked there was a clear distinction that hand dyed yarn came in skeins, also sometimes called a hank, and everything else came in balls.

Indie hand dyers have to dye yarn in a skein so that the dye can permeate each strand. Imagine trying to dye a ball. The dye would be vibrant on the outside becoming less and less so as it reached the middle, if it got there at all. An untwisted hank lets the strands hang open so whatever method the dyer uses each strand will be dyed evenly.

More and more commercial companies are now producing yarns in hanks. There is definitely an association with luxury because of how beautiful they are. From a shop’s point of view, they are also practical. A skein can be opened up and the colours and variegations can be seen by the customer plus they are easy and fun to display.

I don’t know how true this would be for a mill produced yarn but for indie dyers certainly the labour and cost of winding each skein into a ball or cake before selling would be huge, making their prices rocket.

WHAT YOU WILL NEED TO WIND YOUR SKEIN

There are several options when it comes to helpful tools.

  • Your knees. I wouldn’t recommend this technique to someone winding their first ever skein of yarn. You have to be able to manipulate the skein while at the same time making sure it doesn’t fall off your knees which can be harder than it sounds. But this is a great method once you’re confident because you can do it anywhere with no help. On a train, in front of the telly, at the beach!
  • Someone else’s hands. This is the vision of winding a skein into a ball that comes straight into my head. Someone lends you their hands to drape the open skein around while you wind. This is a lovely, sociable method and you can get into a nice rhythm as the skein unwinds. The only potential difficulty is actually finding someone with the patience to sit or stand with you for the length of time it takes to finish. And there is always the danger that they might accidentally drop it!
  • A chair or two. Depending on the style of chairs you own you could use the back of a chair, the back of two chairs or you can even turn a chair upside down and drape the skein around the legs. This is another good method for getting your winding done by yourself. However, it does mean you need to be at home or somewhere you can take up use of a chair for a while.
how to wind a skein of yarn by hand

PREPARE YOURSELF AND THE YARN

Make sure you have time to complete winding your yarn into a ball before starting, this isn’t something you can step away from very easily once you’ve stared. The thinner the yarn the longer it will take so get comfortable. And if you have a pair of hands helping you make sure they don’t have anywhere else to be either.

Find your tool, your knees, a chair or two or someone else’s hands.

Prepare the skein by giving it a good shake. Open up the skein, find one of the ties and put your hand around it and every strand in the skein. The give the whole skein a good shake. By doing this you are loosening any little tangles and getting all the strands pointing in the right direction. Don’t worry about it getting tangled, the ties are there to stop that happening.

HOW TO WIND A SKEIN OF YARN BY HAND INTO A BALL

  1. Place your skein around your chosen object.
  2. Find each tie and snip them off. There might only be one or two of these, or there might be several. The safest place to snip the ties is right next to the knot. This way you know you’re definitely not cutting into your beautiful skein.
  3. Find the ends and choose one. This is when you might need to make a careful adjustment to how the skein is sitting. You might need to gently turn the skein at certain points to make the strand of yarn pull away easily from the rest of the skein. Be careful, this is peak danger zone of getting tangled so go slowly.
  4. Time to wind your skein. Start by winding around two or three fingers several times. Pull the yarn off your fingers and turn the threads sideways. Wind around the middle of this and over two fingers. Pull it off again and now you can start winding around just the yarn changing direction every few wraps so a ball starts forming. Don’t wrap so loosely that the strands fall off but try not to pull the stands too tightly either or this might affect the tension when you come to use the ball for your knitting or crochet.
  5. Keep winding until the whole skein is finished. The last few meters are another danger zone so don’t stop concentrating. Don’t be tempted to pull the last few strands off your knees or chair or hands. Even just a couple of meters can get in a terrible tangle.
  6. Admire your lovely ball of yarn.

TIPS ON HOW TO AVOID TANGLES

  • Make sure the skein is kept in an open circle during the whole winding process.
  • Before you cut the ties check that the strands are following the direction of the circle that they should be by looking at each tie and moving any strand that is out of place.
  • Then, by shaking the skein or running your fingers through it you are loosening the strands away from each other. Some yarn can be sticky which can make it harder to put the strands away from the skein making it feel like you need to pull harder. Only do this with the ties still attached!
  • If the strand of yarn ever feels like it doesn’t want to come away from the skein as you are winding, stop, don’t pull on it tightly. Go to the skein, stick your fingers between the strands where it seems stuck to loosen them. It is better to wind your skein slowly and carefully to avoid any mishaps. 

These tips should mean you avoid any real tangles however, things happen. If you do find yourself in a real mess then have a read of our article of what to do with your tangled mess of yarn.

TOOLS TO MAKE THE PROCESS QUICKER AND EASIER

If you think you are going to be winding lots of skeins then it might be worth investing in a swift and ball winder.

A swift is a great piece of equipment. You drape your skein around its adjustable arms and it spins as you pull the tread from the skein. It keeps it at a good tension and it makes for a quick winding session.

A ball winder can be used alongside a swift. You attach the yarn to the winder and as you turn the handle it turns the skein into a cake. The finished cake can be used from the centre or outside and sits nice and flat. It won’t roll away like a ball can.

These work perfectly as a pair. If you were only going to invest in one tool, I would recommend the swift. The swift can be used alone, with you winding the ball as it spins. The ball winder by itself will still require another person or object to help while you use the ball winder.

Leaning how to wind a skein of yarn by hand can be a lovely slow process. So if you want to stick to hand winding but fancy using a beautiful tool to help you then a nostepinne is a lovely thing to try. A centuries old tool, this simple looking stick helps you create a beautiful looking centre pull ball of yarn.

LAST TIP ON HOW TO WIND YOUR SKEIN – ASK YOUR LOCAL YARN SHOP

If you don’t want to, or can’t invest in a swift and ball winder but don’t want to wind your skein by hand then ask at your local yarn shop if they provide a winding service. All shops are different. Some shops might charge you, others might only wind your yarn if you bought it there and some just do not have the space. At YAK we are happy to let customers use our swift and ball winder. We will set it up for you to use yourself. However, we only have space do this if there isn’t a class on so it’s always best to ring ahead.

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