Tools for Taming Yarn:
Ball Winders
 empty ball winder

If you've been to a yarn shop lately, you've likely seen an odd little plastic device clamped to a table. The crank handle turns a conical center in wobbly circular rotations much like the Tilt-a-Whirl amusement park rides.

What is this odd thing, why do so many yarn shops have them, and should you start saving for one yourself?

What they Are
These are ball winders, and they're used to transform hanks of yarn (the kind you can create on a niddy noddy or umbrella swift) into ready-to-use balls.

By securing the tail end of your skein at the top of the cone before winding, you create a ball that can be used from the outside or from the center.
The thing is, they're not balls in the literal sense. They tend to be more square-like, with a flat top, bottom, and sides.

When you remove the ball from the winder, you'll notice that there's large open core in the center. This is designed to make sure that your ball isn't wound too tightly. If yarn is wound tightly and left that way for any extended period of time, it will lose its elasticity.
a ball of yarn on a winder
Once you remove the ball from the winder and start using it, you'll notice that this open core begins to soften and close in on itself. The only time the core remains mostly intact is when you're using a firm cotton, alpaca, or other yarn with little elasticity.

Why They're Popular
Yarn winders are intended to save you the time of winding balls of yarn yourself. Depending on the yarn's bulk, you can typically wind a 50-yard ball in a minute or less. It'd take easily 10 times longer to do this by hand. Multiply that by 20 skeins for a sweater and you get the idea.

Most yarn shops will let you wind your just-purchased hanks with their ball winders, which can be a great convenience if you're using, say, 1400 yards of yarn. If you buy most of your yarns online, however, you may want to consider buying your own winder.

Vive la Difference, or Lack Thereof
Unlike so much else in the knitting world, you have almost no choice when it comes to ball winders. The standard model is made in Japan by a company named Royal. It's made almost entirely of white plastic, with light blue trim.

A screw-on clamp secures the winder to a table. You can wind up to approximately 4 ounces of yarn (again, depending on bulk) before needing to remove the ball and start a new one.

These devices average approximately $36 apiece, although this varies from shop to shop.

Beating the Odds
A ball winder can last decades, but only with the proper care and feeding.

The most important thing to remember is that the inner gear mechanisms are made mostly of plastic. If you force the winder to do all the work, those gears will quickly strip and the winder will stop working.

It's best to pre-feed the yarn by hand. All this means is that you place your hand between swift and winder, letting the yarn flow through your fingers and using your hand to tug yarn loose from the swift.

The only risk here is that your hand may get warm as the yarn runs through it faster and faster. If you keep a slow but steady pace, you'll save both winder and hands.

Do You Need One?
If you buy a lot of yarns in hanks, and especially if you do so online or at shops that don't offer ball winding service, you may be a candidate for a ball winder.

The problem is that you normally need an umbrella swift to hold the hank while you wind it into the ball. Some yarn shops offer both tools as a package (Patternworks is one example), while most others offer each individually (such as Knit Picks).

Depending on what kind of swift you buy, the total investment can range from $72 to over $100. If you're interested in an electric ball winder, prices start at $135 and go into the mid-$200s.

Must you use the ball winder with a swift? Yes and no. If you try going it alone, you'll need a second pair of hands to hold the yarn while you turn the crank and feed it into the winder.

Try Before You Buy
If you're not sure about adding a winder to your arsenal, the best thing to do is find someone with a winder and try using it. Even more important, try knitting from the actual ball.

You may find that you don't like the square format, that you actually prefer the simple pleasure of using an old-fashioned hand-wound ball instead.

If it's the center-pull format you prefer, I'll show you how to create one by hand next week.

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