It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a… just what is that odd-looking thing anyway?
It’s a niddy noddy, one of the most enduring and useful tools for spinners, knitters, and weavers alike. Also called a willie nillie, a hand reel, or a cross reel, it’s used for winding yarn onto skeins that can be easily washed and dyed.
The basic niddy noddy shape is simple: There’s a center piece with a “T” at each end, pivoted so that they’re at opposite angles to one another. This gives you four ends around which you can wrap your yarn, creating a loop of yarn that’s significantly longer than the length of the niddy noddy itself.
Niddy noddies are made of all sorts of materials ranging from luxurious solid cherry to white PVC pipe, although simple woods are the most predominant material. Many have three upturned ends to keep your yarn from slipping off, with a flat fourth end for pulling off the skein when it’s finished. Others are constructed so that the pieces screw apart for easier portability.
Loading Your Noddy
To wind yarn onto a niddy noddy, you begin by grasping the center of the poll as you would a baton, tucking the end of your yarn beneath your hand to secure it.
Lead the yarn up and over the T-like edge closest to you, then down and under the next T-like edge, then over the third edge, under the fourth, and finally back up to the first edge where you started.
This constitutes one full wrap, referred to in earlier days as a “thread.” Then simply continue wrapping until all your yarn has been skeined.
It can feel a bit awkward and cumbersome at first, but gradually you’ll develop a technique and gain speed. You’ll want to tip the niddy noddy from side to side, letting your wrist twist as necessary — again, rather like twirling a baton.
This tipping motion is how the tool got its name: In earlier times, “niddy noddy” was used to describe a bobbing object.
Not all niddy noddies are created equal. They can hold anywhere from 36-inch to 85-inch skeins. Most modern niddy noddies create wrap lengths between two and three yards, although Ashford’s Mini Niddy Noddy makes a 24-inch skein.
Knowing the size skein your niddy noddy produces is critical. Handspun yarn doesn’t come with a convenient tag highlighting the yardage, so your niddy noddy is your best hope for an accurate measurement.
Simply count the number of wraps in your skein and multiply it by your niddy noddy size. Five wraps on a three-yard niddy noddy, for example, gives you a 15-yard skein.
What’s on Your Noddy?
If this yardage computation method sounds complicated, it’s not nearly as elaborate as the earlier names for what the niddy noddy held. In some parts of Colonial America, for example, a certain number of wraps (or threads) made a knot, while a number of knots made a run.
These numbers weren’t consistent from area to area, so a run of yarn in Connecticut could have significantly different yardage than a run of yarn in Maine.
Likewise, different regions used different terms altogether. In some parts, a specific number of threads composed a snap, multiple snaps composed a skein, and multiple skeins composed a run.
Fortunately today’s terms are much looser. Skein, hank, run… as long as it’s yarn and you’re winding it on your niddy noddy, everything is well in the world.
Because niddy noddies have been used for so long, they’re marvelous items to seek out in antique shops and flea markets. They are one of the only knitting-related items you can reliably collect.
Needles can splinter and become orphaned, wheels can warp and lose their parts, patterns can yellow and disintegrate, but niddy noddies remain intact much longer. You can admire the patina and smoothness of these items, knowing exactly how they were used by patient hands from generations past.
Pat Benson | December 31, 2018
For your Southern California readers, there’s a beautiful colonial niddy noddy on display at the Huntington Library’s American art galleries in San Marino.