This post is part of a series about the basics of the not-exactly-knitting parts of knitting.
Yarn can come in several different form factors. While it’s pretty self-explanatory how to use some of them, others can be a little more daunting.
Most yarn you might get from a hobby shop, and from a lot of other places, comes in a pretty standard ball. You can work from the outside or the inside with these. I prefer the inside, because I can leave the band on, and the ball doesn’t flop around as much while I’m working. To get the inside end, reach into the end of the ball and grab some yarn, as close to the center as you can. Pull out a few strands. Unless you’re supremely lucky, (I never am) you won’t get the end. Pull the loops you’ve grabbed until they come out. There will be yarn barf.
Hopefully you’ll have pulled out only a small chunk of the ball, and the end will be in it somewhere. (If there are an odd number of strands going from the ball to your chunk, you’ve got the end) Pull that apart until you find the end, and go at it. The messy pulled-out section will get used up pretty fast, and everything will be neat again.
You might also find cones or crochet-thread style balls:
Both of these should be worked from the outside. Leave the cardboard center where it is.
You’ll also probably get a skein of yarn at some point.
This is how people tend to store yarn after spinning or dyeing it. You can’t* knit straight from a skein, so it’ll require some preparation first. You’ll need to wind it into some sort of a ball. You’ll need two tools for this: something to hold the skein, and something to wind the ball.
Holding a skein
If you’ve got just you and no special equipment, you can hang the skein on something. Across the back of a chair works for an appropriately sized chair, or just hanging from a corner. You’ll have to pull each loop of yarn off individually, so it might get a bit acrobatic, but it’s doable.
If you have an extra pair of hands lying around, draft them into holding your skein. This takes less moving around on your part, but more on theirs, and will also take some experience to get the movement down right. I recommend a wide circle with both hands at the same time, so the strand of yarn can slip off each hand as the time is right.
Eventually, you might want to buy a swift. This is a piece of equipment specifically for holding skeins while you wind them. You can buy one, or make one yourself. Swifts can be a little expensive, and while the homemade one looks a little less sleek, and requires some woodshop skills, it works just as well and is much cheaper.
Once you’ve got your skein arrayed and ready to wind, you’ll need to remove the ties keeping it from becoming a mess. There are usually 1-4 of them. Sometimes one of them will actually be the ends of the skein, and other times you’ll have to find them – they’ll probably be loosely tied together somewhere.
Winding a ball
Now you need to do the winding part. You can make the traditional ball-of-yarn-that-cats-like-to-play-with. Start with a little back-and-forth bit of yarn, and then wrap around the center until you have a small bump. Now smush it into a sphere (more or less) and start wrapping. Gradually turn the ball to make it circular, and sometimes shift to a different angle.
You can also make your own center-pull balls, which won’t roll all over the place as you use them. You can use a tool called a nostepinne. I’m not going to tell you how, because there are lots of instruction videos, and I’m honestly not great at using it myself. Alternately, you can use a used toilet paper or paper towel tube in exactly the same way. A little less fancy, but way cheaper, more readily available, and the ball comes out just as good. To secure the end of your yarn, rip a tiny slit at the top of the tube and trap the end in that.
If you’re doing a lot of ball-winding, it could be worth it to buy a ball winder. This will make you a center-pull ball much more easily and cleanly. This is my whole setup, with ball-winder and swift:
If you’re working with particularly fragile yarn, you may not be able to use a ball winder, or may need to use it very carefully to avoid breaking the yarn. A ball winder can put quite a bit of strain on the yarn. Winding by hand puts less stress on your yarn, and can keep your fragile or very thin (not necessarily the same thing) yarn from snapping.
Whatever your winding method, if the skein gets messy, stop IMMEDIATELY. It’s much easier to clean it up when it starts to misbehave than to keep going and hope it’ll work itself out, because it will invariably become a huge snarled mess.
If you’re making a center-pull ball and the end gets sucked in, stick your fingers into the center of the ball as you pull it off, before it collapses on itself. This way you’ll be able to pull out a little bit of the center of the ball, hopefully containing the end, without ruining the whole thing.
However you’re winding your ball, always keep going the same direction. Switching directions in the middle could unwind your ball, or it could make a mess in the middle of your ball when you get to it later.
*You can actually knit from a skein. But you have to be really really REALLY careful, and only work when you won’t be disturbed. If you drop the skein while it’s loose, you will be very very unhappy.
For other posts in this series: