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What is a Ball Winder?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 28, 2024
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A ball winder is an electric or hand cranked machine used to create balls of yarn for knitting. Many knitting stores have ball winders to convert their skeins into balls, and some home knitters like to have their own handy, especially if they work with a great deal of yarn which comes in skeins. People who spin and dye their own yarn may have a ball winder as well. Many knitting supply companies sell ball winders, and knitting stores can also special order them for their customers. A ball winder may also be called a wool winder.

Essentially, a ball winder turns a skein or hank of yarn into a tidy ball with the perfect amount of tension. The knitter can work from the outside or the inside of the ball, depending on personal choice. As the knitting project grows, the knitter can easily pull out more yarn from the ball, without being concerned about tangles and messes. A yarn ball is also greatly enjoyed by felines, sometimes to the detriment of the yarn.

Before delving into why ball winders are necessary, it helps to know about the steps which lead to a ball of yarn. To make yarn, fiber such as wool is combed, carded, and spun into a long length of ideally even, smooth material. Once yarn has been spun, it is coiled into skeins for easy handling and dying. While skeins are convenient for processing yarn, they are not suitable for knitting, since they can acquire snarls and tangles as they are worked. As a result, knitters need their yarn in a more workable form. A yarn ball is ideal, since it keeps the yarn tightly organized and neat.

Many knitting stores sell some yarn which has already been coiled into balls at the factory. However, many yarn companies sell their yarns in skeins or hanks, not balls. This is common with small companies which hand-dye their yarns or companies which specialize in high quality yarn. Skeins are less likely to use elasticity, so the yarn will be in better shape when the knitter wants to use it. In the days of yore, knitters had to use the hands of willing victims to wind their yarn balls, and they had to be careful to make the balls loose enough, since an extremely tight ball will destroy the elasticity of the yarn. The development of a ball winder was a welcome knitting improvement.

The device clamps onto a table, and it has a central column around which the yarn is wound. The knitter either cranks the ball winder by hand to make a ball of yarn, or uses an electric version which does all the work. However, it is important that the yarn not be pulled directly out of a skein when using a ball winder. This can strain the gears of the machine, as it will struggle with the same tangles and snarls which annoy knitters who try to work with hanks of yarn. Knitters can either unwind the skein as the ball winder winds, or they can use a device called a swift, which unravels an skein onto a framework like an umbrella. The swift spins to spool the yarn off onto a ball winder.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon75210 — On Apr 05, 2010

A yarn ball is what grandma made by hand winding yarn for portability. The term 'ball' stuck even though the typical hand crank winder makes a cylindrical shape for the same purpose.

"Perfect amount of tension"? None is best, but the ball will not hold together. The hand that cranks the winder creates the tension. Slow crank rate makes less tension. It is the swift load bearing points and air resistance to the swift sticks that cause the tension.

Try mounting the swift on the back of a chair horizontally to reduce the tension of keeping the skein on the swift. 'tightly'- poor word choice here.

Last paragraph, it's more important that the electric winder stalls or has a drive slippage with an unusual high tension. Safety: no gears should be visible on an electric winder. No coffee break while it runs. You paid extra money for that good yarn. Test the winder before you buy it.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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