Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Yarn prep: from skein to cake

It is a sad truth that one cannot knit directly from a skein of yarn.  (Don't try this - really, just, oh wow, the horror.)  Nope, the yarn needs to go from that squeezable twist of yum into a ball or, if you use a ball winder, a sort of cake.

(where this is going, in case you need motivation to read on.)

There are many ways to accomplish this transition, but I will cut to the chase and point out that there is a reason certain tools are available to knitters, and speaking as somebody who used to solve the problem with two chair backs and a very long walk around them, it is a very good reason indeed.

The tools are faster, which means you get more knitting time.

The two primary superfast tools are the swift, and the ball winder.

The Swift

There are two primary types that I know of offhand: the umbrella, which you will see all over the place in part because they make such efficient use of vertical space, and the tabletop model, which as you can imagine is on more of a horizontal plane.

I personally looooove the look of an umbrella swift, but everything in my tiny house has to serve three or more purposes and/or take up a minimal amount of storage space, and there was no place to store such a swift or leave it out all the time.

Instead, I have a lovely table top swift, made for me personally by Tim Hornshaw.  It is a beautiful thing that folds down to practically nothing and, incidentally, allows me to take freshly handspun yarn to a skein with ease, so I can block it.  I'm not sure an umbrella swift has that feature but do tell me if I'm wrong about that.

The Ball Winder

Similarly there are two primary types of ball winders as far as I can tell: the red one, and the blue one.  I know, I should really go downstairs and check the brand name on my box but, um, lazy?  Does it help if I distinguish them as 'the one Trish has' and 'the one I have'?  Or maybe if I say this:

Blue one: awesome and widely available and didn't clamp properly onto my round-edged table when I borrowed it from Trish such that it flew off across the room at awkward moments

Red one: less widely available, cheaper than Blue, perfect clamping in a variety of applications, totally exposed gears at the base of the cake-builder

If you read that last remark on Old Red and identified Disaster Waiting To Happen, congratulations, you get a sticker! it is so true, and a very compelling reason to go Blue.  Or to make sure you use a hand or arm as an extra tension point while winding, and send the yarn to the winder from a pretty good height.

The Process

The process is simple enough: you unwrap the skein, set it over the swift and adjust the size of said swift so the yarn is held in place with some tension, then untie the skein, locate an end, secure it into the business end of the ball winder, and start cranking.

In my hands though, the process usually involves complications. 

The Complications

1. Let's start with putting the skein over the swift.  This deceptively straightforward task involves you not accidentally folding some of the yarn back onto the opposite half of the skein, thereby inviting an incomprehensible tangle that will get worse with every crank of the winder.  It also involves the skein itself having survived transit entirely untangled in the skein, and even making it into the skein untangled, which is less likely if the tying stage was inadequate for the stress to which said skein was eventually subjected.

2. This leads us to another complication, aka untying the skein.

See, every yarn person has their own technique for 'tying the skein'.  Some use short cuts of the same yarn to tie up the skein at intervals.  Some wrap the two ends through layers of the skein and tie them together in a tight knot that nobody could ever undo, such that you have to cut them apart, and others do some combination thereof.  This makes it complicated to know when cutting is going to free two ends of the skein or divide the skein altogether, and that makes untying the knot in spite of how tight it is a huge complication that leads to sore fingertips.

My personal favourite is when the yarn person ties the yarn with short cuts of contrasting, maybe even slippery superwash yarn, one on each of four sides, one or even two of which secure the two ends of the skein which have not been tied at all.  Which is why the only skeins I really love winding are the ones prepared by me after I've spun the yarn.  Sigh.

3. There can also be problems with the swift.  I can't speak for the umbrella model, but I can tell you of two risks with the tabletop model.  One is that the swift might move while it spins.  My Hornshaw swift has rubber feet and mostly doesn't move at all, but if I run into a tangle the strain on the yarn can jerk the swift slightly out of position, which can lead to Swift Crashing to Floor.  Unfortunately the only location I have for my swift is half an inch from the edge of a table, so this happens not infrequently.  Generally it takes more than a few tangles to walk it all the way to the danger point so mostly I solve this problem by Paying Attention.  You can see where that in itself leads to trouble.

The other risk with this model is that if the end not connected to the ball winder is too loose and flies free, or if some of the skein flies up off the arms, you can get yarn winding around the base of the swift with every rotation, which you then have to stop cranking to unwind.

(are you thinking of that picture up on top yet, and calculating how much time it took to wind all those cakes in the face of all these problems?  well, don't stop now.)

4. Now let's talk about the ball winder.  If you don't keep even tension on the yarn as it goes on, you can end up with a section of pretty loose winding.  And if you couple this scenario with cranking really fast so you can get knitting already, you may well find your yarn cake flying off the winder and across the room.

And let's just hope you don't have exposed gears on the ball winder, while requiring your non-cranking hand to grab your swift before it crashes off the table.  Because yarn in gears is - well, sometimes you can rescue it.  But it's really, really not pretty.

Why Bother

Winding skeins into useable yarn is a necessary evil, and there's a huge advantage in that every inch of the yarn can pass through your hand before it goes into a working format.  If there are knots in the yarn, you will find them.  If there are flaws in the spinning, you will know and can choose a pattern for that yarn that will hide them.  The main thing is, you are not going to have any nasty surprises halfway into an expensive project.

Skeins do have a use, incidentally.  They hold the yarn in a much more relaxed position so the fibers aren't stretched to the limit; that's another reason ball winders are so useful, because the pole thingy in the middle of the cake builder provides space for the yarn to relax again after it's been wound, though as I understand it it isn't going to be quite as relaxed as in a skein.  And this is important because if you knit directly from stretched fibers, you will find yourself with a smaller-than-expected Thing when you finish and block and dry said Thing. 

Some people resent having to wind a skein after spending a whack of cash on the yarn that's in it.  After all, you can buy pre-wound yarn from all kinds of big yarn manufacturers.  But those yarns tend to be very very processed and sometimes it's nice to work with yarn that another human has touched and turned into a work of art.  Winding from a skein allows you to take a kind of share in it.

(that said, I really hate buying commercially prepared yarn that's been wound into a skein so it looks prettier on the shelf.  that is just cruel.)

How Much Time?

Okay, remember that picture up at the top?  I didn't watch the clock while I was doing all that because it's hard to crank a ball winder while crying over knowing how long you are spending on the task, but I know I spent about 2 hours on Thursday night, another 4 on Friday, and I think at least 2 hours on Saturday, or maybe 4, which is - 8? 10?  but some of that was taking some of the original cakes and weighing them and dividing them into two for socks or mitts:

yeah, I am past caring about skeins being better for the yarn than a cake, if you're not knitting right away.  I am well into: I want everything ready to work up into something on a moment's notice because OMIGOSH there is so much yarn in this house and I have to get it moving or I will drown in yarn!!!

pant, pant.

But that is another story for another day.  And it's a pretty good one, I promise. Meanwhile, go and have a great day!


Leslie said...

I, on the other hand, absolutely love winding balls of yarn. Aside from my 8 shaft loom, I think the umbrella swift and ball winder are my favorite tools in my studio!

Mary Keenan said...

Oh man Leslie, if you don't have these problems then I totally need your setup!! (but actually, in spite of everything, I quite like winding yarn too... esp. if I don't let things pile up to 10 hours worth...)

Leslie said...

I set my swift up about 2 feet from my ball winder (it's the blue kind...which I've broken once and had to replace)...and really I don't have very many problems unless I'm foolish enough to pull the wrong thread out or get something knotted up...and then I end up winding by hand...which is cool too because I do love feeling the yarn. 10 hours would wear me out though! :)

Unknown said...

Yes, you CAN knit from a skein. It's a HANK that you can't knit from. Skeins and hanks are NOT the same thing!

Mary Keenan said...

Valerie, I'm sorry for the confusion - where I live, we use the word skein for what you call a hank!