How to roll yarn into a ball – 3 time-proven methods

A step by step tutorial on how to wind skeins of yarn into a ball using different methods – one for each skill level

So, you bought a beautiful hank of yarn but now you want to start your project and you don’t know how to wind it into a ball so you can start knitting? Well, then you came to the exact right place.

three hanks of yarn and a ball and a yarn cake next to it

In this tutorial, I am going to show 3 different methods to roll yarn into a ball, a yarn cake, or a manual center-pull ball. Each of them has their place and uses as you proceed along your knitting journey.

Note: If you are new on my blog, make sure to check out my guide to the best knitting yarn for beginners and my ultimate list of the best indie yarn dyers (over 100 entries!)

This guide contains affiliate links and I earn a small commission for purchases made through these links.

How to unwind a hank of yarn: The Basics

different yarn balls, skeins, and hanks
6 different ways to roll up yarn

First of all, yarn can be bought in many different forms: Skeins, donuts, cones, cakes, rolls and hanks. Only the latter cannot be used to knit straight away, so you need to wind it into a ball first. And in this post, I’m going to focus on that. Naturally, you can rewind other yarn into a ball as well using the same techniques (here’s a post that shows the difference between the different shapes of yarn in greater detail).

A hank is basically a big loop of yarn twisted into an oblong shape for easy storage and to prevent it from tangling. Why this shape? Because dyes cannot be applied to a ball (the dye would not be able to get to the core). So, the yarn gets dyed in loose loops in a dyeing vat (or pan) and then twisted (once dry) to be sold.

And here’s where you have to do some work.

Important note: When handling yarn hanks, always work very gently. The process of unwinding never requires force or fast movements. Be very deliberate about your movements and careful when handling the yarn to prevent the feared yarn barf.

Step 1: Untwist the hank

a hank of yarn and an arrow marking the spot where you need to unravel it

First, you need to untwist the hanks. Usually, there is a big knot on one end and you simply need to push that little loop through and you’ll have your loop. It won’t require a lot of pressure or untangling. It should just sort of fall apart.

If you want you can shake out the loop carefully using your arms to stretch it out.

Step 2: Identify the knots holding the hank together

arrows marking the two positions where the hank is held together with knots

The hanks are usually secured by two knots. Sometimes there are four, but usually, it’s just two. They shouldn’t be very hard to find.

Step 3: Cut the knots and get ready to unwind

Important note: Only start with this step once you set up your hank according to the three methods below. As it is always the same, I’m showing it to you here.

finding the knot securing the other end of the hank

There are two types of knots securing the hank. One is a simple loop twisting through the hank to keep the yarn from getting tangled. Sometimes it is one little thread, sometimes it’s two. You can simply cut it away. Be careful not to cut the strands. So, pull it out a bit and then cut it right below the knot. There may be several of these knots.

the knot securing the hank of yarn and where you need to cut it

And then there is one knot that also secures the beginning and the end of the hanks. The knot should be a bit bigger and if you pull it out you will clearly see the two strands going in and out of the hank. You can simply cut that right below the knot as well. No need to be scared.

Method 1: Swift and yarn winder

a yarn swift and a yarn winder in action creating yarn cakes out of beautiful yak yarn

Probably the easiest and fastest way to roll your yarn into a ball is using a swift and a yarn winder. They are a bit more expensive, so as a beginner you might scroll onwards to the two next methods which don’t require you to buy anything (still maybe add them to your wish list as they are one of among the most unique gifts for knitters).

That being said, you end up with perfect fluffy little yarn cakes you can use for a center-pull and if you love indie dyed yarn, then it’s certainly a good investment and will save you a lot of trouble in the long term. You literally just need a minute or two per hank.

Here’s a link to the ones I am using and have been very satisfied with

The picture more or less explains it all, but here are the details:

Step 1: Set up your swift and then place the loop of yarn around it. Adjust the circumference of the umbrella so the loop has a nice tension and won’t fall off.

Step 2: Cut the knots (see above) and pull out one end. You might have to arrange the loop a bit so the strands connecting to your end are outward-facing

Step 3: Insert the end through the guiding eyelet and into the little slit at the top the central tube of the yarn winder.

Step 4: Start winding up the yarn slowly at first and then you can go faster.

different yarn hanks turned into a yarn cake  with a swift and a yarn winder

One thing I would like to add is that I would recommend you to buy sturdy quality (like the ones I linked above). I know that there are cheaper ones available made out of plastic. And they too do their job. But this is the way I see it: Plastic gets brittle over time and won’t last 20+ years. But I do plan to knit for the rest of my life, so I rather just buy it once.

Note: Both swifts and yarn winders can be used separately. You can unwind yarn from a swift by hand, or use a yarn winder to wind a hank from anywhere else as well. Both would still make it much easier.

Tip: Use the label of the yarn as a core if you don’t plan to use it right away (or don’t want to do a center-pull. That way, the information does not get lost.

a picture showing trick for winding yarn into a ball - using the label as a core

Method 2: Winding the yarn into a ball by hand

In case you don’t want to buy a swift or you really need to roll a ball now, here’s a technique that works in all circumstances.

close-up of a ball of yarn

A yarn swift is basically nothing else but a very elaborate way to mount the loop, but you can as well get creative around your household. Probably the easiest method is using the backs of two chairs.

using the back of two chairs to unwind a hank of yarn without a swift

If, for whatever reason, the chair method won’t work for you, you can also ask your partner or a friend to hold the hank with their hands. Just make sure that they hold the loop quite taught around their stretched arms. If you only have a swift and no yarn winder, this method will also work very well.

Step 1: Mount the hank around the chairs.

Step 2: Cut the knots securing the yarn (see above) and pull out one end.

Step 3: Wind a couple of loops around your fingers.

starting to wind a ball without a yarn winder

Step 4: After a couple of rounds, release this loop from your fingers and wind the yarn around it in a different direction.

making a little parcel out of the yarn by winding it the other way around

Step 5: Once you rolled up a couple of rounds, change direction again. Place your thumb into the middle of the little “parcel” and wind the yarn around, moving the ball around clockwise (or counter-clockwise) a tiny bit with every turn.

Creating the perfect yarn ball by hand

After you covered one round, rotate the little ball by 90 degrees and wind it up in a different direction. The key is constantly rotating the ball with every turn to get a nice sphere in the end.

So, always wrap the yarn around the ball once or twice, turn. Wrap, wrap, turn.

Now, as you roll up your ball, you will notice that it’s easiest to unwind the hank if you are directly above it. Make sure that the hank keeps mounted in place. If it gets lifted, then take a quick break and place it correctly again. This is very important.

And there is one golden rule: Never, ever try to untangle a hank. Perhaps one in a thousand hanks really has a twist in it, but otherwise, it hasn’t. When you are stuck, it’s mostly just due to the fact that you picked up the yarn from a bad position or two rounds got twisted in an out. If you start to untangle, you are actually adding tangles.

So, take a deep breath, maybe shake out the strands a bit and that should fix it.

Note: Consider buying a yarn bowl. It will keep your ball from running away while you knit.

Method 3: Creating a yarn cake

a close-up of a yarn cake

So, what if you want to create a yarn cake instead of a ball but you don’t have a yarn winder. Well, with a bit of extra care, you can also wind up your own center-pull yarn cakes. It will take a bit longer than rolling the yarn into a ball, but it’s definitely a viable option.

All you need is a little tubular object. This can be a roll of toilet paper. I had some fizzy tablets at home and the tube was just perfect for that use. But really, any tube with a small diameter will work.

Step 1: Set up your hank around a chair/swift, cut the knots and pull out one end (just the way you did above)

Step 2: Wrap the yarn around the tube a couple of times as a base for the yarn cake and leave the end hanging out to one side.

winding a yarn cake without a yarn winder around a tube

Step 3: Now you have to weave waves around the tube going from the bottom to the top. With each turn, you need to rotate the tube a tiny bit so the next round will sit a fraction of an inch to the left (or right)

Manually wraping the yarn around a tube to create a yarn cake without a winderping

The first few rounds will be a bit difficult, but once you have a stable base, it should be fairly easy. You always need to go from the bottom and then cut diagonally to the top. It’s easier when you hold the tube at a slight angle.

And that’s it! That’s how you unwind a hank of yarn into a ball. Make sure to comment with your questions below in case you are facing any problems.

how to roll yarn into a ball (tutorial)

15 thoughts on “How to roll yarn into a ball – 3 time-proven methods”

    • Hey Molly,
      i am not a spinner, so I wouldn’t really know if there is a way. But typically, I would say that’s not what they are for.

      • thanks for your reply. i have been scouring the internet for a ply twister and have seen a similar device to this that claims to wind balls and twist plies but it was made of plastic which i an not a fan of. i have read a lot of your blog and i really appreciate the way that you communicate. you speak, film, and photograph in ways that make sense to my brain. i have also had my internal compass tell me that a lot of what i read about fiber “facts” are false and i am in resonance with a lot of the clarifications that you have presented about softness being linked to how far the scales stick up off each fiber. i like your real life tests with different “hiding the tail” methods and with dunking different fibers in water and drying them to gauge responses. thanks so much for all the effort you put in to sharing and teaching!

        • Happy to hear that molly. Thank you for sharing your lovely feedback with me!
          And I totally agree. To good part about the internet is that it makes information available for all. The bad part is that sometimes wrong or incomplete knowledge is shared all around as well. This is not to say that I know everything better and I’m sure there are ways to improve my techniques as well. But I hope I am being transparent and objective enough that the reader understands they have to transfer the knowledge and make it their own

          • the internet is a tool of amazing potential. without the input of humanity it is nothing. the potential is actualized by the creativity of all who participate in sharing and learning. with discernment almost anything can be learned and the whole world is now without boundaries to what can be shared and taught and learned. it has become a vast sea that requires good navigation to find the gems of truth, yet it is an amazing technology that i am grateful to use. i have always grown up with computers and internet and i have learned a variety of skills with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and talents. i appreciate your transparency of information and knowledge and your contribution to the world

  1. This is my first time here and I’m learning a few things. Thanks.
    I always have left over yarn that I hand roll much as you described above. My problem is the roll eventually unravels with their tails getting longer and longer. How can I keep the yarn end secure?

  2. Oh my goodness!! First time ever creating a ball from a skein and after reading and looking at the great pics of how to’s… I took a deep breathe and did it!!! (I even tried to do the center pull one- fingers crossed) I can’t thank you enough for your wonderful directions and instructions!!! :)))))
    – Ayesha

  3. Hallo Norman,
    First of all: thanks for al your tutorials, I’m learning a lot here 🍀.You have a very nice and understandable way of explaining things…

    Question: when I knit with two threads of the same yarn, inside and outside of the same ball, the yarns are getting twisted during my knitting (the outside is ‘running’ around the one of the inside). In one of your video’s you talk about twisted yarn but this question remains.

    Thank you for your advice!

    • well you add twist as you wind the ball but then it stays stable as you unwind it. The ball has to move to untwist while unwinding, otherwise what you observe will always be the result.

  4. Thank you for the wealth of information, Norman. I am new to knitting and a couple of visits to your blog have given me plenty of knowledge and inspiration. I especially appreciate your yarn and material recommendations. I’m knitting my first scarf with malabrigo, following your pattern. Thank you!

    • Thank-you! Works great for just using a single strand to keep the ball from rolling. Wonder how I’m going to get my exercise in now that I am not chasing my ball around the room as I knit.

  5. I use a swift and cake winder, and I find it remarkably therapeutic. I do, however, double-wind my cakes. The first time I cake it, the ball is as tight and hard as a baseball. I’m concerned about stretching the yarn out over time, so I take the newly-wound cake and re-wind it. The second time around, the cake is always much larger than the first, and it’s soft and squishy.


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