Antique Yarn Winder: A Complete Guide 

Updated March 12, 2022
Two Women with a spinning wheel and a yarn winder

Fiber crafts have become increasingly popular in the past few years, with social media outlets like Instagram and TikTok helping seasoned crafters share their skills with amateur knitters, crocheters, and embroiderers. Whether you spin, knit, or just have a cursory knowledge of the fiber arts, you've probably seen a shoddy antique yarn winder tucked in an attic somewhere. While these primitive technologies evoke a strong feeling of nostalgia for folk imagery like that of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, with just a bit of tuning these swifts can turn into your new (old) best friend.

Antique Yarn Winders

Perhaps you've browsed through a flea market or searched through rooms at an estate sale and came upon a strange looking wooden item. Vaguely resembling a spinning wheel or ship's wheel, you probably wonder what it was used for. You might find yourself saying softly, "What could this be?" If this harkens back to a forgotten memory of yours, then you're not alone, as many people ask themselves the same question the first time they see one of these primitive tools.

Jennie Krueger standing on stones next to a spinning wheel

Popular Names for Yarn Winders

Although there are several styles of antique and vintage yarn winders, antique dealers and collectors generally classify them all in the same category, referring to them as yarn winders or using one of the other names that've been attributed to these interesting machines:

  • Niddy noddy
  • Knitty Knotty
  • Nostepine
  • Spinners weasel
  • Clockenhen
  • Clock reel
  • Swift
  • Skein winder
  • Ball winder

Common Types of Antique and Vintage Yarn Winders

A niddy noddy is the simplest and most basic type of yarn winder, and it's made up of a center post and two attached cross pieces, one at each end of the centerpiece. The yarn is then wound around the niddy noddy by hand. Additionally, there's another type of winder that resembles the inside of an umbrella with its interlocked pieces, as well as a more compact hand-cranked winder that resembles a barrel shape.

Arkwrights wrap-reel winding wheel, 1769-1775

Another type of yarn winder resembles a ship's wheel. This type has:

  • A base
  • A vertical shaft
  • Multiple arms or spokes with winding spools on the ends
  • Wooden gears
  • A clock, counter or clicker

Types of Wood Used to Make Yarn Winders

Since yarn winders were used for common domestic crafts, they were typically made out of the different kinds of woods people could find in their backyards. Therefore, these old yarn swifts were mostly created out of woods like:

  • Maple
  • Oak
  • Ash
  • Pine
  • Birch
  • Poplar
Spinning Wheel

How an Antique Yarn Winder Works

Although different types of yarn winders varied somewhat in how they worked, a common style measured the yarn it wound in loops with a circumference of seventy-two inches. It took the forty turns to make a bundle, or knot, of yarn eighty yards in length. When the yarn winder completed forty turns of the wheel, its spinner made a little knot in the yarn. This process was repeated seven times, making one skein of yarn measuring 560 yards in length.

How to Use Your Winder in a Few Easy Steps

Thankfully, antique yarn winders are really simple to operate as cottage industry workers and domestic workers had to be able to both fix and navigate these tools with ease. Both the horizontal and vertical yarn winders are used in the same way, and you can put your own one to work in just a few steps:

  1. Set out your materials - Make sure that your yarn is loosely gathered and won't be tangled as it's affixed onto the spinning wheel.
  2. Make sure the winder's fully unlocked - Check that the knob just underneath the wheel itself is pointing towards lower left portion of a circle. If not, you'll need to spin the wheel counterclockwise to return the winder into a ready position.
  3. Attach the yarn to the wheel - Take the end piece of your yarn bundle and wrap it around one of the spokes so that the yarn faces the outside of the winder.
  4. Turn the wheel clockwise - To begin winding your yarn around the wheel, you need to slowly rotate the wheel clockwise. You should see your yarn beginning to collect on the wheel itself as you go.
  5. Stop when you hear a sharp, loud noise - Hearing a loud noise is actually the winder's way of letting you know that you've reached the end of the spool; depending on your winder's size, you'll have varying amounts of a skein collected.
  6. Collect your skein - Modern technologies have made it easier to collect your skein off of the wheel as some people prefer to use various ball spinners or other machines to nicely store their yarn.

What Are Antique Yarn Winders Worth?

Given their incredibly niche market, particularly in terms of the variety of primitive tools available to collectors today, antique yarn swifts aren't worth a ton of money. In the best condition, with very little sign of wear and tear and all of their original components in working order, these winders can sell in the low hundreds. For example, these are some winders that've recently come to market:

Pop Goes the Weasel

Surprisingly, antique yarn winders don't just have lingering domestic connections, but may also have been the inspiration for the children's nursery rhyme, "Pop Goes the Weasel." According to the story:

  • The spinner on the yarn winner was called the weasel.
  • The metal pins on the wooden gear were the monkey.
  • The monkey chased around the wheel until the proper number of revolutions took place and then it crawled out of sight under the wood.
  • When it released, it made a pop sound.
  • Children stood and watched as the yarn winder spun the yarn and were surprised when it made the popping sound.

Decorative and Useful

Many modern day knitters and spinners use vintage or antique yarn winders that they found at auctions, flea markets or antique shops. Others use reproductions of olden day yarn spinners, preferring them to the modern versions often made of plastic. However, you don't have to be crafty to love these unique antique collectibles. Displaying a yarn winder from yesteryear in your home makes an interesting and unique addition to the décor, and as a collector, you probably know that you can never have too many niddy noddies.

Antique Yarn Winder: A Complete Guide