An umbrella swift and yarn ball winder are not strictly necessary knitting accessories. You can make a hank of yarn into a ball just as well, if not as easily, using the back of a chair or a friend's hands and rolling the ball by hand (you can even make a center-pull ball this way, which is the main reason people like ball winders).
But every time I use my ball winder and swift, I'm reminded of all the reasons I love them. If you're on the fence about whether these tools are for you, read on.
Using a Swift and Ball Winder is Fast
The first time I used a swift and ball winder to make a ball of yarn, it probably took me 10 or 15 minutes. Now, if the machines are set up and ready to go, I can wind a ball in five minutes or less, depending on the yardage.
I once wound a 115-yard ball in less than two minutes. There's no way I could do that by hand.
It's a Fun Bit of Knitting Technology
When you think about it, there's nothing modern about knitting. The same basic tools have been in use for centuries.
Sure, there have been innovations -- circular needles, superwash wool, manmade fibers, interchangeable needles -- but the basics are the same as they ever were. Umbrella swifts aren't an incredibly new innovation, either (though electric ball winders are certainly a recent innovation), but they are about as close as non-machine knitters get to fancy technology in this craft. And it's just plain fun to whip out your toys and make yarn balls. Really.
It Builds Anticipation
Winding a hank of yarn into a ball by hand is tedious, boring work. Yes, it allows you to get to know your yarn a bit before you even cast on a stitch, and that's cool, but if your knitting project starts out with a chore, how enthusiastic are you going to be about getting started?
Because of the speed (and fun of technology) involved in using a swift and ball winder, it's easier to get excited about starting a project. And you'll get to casting on a lot faster than if you had to wind those five hanks of laceweight yarn by hand.
These Tools are Cool to Look at
OK, a ball winder isn't all that pretty, but I've always wanted to have an office set up in a way that I could keep my swift out all the time. It's just a fun piece to have in your room; yes, a lot like an umbrella without its covering. Who could resist spinning it every time they walked by?
Winding a Crank is Great Exercise
It might not be strictly true that winding yarn counts as exercise, but I know my arm's always worn out when I'm finished. Bonus: this is one knitting activity you really can do while drinking a glass of wine. It still better be white, just to be safe.