The Swift

A few weeks ago when I was staying with Brenda and Tonia, we went to a car boot sale together in Wales, and I saw this.

It is a vintage swift. This is a device which expands to whatever size your skein of yarn is, and allows you to draw the yarn out from the skein under tension, and turn it into a ball of yarn from which you can then knit. I was thrilled to find this beautiful, useful, wooden thing with its own story and past, and I couldn’t wait to get it home and start winding skeins from it! However I soon realised that one of the pieces integral to the whole object was broken.

This little piece was one of two “hubs” from which the extendable arms radiate; if this piece doesn’t have integrity and strength, the whole object is useless. Luckily, Tonia knows a thing or two about wood. We examined the piece together and she explained that glueing it back together with little bits of found wood (my idea!) would not be as good as finding a skilled wood turner and having a new component fashioned from scratch. I emailed The Berkshire Woodturners, asking if anyone in the group might be interested in taking on a commission to repair a vintage swift. I got a message back, saying that I should bring it along to a meeting, and show it to some of the wood turners.

Watching the woodturners discussing the construction of the swift and possible strategies for its repair was reminiscent of watching knitters examining knitwear. Just as the knitters I know might discuss yarn-types and techniques, the woodturners at the meeting all talked about different wood-types, and about both the means by which the swift had been made, and how they might approach the task of mending it. In the end, Nigel Griffiths kindly agreed to create a new component for me, and invited me to come along to his house to watch – and make a sound recording of – the process. I was so excited to realise that the repair of the swift could develop a KNITSONIK dimension!

Nigel has an amazing shed, with all the different things he needs for wood-turning meticulously organised. I love customised craft spaces, where everything is arranged according to necessity and the working patterns of the maker who works there. The aesthetic of utility and invention which governs such spaces is my favourite aesthetic. What a great making space!

Turned objects, rounded surfaces sanded to different levels of smoothness, and the smell of wood, are everywhere in the shed.

The shed is both an active, practical workspace and a homage to the Nigel’s material of choice – wood. Nigel decided that ash would be the right material for making a replacement piece for the swift, and explained carefully how the grain of the wood affects its strength. Warming to his subject, he demonstrated how the direction of the grain in a piece of wood affects its strength, and contemplated ways of strengthening the little disc at the top of the swift so that where the cuts were running along the grain would be less inherently weak and inclined to snap. In the end, Nigel decided to give the replacement piece a sort of stem to make it stronger, effectively copying the disc at the bottom of the swift.

You can see the weak spots here, where the wood in the original piece has snapped.

The stem in this turned piece of wood gives it strength so that it is less inclined to snap.

Nigel mounted a little chunk of ash on his lathe, and a new component began to take form!

Different grades of sandpaper smoothed the piece to a velvety finish.

Adding some soft oil to the piece sealed it, and emphasised the grain inside the piece of wood.

Nigel asked me if I wanted him to stain the piece so that it matched the rest of the swift, but I said that I preferred for it to be obvious that this was a new addition – an integral chapter to the story of the object and its history. “I like that,” said Nigel, and I told him all about my friend Tom’s Visible Mending Programme. This prompted a lovely conversation about things and what the examination of things reveals about their makers.

Nigel explained that the original creator of the swift must have cut all the small pieces of wood for the extending arms using a jig, and that all of these pieces had then been attached to one another using tiny nails, which were then cut and tapped flat so that they wouldn’t come out. He speculated that the little decorative piece at the very top of the swift was probably made from boxwood, and appreciated the SKILLZ of whomever made the swift in the 1950s or perhaps even earlier.

Once Nigel had formed a perfect disc with a groove running around its circumference, (for the wire that holds it all together) it was time to cut notches all around it for the extending arms to sit within. Nigel carefully marked where these should go, using the original piece as a template.

Once this was done, the only thing to do was to thread some wire through the tops of the arms and through the groove around the disc, to pull it tight, and to thus assemble the swift.

It all went together like a dream! But then Nigel surprised me; all our talk about mending and repairing had inevitably touched on the art of darning. In a few moments, I had a new darning mushroom!

When I got home, I immediately took a little skein of yarn I had spun and placed it around the swift.

My Grandfather made the table that you can see in this photo, and the Nostepinne that I used to make lovely balls of yarn from the skeinwinder was turned by Rachael’s dad out of a piece of yew when I was staying in the Lake District in January, working on HÛRD.

Woolworkers would be lost without Woodworkers.

Without cards and combs, how could we prepare fibre?
Without spindles and wheels, how could we spin yarn?
Without swifts and nostepinnes, how could we make balls of yarn from our skeins?
Without needles, how could we knit our yarn?
And without mushrooms (or wooden eggs!) how could we darn?

I am inspired by my growing awareness of the relationship between wool and the tools that I use to turn fleece into garments. I love that like wool, wood is slow; that like wool, there are many varieties of wood to choose from, each with distinctive properties and advantages; and I love most of all that like wool, wood can be grown and managed sustainably, and that the people who work with it are passionate and skilled about the process of making with it.

Thank you SO MUCH to Nigel for skilfully giving the swift a new lease of life, and to all the woodworkers everywhere who make things for knitters! We need your SKILLZ!

I couldn’t finish this post without showing you the mother-daughter lace bobbins that Nigel made for a competition; see the tiny lace bobbin inside the lace bobbin?

Nigel can be reached via email at nigel[at]releasingthemagic[dot]com. He explained to me that he chose the phrase because his favourite thing is identifying what a piece of wood wants to become, and unleashing that potential through his work with it. As a knitter who is getting deep into the magic of fleece, I think I understand what he means.

I’m really interested now to learn about other handmade wooden things that knitters use – do you have something carved or turned which is integral to your knitting/spinning/crochet activities?

17 Responses to The Swift

  1. Mark says:

    I really enjoyed tagging along on your trip to meet the woodturners – a fine club to belong to 🙂

    The appreciation of a fellow crafter and shared geeky love shines through in this post, and your photos are beautiful. xxx

  2. Jo Ford says:

    Oh this blog is beautiful 🙂
    I must print it off and send it to Granny and Grandad – they would love to read about this I am sure

  3. tomofholland says:

    Felix, that is so amazing! Nigel has a great workshop and seeing that there are more people passionate about natural, sustainable resources, and who are happy to take things slowly to get it just right and use the right material for the job. Your swift looks beautiful with that visible mend! Next time I visit I want to see it up close please 🙂

    As for me, the only wooden things I use with knitting at the moment are my darning mushrooms, the wooden ones obviously having been turned. I would love to have a wooden swift one day, but for now I’m making do with a cheap metal wire and plastic one.

  4. Tonia says:

    Big WOOF for the workshop, the wood enthusiasts and the meta-lace bobbins. I have mostly been whittling tapestry bobbins for B over the last couple of weeks, weirdly compelling…

  5. Fiona says:

    That is completely fabulous.

  6. Jen says:

    Felix, I think Nigel was as taken by you as you were by him, and me… well I’m taken by you *both*. I echo your every sentiment about the tools, especially the ‘visible mending’ philosophy, and you and Nigel worked as artists together to fill a missing shape… a piece in the shape of history, of usefullness, of bringing old skills into the modern world. I am quite amazed too, at this post ; your outstanding photography and well, just barks right up my tree !

    If you look at the banner on my blog, you’ll see some homespun (silk) wrapped around a turned wooden “niddy-noddy”. Now, there is a special story behind that niddy noddy, similar to you and Nigel, I went to my good wood-turner friend who repairs antique furniture, and asked him how I might make a niddy-noddy to take the yarn off of the bobbin on my (then brand new) spinning wheel (I suppose , the intermediate wooden object between spinning bobbin and swift)… well, he took a turned chair leg he made for something and never used, then drilled holes in each end wide enough for wooden post/pins to go through, and voila…. a niddy noddy ! I use it often.

    (ps. It is I, Jen, who you sent two HarrisTweedWovemberBadges to NapaCA.USA, last Autumn.. ‘hi’ 🙂

    • nigel griffiths says:

      I was unaware that the repair work on the Swift would cause such a stir! not so swiftly I have only just found it on the web.
      I do recall the event, it was a pleasure to help out a fellow artisan.
      One of the joys of retirement is that you can spare the time to collaborate with others. All through the ages one skill set has enabled another to function. I, for instance rely on tool makers (once called blacksmiths) and others. In turn, my skills enable a wide variety of crafts-people to create wonderful things. Many of these, sadly are in decline. It is up to us who possess skills to ensure we are not engulfed by the throw-away, mass-produced madness which threatens creativity today. we must pass on these skills to at least two other people, that way we may still have a diverse culture in the future.
      I am willing to help anyone who cares to contact me at “”
      don’t be shy, I don’t bite – I’m a wood turner!
      regards Nigel Griffiths

  7. Lizzi says:

    A lovely post. I am learning so much by slowing down.

    I found a mushroom when clearing my mum’s stuff after she died.

    I am delighted to have it – I remember her using it so often, darning the socks she had knitted for dad. That was before they got so bad that the toes were re-knitted. Our mum’s could teach us a thing or two.

  8. Ruth says:

    Felix, this is beautiful x

  9. colleen says:

    Such a lovely, comforting post. There is something of the fairy tale about it – the found object with a missing piece, the quest for a replacement, finding the woodturner in his shed (it shoudl be in the woods!) the magic skills of the craftsman and a happy ending and promising future.

    The darning mushroom is a little beauty. My old one is painted, but because I’m greedy I bought myself a new one made by Rachael’s father. The smoothness, the grain of the wood, just too pleasing.

  10. Allison says:

    What a lovely story! Thank you for sharing it 🙂 I am very grateful to the woodworkers who have made my wooden knitting needles–very simple but essential objects!

  11. jeannette says:

    a fantastic post, felix, thank you, i am linking to this in FB.

  12. Pingback: new swift | woollenflower

  13. quinn says:

    A lovely find and fix!

    What a gorgeous woodshop. I love working with wood, but have never turned anything. I did make a cherry canoe paddle using only handtools, though, and used a simple “edge” to smooth the entire paddle to something like the texture of glass. It’s amazing what one can do with a small piece of steel!

    My Grammy’s darning egg is often called into service not just for darning but when I’m “kitchenering” (grafting) the toes on handknitted socks. Helps me to get the shaping and tension right. Although I admit if the darning egg isn’t easily found, I sometimes use an actual egg! I always know where to find those, as my hens provide a daily supply.

  14. Tonia Clarke says:

    I’m just delighted about this and still have huge studio envy. I love his collection of strips of abrasive, those things used to be like gold dust in the woodwork shop in school. Isn’t it strange, the priorities some of our teachers had, for him it was garnet paper.

    Finding it hard to resist the idea of getting a lathe.

  15. phyl dale says:

    The turned and skewed windows on the lace bobbins are spectacular. Please tell me that they are for sale !! phyl

  16. Pingback: On Working with Wool & Wood – Wovember

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