My DIY yarn swift – made for $5

March is national craft month — the perfect time to focus on doing crafts … on the cheap.

This post is not so much a tutorial as an example of what we can do to re-use, repurpose, economize — and still enjoy hobbies, tools and skills. I hope it will inspire you to listen to that voice inside that says “I bet I could …” — and then make something great.


At my house, I am loaded with yarny goodness. I’ve knitted off and on over the past 15 years, but two years ago, at our local Renaissance festival, my mother-in-law bought me a drop spindle telling me that since everyone else was getting a souvenir, I should get one, too.

Once I started spinning with that drop spindle, I’d caught an obsession. Within a few months I had acquired a spinning wheel. Spinning gave me a new appreciation for yarns, and I got back into knitting again.

I have tried to economize where I can. I am proud to say that my pricey tools have all been acquired secondhand. But all the yarn I spin, and most of the yarn I buy, comes in skeins. These are long loops of yarn — easy to make after spinning, great for washing the yarn, and not very nice for knitting.

If you knit from the skein, you would soon have a tangled mess. So knitters use a ball winder to wind the skein into a ball. The tool to hold the skein for winding is called a yarn swift. Typically, swifts spread out like an umbrella to hold different size skeins. They revolve so the ball winder can neatly pull the yarn and wrap it into a ball. And swifts usually cost $50 up.

Then my neighbors put out a broken wood patio umbrella. Ah ha! Mr. Cheap had his doubts, but by purchasing a lazy Susan and some screws, bolts and nuts, I turned it into a functioning swift for $5. Here’s how:

1. I waited till everyone left me alone so I could work in peace. First, I sawed off the “stand” of the umbrella just below the part where the arms attach. Then I evaluated the umbrella. All arms were present, but two of them were broken — one at the hinge, one at the base.

2. I decided to cut the arms off at the hinge and sand off the rough spots. (Mr. Cheap did the sanding when he got home. He’s patient like that.)

3. I fixed one arm that had a broken connection between it and the wire that goes around the top of the swift. I was going for function, not form — and did I mention my lack of patience? I unbent a picture hanger and used a staple gun to attach it to the wood arm.

4. I identified one more spot where one arm was broken off so that it was disconnected from the hinge (a part where the metal rod should have been encased in wood to form a hinge).

5. I fixed this spot up with another picture hanger — this one brass to go with the rod. I wasn’t sure if it would need to move, so I made it “swingable,” but that wasn’t necessary.

6. The most important structure of this swift is the spinning mechanism. I bought a lazy Susan dial at the local hardware shop. It cost about $2. First, I measured and cut a square piece of wood that would fit the base of the swift. Then, I measured and cut another, rectangular piece of wood that would be long enough to go under the square piece of wood and extend far enough beyond the swift that it could be clamped to the table without impeding the swift’s spin.

I used a pencil to mark the exact center of the square piece of wood. First, I measured — it wasn’t precisely square, so I drew lines to indicate the edges of the would-be square. Then I used a straight edge to draw an X from corner to corner. (The lazy Susan mechanism would be sandwiched between the two pieces of wood.) Next, I drilled pilot holes for the lazy Susan, based on the instructions that came with the package. I messed up (I’m no woodworker!) and did it again. The mistakes didn’t matter, as they would be hidden inside the lazy Susan sandwich and didn’t affect the integrity of the wood.

7. I attached the lazy Susan to the wood square. Before attaching it, I inserted small screws into the bottom of the lazy Susan, which would attach to the rectangular piece of wood. The screws had to go in first to extend down through the rectangular base to hold it on.

8. I used a long screw (about 3″) to go through the center of the square piece and into the wood base and center pole of the swift to hold the “umbrella” structure onto the base. This was the only frustrating/challenging aspect of the project. I used a vice to hold the pole and enlisted help to hold the square piece while I used a drill to screw it together. I don’t have a photo of that step, but in this shot you can see the open center of the lazy Susan mechanism through which I drilled into the base of the umbrella. The screw went right through the center of the X.

9. I used a large drill bit to drill holes in the outside of the rectangular piece of wood. Then I drilled holes for the small threaded bolts (sticking up in the photo above) to go through. Then I attached the nuts to the bolts using a small screwdriver with a nut wrench included. The holes aren’t especially neat (did I mention I’m not a woodworker, and also impatient?), but they are unseen beneath the swift. One could even glue a piece of felt to cover the whole base, to disguise ugly holes and protect furniture.

At last, I was finished! The swift stands up neatly for storage:

To use it, I open the “umbrella” and plug the peg (attached to a chain) into the hole at the top of the umbrella (this might have been the bottom, previously), which holds it open.

I use these clamps to attach it to any surface I like. The clamps, of course, are useful for any number of other projects.

The yarn extends from the swift to the ball winder:

I have thought about getting some mini-clamps to make adjustable “stops” to  hold any size skein on the arms. In the meantime, I use clothespins.

The swift rotates smoothly, making ball winding a breeze:

If only it would also clean up my craft table when it was finished ….


An awesome handmade datebook, and a paean to Nikol Lohr

Knitters, spinners and calendar-users, alert!

Last week was a week of wonderful surprises. A friend sent a surprise holiday package to my family over the weekend, and then one day I opened my mailbox to find a super-special calendar for 2009.

This datebook is part of a limited edition of 200 handmade calendars created by Nikol Lohr of Disgruntled Housewife, where you can still buy your very own copy. Every year she makes these calendars, with a theme — this year’s is “the year of the dreamer” and features vintage yearbook art — and great monthly activities a la Oprah, only more relevant (biggest fears for October … rules if you were queen of the world … what has been ruined in the world and just who is to blame).

She’s totally organized inside the calendar, too, with a monthly page and then weekly pages to keep track of your bad self.  So it’s clever and also useful. And it comes with colored pencils.

Beyond being a calendar goddess, Nikol is the co-operator of the Harveyville Project, where she and her partner have converted an old school in rural Kansas into an artists’ retreat and workshop center. She hosts a twice-yearly shindig called Yarn School, and I’m bound and determined to make it sometime. (I was trying to persuade my knitting group members to carpool in September, but no one bit.)

She is a knitter, knit designer and knitting blogger with her own groovy blog.

She’s got some sheep going on over there in Kansas, and she has an Etsy store featuring her hand-carded and blended and wittily named spinning batts. Mr. Cheap (not so cheap in this case!) subscribed me to her batt-of-the-month club for Christmas, and I can’t wait till the goodies start pouring in.

In short, she is kind of my hero. What more is there to say? Thanks, Nikol.

Friday wrap-up: Stainless freezer ware, dog costs, SmartFlix and how to spend

This week brings a menagerie of money and earth-saving ideas.

Stainless for the freezer

Today, Fake Plastic Fish posted about new stainless ware for freezing food. It all sounds good … although I clicked through and found the containers cost at least $13 each. Compare a one-time cost of buying stainless ware to health risks of the future. Hmm, for the time being, I’ll likely stick with glass, foil and yes, plastic … but I will keep this in mind for a longer-term investment.

Videos with know-how

As a birthday gift, partly from my husband, partly from my late grandma’s bequest, which I’m so far whittling down for hobbies, I bought a great wheel (also called a walking wheel) the other day. (That’s not me on the video, but it gives you an idea.) But I don’t really know how to use it. Someone on Ravelry suggested I look into charkha spinning for tips. I thought a video would be just the thing, but the video I found on charkha spinning costs $40 — a bit steep for something I might not refer to more than once.

Then I came across SmartFlix, where I can rent the same video for $10 (including shipping to and fro). It’s still a little pricey, but less expensive than buying, and less wasteful too. Has anyone tried it?

The cost of a dog bite

And this article on about the financial dangers — not to mention the moral obligations — of dog ownership was sobering, considering that we are thinking about adopting another dog. Fortunately, our current and prospective pets aren’t on the dangerous breeds list. And we have a large umbrella liability insurance policy, too.

After all, just having a dog is costly enough. The dog rescue organization asks whether adoptinig households can afford $1200 a year to feed and care for the new animal, and I think that estimate is about right, based on expenses for our current dog.

Spendthrift or tightwad?

And I came across this article about whether you should spend your money now or save it. I think there is a middle ground, but this question came to mind this week when I bought an expensive electronic gadget at Costco. I bought it because I’ve been contemplating one for Christmas for months, and last weekend, Little Cheap tried it out at a friend’s house and came home extremely enthusiastic. Costco had a good deal, and as I’ve been saving for Christmas since January in a special ING Direct account, I had the money to burn.

But ours is going straight into our closet for 3.5 long months. The man behind me said, “Oh, some lucky kids are having a party tonight!” and I was so surprised, thinking, “Do some people really just come home one day with a $400 gadget and go to town?” Sometimes I wonder if I’m too prudish, making everything wait for a special occasion. On the other hand, I don’t want to set the precedent of a big-ticket item being something we just rush out to buy.

Where do you stand on pricey toys or events? Save or spend?

Friday wrap-up: Hacking Craigslist, ceiling fans, efficient cars, boob-powered iPods

Get Rich Slowly this week posted a terrific tip to subscribe to a search on Craigslist. Mwah ha ha, when the right Kromski Prelude spinning wheel comes along, I will be all over it!

It is ceiling fan season — and The Simple Dollar posted a simple list of ways to get your ceiling fan to work for you (and reduce energy use/costs in the meantime).

Going somewhere? Verda Vivo posted a list of the most fuel-efficient cars. She has calculated their efficiency in gallons per 100 miles, which makes their efficiency especially tempting.

And saving the best for last, scientists are reportedly working on technology — to be available in a few years — that would allow joggers’ bouncing bosoms to power their iPods. Yes! Now there is a way to multitask while exercising.

Re-using Easter egg dye

dyed wool

Last week, days after Easter had passed, Little Cheap and I finally managed to dye some eggs. (They were boiled before Easter – does that count?)

On Thursday morning, the day she was heading to Grandma’s for several days, I busted out the dye at 6:30 a.m. The dyeing just took a couple of minutes, and then we had nine little cups of dye sitting forlorn on the table.

Because of my new-ish spinning yarn hobby, I have a lot of fiber (that’s the artistic word for “wool, silk, cotton, whatever you can make yarn out of”) in my basement. Specifically, I have about 10 pounds of white Corriedale wool, washed and partially processed (meaning it is picked or teased to un-clump it, then carded or brushed into roving, which means long, smooth-ish strips of wool that then can be spun into yarn or felted into felt).

It’s partially processed because I bought it naively last year. It turns out that it is not good quality and so full of VM (vegetable matter, not to be confused with BM, unless of course there is BM in it) that the processor I sent it to gave up. Ah, live and learn. You can see some of the VM here:


Anyway, its poor quality and, er, uselessness (to use a cruel term) makes it perfect for wanton experimentation.

So, egg dyeing complete, I ran down and grabbed the bag of partially processed wool. (All right, I’ll confess, I only got up to dye eggs in the pre-dawn hours because I thought of the wool possibility.)

Here’s my completely amateurish process:

  • I prepared the Paas dye tablets with the vinegar preparation (for “vivid colors”).
  • I soaked the wool to wet it.
  • Little Cheap stuffed each round (just an ounce or so) into the cups of dye. I hovered so that splashing (onto newspapers) was minimal.
  • We let it sit for an hour or so.
  • Mr. Cheap said, “Our spoon is pink!” and rushed into the kitchen to wash it.
  • I looked up dyeing with Easter egg dyes online. Lots of people have done it. None that I found are really specific about how.
  • It seemed that the dye needs to be heated, so I microwaved the cups of dye and wool until they were very hot.
  • I thought all the color should be taken up by the fiber, but it wasn’t, and I needed to get dressed and get to work.
  • I rinsed each color (just took a minute) and sort of wrung it out, then spread out the wool to dry on newspapers.
  • Later, I hung the wool over the shower rod to dry.

The pink in the middle right of the top photo has white because some of the wool was not wet, so the dye didn’t take (Little Cheap was pulling it out of my hand to stuff into the cups). The fiber on the bottom right in the photo above is two-colored because the purple dye “split” into its color components of blue and hot pink.

I decided the small amounts would be a good opportunity for me to use a little drop spindle instead of my spinning wheel to spin the orange into yarn. The process is to spin, pick out grass/seeds/junk, spin again, but it came out fine. I think each little colored roving will produce about 15-20 yards of two-ply yarn (wild guess there). I had suggested to Little Cheap that maybe we can use her loom to weave a little belt for her. An Easter egg belt.

I don’t know if the dye colors will be enduring or if they will fade (known in dyeing as being “fugitive”). But for a first experiment in dyeing, it was utterly harmless, and I’m pleased.