I first encountered skeined yarn when I was about 6 and I was helping my mom wind it up so she could make me a sweater. Let's just say I still have that yarn - probably in the original balls and it is finally becoming a shrug of sorts. I used to succumb to temptation and unwind the entire skein at once into a tidy pile on the floor or couch - then without pausing I could wind the entire ball. Except, the tidy pile on the floor never remains tidy! Either the dog walks in, a child walks in, my husband moves the yarn to sit on the couch, or the yarn is just so happy to be free that it tangles itself when I take my eyes off it for an instant to work on the ball.
I don't have a swift or a ballwinder. They would certainly make winding balls faster but whenever I see the price of a swift or ballwinder, I think about how much yarn I could get instead. Once I spent an hour winding 50 grams (440 yards) of laceweight into a ball but I was watching tv in the dark so I couldn't have been knitting anyway. 50 grams of worsted weight usually takes me about 15-20 minutes to ball up. Normally I watch tv or chat when I'm winding balls and think about the project I'm going to make with the yarn.
To wind a skein into a ball, find a comfortable place to sit with knees up (couch or bed for me) and settle down for a few minutes. (Some people use the back of a chair but I like adjusting my knees to the perfect size for the skein - I also find it tricky to keep the strands from either sliding down on the chair or slipping off the top). Once I've started unwinding the skein and wrapping the free yarn into a ball, I don't like to move until all the yarn is secured in the ball.
1) Take the skein out of the package and unroll it without tangling the strands - it should resemble a large donut. Place the skein over the knees - adjust knees so the skein isn't stretched and isn't loose. The skein will be tied in at least two places. Untie the scrap yarn holding the skein together. One of the ties should also be attached to the two ends of the skein. Pick the end that is on the 'outside' of the skein so that the yarn unwraps easily from the skein.
2) Carefully disentangle 2-5 wraps of yarn from the skein - it is okay to pile these in your lap or nearby because this is a short enough piece of yarn that it doesn't usually tangle. If it does tangle, it's maybe 3 yards of yarn so it's easy to disentangle. Find the end and start the ball.
3) Holding the ball in one hand, use the other hand to pull 2-5 more wraps off the skein and lay the yarn down next to you. Wrap the loose yarn onto the ball. Repeat 3 until there is no more yarn on the skein.
I have wrapped a lot of badly behaved balls of yarn. I've learned a few things since I was 6.
1) Don't yank on the yarn when wrapping the ball - loose is better. I gently lay each strand of yarn on the ball as I'm wrapping.
2) Only wrap 6-10 strands in the same place - make sure it is the 'equator' of the ball so it stays on well. Turn the ball as necessary so the 'equator' moves around and the ball grows evenly. I tried to make an illustration showing the order of wrapping and illustrating the directional changes. First I wrapped the red section, then the blue section, then the peach, then the green. I generally try and wrap in 6 different directions before 'repeating' - the repeating though is always shifted slightly so that the new yarn is wrapping in the 'valleys' left by the old yarn.
3) when changing directions, I place my thumb on the yarn and make sure I wrap over any places the yarn loosens so the ball can't fall apart from the inside. The arrow is pointing to my thumb where I'm holding the yarn in place. I start wrapping with 2 and then 3 and 4 are supposed to wrap over the loose yarn where my thumb was and make everything snug.
How do you wind yarn? I can't be the only person without a swift and ballwinder can I?
28 Aug 07 edit: And the very same week that I wrote about ball-winding, Kelley Petkun of Knitpicks talked about ballwinding (including swifts and winders) in her podcast!