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One of the oddest appearing artifacts at The Shaker Historical Society sits in the middle of the Collections Room. Multiple visitors inquire about the object, however, the only information I had known, or rather inferred, was that it was somehow used by the Shaker women for spinning. I was determined to find out more information regarding this piece of Shaker history.
This artifact is called a swift, which was a tool used to wind skeins of yarn and other material. Swifts were generally used to assist crocheters and knitters. The Shakers did not invent this instrument but did improve upon its functioning to better suit the needs of its users. The swift has several names and forms. The name “swift” can be interchanged with “reel” as they both are used to wind skeins. There is a need for distinction, however, by way of determining how the yarn is to be wound. Swifts are generally small in size, portable, and can be used on a table top, whereas reels tend to be large both in size and in available diameter of the skein.
The swift in the Collections Room is a tabletop swift with a base. The odd shape that forms many triangles adjusts in diameter to hold skeins of various sizes. It rotates around in a circle around the central rod for easy use. This tool allowed for one person to spool yarn alone as opposed to someone else extending their arms and wrapping the yarn around their wrists. To use the swift, a woman would attach the end of the skein of yarn to the swift and turn it slightly so that the yarn wrapped around the framework.
Many forms of the swift were constructed including umbrella swifts which were collapsible and portable and attached to the tabletop, swifts with bases like the one we have at The Shaker Historical Society, as well as floor swifts that could be as large as reels.
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