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My afternoon with a yarn ‘detangler’

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Detangling during

I’m sure you already know how wonderfully generous knitters can be. Over the weekend, I experienced a great example of this community’s uniqueness when I desperately called on a Ravelry “detangler” — one of those strange people who actually looks at a spaghetti-like pile with excitement — to help me unravel a mess of Merino sock yarn. My yarn emergency couldn’t have been more timely, with the Wall Street Journal running a feature on Ravelry’s Knot a Problem group this past Monday.

I probably should never have taken the yarn off the swift. Friday night, in my haste to start on a gift with a tight deadline, I rushed through the winding process and after hitting a tangle, decided to loop the hank over my husband’s arms. Then one tangle turned into more, and before I knew it, we finished The Empire Strikes Back with a ball that was a tiny fraction of the size that I needed.

The scary "before" picture.
The scary “before” picture.

As the night went on, I knew I was going to have to get help. I remembered hearing about a group on Ravelry filled with willing yarn detanglers, so I sent a desperate PM to one based in New York City who had recently posted in the group’s thread listing detanglers by location (the WSJ article definitely gave the thread a bit of a boost since I last looked). On Saturday morning, I woke to find a message from Lucy, who lives in Queens and was happy to meet up and take a stab at my mess.

So, I hopped on the 7 train and went to meet Lucy at the famous Nan Xiang Dumpling House. Since the wait was fairly lengthy, and standing in line at the front of the restaurant was not ideal for detangling, we walked over to a nearby cafe and got some tea. We grabbed a table by some large windows in the back and I handed Lucy the bag.

“Beautiful yarn!” she said of the blurple hand-dyed from Sandra of Duck Duck Wool. In a fit of desperation, and because I figured I could at least start my project with what I had managed to wind, I had cut off the ball, so Lucy had to dig a little to find an end and start her work. After a minute or so, she determined it would be best to make an end, so I took out my scissors and she let me decide where to cut.

For the next few hours, as Lucy followed a few different ends through the various tangles, I worked on the start of my gift. Our hands busy, we chatted about all things fiber — the crazy lines at Rhinebeck, how knitting has gotten us to appreciate colors we normally don’t gravitate toward — and also about our families and living in the city. As it got darker and I neared the end of my small ball, Lucy handed me two more large ones. I had enough to finish my project and left Lucy with around 100 yards for her to detangle and use at her leisure.


As she worked, I did ask Lucy about why she enjoys detangling so much, and she said it was a bit like knitting — it’s calming, but also challenging, and I can kind of see it. As knitters and also spinners, we take what is basically a mess of yarn (maybe not quite as messy as a big tangle) or fiber and turn it into something neat and orderly: “It looks like an unruly mess, but it is not true,” Lucy wrote to me in a PM. “It somehow knitted together not the way I (or knitters) wanted. So, for me, there’s not much difference between the detangling and knitting process.”

“You know, it’s definitely a different approach from what Alexander the Great did, so I might never be the great king — but detangling is more… respectful,” she continued. “I’m not sure this is the right way put it down, but I feel that way. Raising sheep for wool, shearing, carding or combing, spinning and dying, takes enormous time and effort. I do not want to waste any of it. I unravel a thing, and repurpose it, and make it out something loveable. Like what we did. … It’s joy that all knitters shared — tangling accidentally adds one more detour to knit a more special thing.”

This “Christmas miracle” is just a testament to the fact that, like I always say, Knitters are awesome.


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16 Responses

  1. Well at least you didn’t throw it across the room and scream, as I have been known to do.
    Glad you summoned help to get it done, that is gorgeous yarn and I LOVE the colour!

  2. I love the challenge of a good detangle. Usually a few not so pleasant words at first. Such a feeling of accomplishment when finished. Thank you for sharing the story.

  3. The process (and the resulting satisfaction) is well know to anyone who has raised children into kite flying or fishing. A mess of yarn is a piece of cake by comparison! 😉

  4. Thank you for sharing that story. I just gave one such mess to my husband, who has much more patience than me. I decided to be clever and only pull out as much yarn as I needed to finish my project. Big mistake!!!! I did manage it, but ended up with a mess very much like the one you showed. Won’t do that again.

  5. I am in the process of winding some beautiful silk merino fingering, it started out fine, but ended up a semi mess. My daughter started helping me, but I gave up and went to bed. This morning after some rest, I tackled the problem again, I am happy to say, the mess is undone, now I can continue to wind my ball to get to my project.

  6. My family ‘helped’ me wind Dec 23 leaving me with Dec 24 detangle- looked like yours but In orange. Frustrating while fixing it but rewarding feeling when finished.

  7. Oh I hope someone lives near me in Vermont who likes to detangle! I have an $$ skein
    that is a mess! Gonna go check it out now!
    But first….I would love to know where to find the nice pattern you show! Thanks!

  8. I am the detangler in my group — the first thing I tell people is “back away from the scissors”. You bought this yarn an paid good $$$ for it, so I actually wind it up from both ends – being careful not to make the tangle tighter. The urge is to pull hard and hope the knots will come undone! It can happen, but more often than not (knot?) it makes it worse. So keep it loose an easy and it will all come apart!

  9. I do enjoy a good Untangle. I agree, it is a bit like knitting, calming, and great satisfaction once done. If you follow the ends you will get from one yo the other.
    I never knew there were “professional detanglers”

  10. I love to handle yarn, whether it is crocheting, winding or untangling. I am so drawn to handle it and feel at peace during the interaction. Seems strange to put it into words…

  11. Pingback: Detangling Yarn | Babycakes Creates

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