Nantucket Antiques, Nantucket MA
Nantucket History & People

Antiques Snippets – Scrimshaw Swifts

Commonly asked questions and misunderstandings about antiques… and the odd or end fascinating bit!

Nantucket Antique Swift, Nantucket MAOne of the most common questions we are asked, almost on a daily basis, is what are these intricate lattice-work devices? When I press them to guess, people most often say a device to hang laundry or dishes to dry. If only these delicate contraptions were that strong! Others guess umbrellas or lampshades. H’mm.

Called a swift, these devices were used to wind yarn into a skein. When wool was spun into yarn on a spinning wheel, the yarn was then wrapped around the swift to keep it from tangling: after the swift was collapsed to a smaller diameter the yarn could be lifted off and tied as a skein. In addition, a skein could be unwound onto a swift to facilitate winding the yarn into a ball. Finally, a ball of yarn could be partially unwound onto the swift and the remainder of the ball held in the cup situated atop the central shaft of the swift; as one knitted, the cage of the swift would slowly rotate to release yarn as needed.

So why did sailors spend countless hours making these intricate devices. They occupied their leisure time while dreaming about loved ones and home: near the top of the list of what they dearly missed… I’m guessing a dry warm pair of wool socks!

Antiques Snippets are provided by Jack Fritsch, proprietor of the Antiques Depot at 2 S. Beach Street – NantucketAntiquesDepot.com .