I occasionally get questions about how to unravel a large skein of sock yarn the correct way. If not done correctly, it can result in hopelessly tangled yarn and a miserable start to your project.
Large skeins of hand dyed yarn can be especially challenging at times to unravel. They can be upwards of 500 yards. Having a basic understanding of how the skein is put together and the ways to take it apart will save you a lot of frustration.
A skein is created using a skein winding device of some type. I have one that runs with a motor and winds each wrap of the skein in whatever size I set it for. It wraps it neatly around and around in loops as it takes the yarn off a cone or ball. When you reach the end of the skein, you tie the two ends of the skein together. While it is on the winder, you tie several ties evenly around the skein - usually 4 or more.
This keeps the yarn in order so it can be unwound which is necessary in order to use it.
When you are ready to take it off the skeins, you need to place it so that the circle of loops is over something that will keep that same configuration while it is unwound. Some people loop it over their knees or over the back of a chair. The ideal thing to use is a swift that holds the skein firmly in place and moves freely as you pull it off around in a circle.
When you are looking a really big skein of yarn with several yards on it, see if you can determine which is the inner beginning thread and which is the end that was at the outer part when it was wound. Usually, the outer thread will come off a bit easier. It is helpful to get it on your knee or swift so it is not twisted and that outer thread if on the outside all the way around. Sometimes it is hard to tell which end to start with so just do the best you can.
Once it is secured around knees, chair or swift, cut the ties and begin to roll your ball, looping around each loop as you go. If you are using you knees, you have to be careful not to let any of the loops come loose and sneak to the other side of your circle as that will create a tangle. Sometimes they want to slip off you knee and you might not notice. Once this happens, it can be hard to tell which side of the loop they belong on.
As you go, resist the temptation to do the over under strands, thinking the skein is tangled somehow. It is not. If you think about the science of how it goes together, it does not start out tangled or get tangled half way through. If you start doing the over under stuff, then it is tangled and you will have to keep doing the over under until it gets free which could be the whole length of your skein.
If you find a spot that looks like the yarn is wrapped around another strand, gently work at it by tugging lightly until it frees itself. Hand dyed yarn especially can be twisted in a few spots from the dyeing process. It should pull free and continue on unwinding easily.
Occasionally, the twist just seems like it can't be released. By the laws of science, it can, but sometimes we give up and decide to do the over under technique to free it. If you do this as a last resort, just know that you are going to have to do it for several rows , possibly to the end and take it slowly.
Never, never remove it from the swift or your knee, or chair and lie it down any time during the process. If you do, you will have a mess. Even near the end of the skein, when it looks safe to take it off, I would not. You will be surprised how much of a mess you can make.
This technique of skeining yarn can also be used in reverse, if you have yarn that you don't want to get tangled from the balls and you want to store it. I can't tell you how many times I have looked into a basket or bin of yarn on balls and all the ends are wrapped around all over and tangled with other skeins. Even if I have not been in the basket or messed with it, it seems to happen. I really think yarn balls have dance parties when we are not around.
I hope this is helpful to prevent the frustration that comes with a tangled mess of yarn.