What is a swift?

Swifts (also referred to as wool-winders) are unique and instantly-recognizable creations. Used to wind skeins of yarn into balls, swifts were elaborate constructions, oftentimes consisting of more than 100 individual pieces held together by rivets and/or ribbons. The reel, usually made from whalebone and/or ivory, was designed to open up and expand, depending upon desired size, and spin on its central spindle.

Swifts came in a variety of shapes and sizes and were often imaginatively carved and personalized for the woman who received it. Sailors made many such pieces as gifts for their loved ones back home. Many swifts were carved with a clamp so that they could be affixed to the edge of a table. Others were incorporated into bases that featured drawers, pincushions, or spool holders. The swifts on view in the Whaling Museum are part of a remarkable collection of scrimshaw at the Nantucket Historical Association.