Deep in my dissertation research, I discovered the existence of a very humble textile tool that I found oh-so appealing, and I thought I should share it with you. Meet the “niks” (sometimes also known as “viiul”), a small wooden stick with holes in either end that has been widely used in Estonia while winding yarn or thread.
I frequently complain when winding yarn that abrades my hands. Even worse if it’s linen! This little tool keeps your hands intact and saves your yarn from tangles. Weavers used them to wind really tight balls of linen thread for warping. That way, the thread wouldn’t tangle as it unwound.
When they made a niks, people selected wood that would have a really wide pith (the softer, often darker wood running down the center of the stick). In Ella Koern’s 1942 MA thesis, Lõngavalmistamisest Eestis, she says that they were so commonly made from the kuslapuu (Lonicera xylosteum), or fly honeysuckle, that it was sometimes called niksipuu. They were also made out of elder wood, and sometimes even bone!
If you want to make one yourself, it’s easy. Cut a stick about 10-15 cm long, but when you select the wood, think about the thickness that will be best for the size of your hand. Make a perpendicular cut about 1-2 cm from each end, but only cut just deep enough to get past the pith. The cuts should be on opposite sides of the stick. Now, use a knife to carve at an angle toward your cut, as you can see in the photo. I do this a little at a time, gradually making a wider angle. Once you’ve carved this out, either use an awl or a drill to get the pith out of that short end. You are only putting your thread through the end, not down the middle of the whole stick, so just take out that little bit. Do the same thing on the other side. Now, do a little sanding to keep the thread from snagging, and you’re done!
As you use it, play around with the angle at which you’re holding it relative to the ball of yarn or niddy noddy that you are winding. You’ll find that you can change the tension this way.
The Estonian museums portal, muis.ee, has over 200 listings for the search term “niks”, and one of the most interesting things to me in looking at them is noticing the wear marks that show how the owner habitually threaded the yarn. Sometimes you can see that the owner liked to thread it through just one end, and some others threaded through both ends.
This is one of my favorite things about tools — the marks of wear show the habitual movements of people who are long gone. If we pay attention, those folks can still teach us so much through these little echoes of past handwork.