BB posted her Virtual Christmas Gifts to the blogosphere friends today.
She got me this swift and ball winder. I'm in love with it as a gift, even without ever getting a real one. I promised to explain how it all works in a thank you comment that isn't appearing just yet.
A swift is an item that holds your yarn skein while you wind it into a ball. The kind that BB got me is an umbrella swift that clamps to a table. There are other kinds of swifts, as well as ways to hold your yarn during ball winding. A frequent pseudo-swift is another person's arms (preferably someone who will get so sick of it that they buy you a swift) or a chair back.
The umbrella swift looks like a broken umbrella because it has a very similar mechanism that is essentially infinitely adjustable with in range of circumferences, depending on how far up you push the center. The skein is untwisted so that it is one big loop, and then put onto the swift around the Xes. The skein is then expanded so that the skein is held taut. The swift is a wonderful invention not only when considering how tired a human pseudo-swift's arms can become, but also because it spins.
The broken umbrella part of the swift is attached to a center post, around which it rotates. Good swifts have a bearing of some sort in there. This is an important part of being a swift because otherwise the person winding the ball must walk around and around the tightly held loop.
The center post goes into some sort of base. Most swifts clamp to a table or countertop, others have a weightier base that lets it sit wherever there is a surface.
Dragonfly Turnings makes some really super, simple, no-clamp swifts. You can check them out here. If I ever get a swift, instead of using my feet, I will probably get one of theirs. It is simple, attractive and I don't really have a dedicated work table to clamp it onto. I also think that it is more likely that I will get around to getting a swift long before I find a man willing to hold my yarn.
On to the ball winder. The one shown is a very standard issue, plastic ball winder. You hook the yarn onto the center core and turn the handle. The core moves in a strange pattern that creates a cylindrical, center-pull yarn ball. They are neat to have, but I hear that they wear out over time and sometimes can't handle the fussier yarns.
My preference, due to their relative cheapness and portability, is a nostepinde. It is pretty much a thick, tapered stick. Before my aunt bought me one for Christmas (but I got to take it home after Thanksgiving), I used the wisk handle and then one of the center posts for my niddy noddy (the one to make it one yard). I find that the balls made are very good both for knitting from and plying (instead of an Andean plying bracelet).
I hope that this all helps with the "what the heck is that?" reaction to seeing a swift. Post any questions in the comments and I'll edit the post.