Swifts are used to wind skeins of yarn into balls. Historic examples are often elaborately constructed, sometimes consisting of more than 100 individual pieces held together by rivets or ribbons. The cage, made from wood or whalebone, was designed to open up and expand and spin on its central spindle.
Swifts came in a variety of sizes and were often imaginatively carved and personalized for the women who received them. Whalebone examples were often made by sailors as gifts for loved ones. 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.