When you buy yarn, it can come in different types of forms. One of those, commonly used by indie dyers, is the hank -- that large loop of yarn. Most of you know that you should wind that yarn into a ball or cake before working with it, but that's the first tip. Do not work directly from the loop of yarn, even if you have a mini skein. Odds are it will become tangled and bring frustration rather than relaxation to your crafting time.
Instead, create a ball or cake. You can wind a ball by hand or use a tool such as a nostepinne. Or you can use a ball winder, which creates a nice neat cake...at least it does when used correctly.* The companion tool for the ball winder is the swift. You can use something like the back of a straight-back chair or your friend's hands or your knees instead of a swift, but if you can, try to get a swift to make your winding life much easier.
Quick note on swifts: There are several different types of swifts available, the most popular being the umbrella swift. I actually don't like umbrella swifts as I find them fiddly to use and often result in me dropping the yarn as I try to put it on the swift. Instead, I use a horizontal swift (aka Amish swift). So if you are having a hard time with your umbrella swift or if you don't yet have a swift, I'd recommend looking into this option.
I've created a video that goes through the process of taking yarn from the looped hank to a cake using a swift and ball winder and have included several tips within the video. Here are a few of them:
Tip 1: Open the loop and check to make sure all the yarn is going in the right direction. This is what those choke ties on the yarn can tell you, so check at those locations.
Tip 2: Give the loop a couple of good snaps before putting it on the swift. (I demonstrate what I mean by this in the video.)
Tip 3: Watch the tension on the yarn on the swift. You want the loop to be not too loose and not too tight. You don't need to stretch the yarn out super tight on the swift!
Tip 4: Do not cut the ties until the yarn is on the swift and you've positioned it. Those ties are the only thing keeping the yarn nicely organized. Don't get rid of them until you're completely ready.
Tip 5: When turning the crank on the ball winder, pick a speed and stick with it. Like the tension, you want something in the middle for speed. Not too fast (or your cake will be super tight, which is bad for the yarn) and not too loose (or your cake will fall apart). I know you want to get the yarn wound as fast as possible so you can start working with it, but a steady medium speed will get the neatest cake.
Tip 6: Let the yarn (between the swift and winder) run gently through your fingers as you wind. You don't want to hold the yarn, just lightly guide it. This allows you to keep an even tension on the yarn as it's winding and can also help you notice if there are any knots in the yarn. As in the other tips, don't put too much tension here. It is bad for the yarn as well as your fingers.
For more specifics and to see these tips in action, be sure to watch the video.
*Note: If you have a very slippery yarn such as bamboo or silk, I recommend hand winding into a ball instead of using a ball winder so you can have more control over the slippery threads.