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Jul 05

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What is a Distaff

Die Spinnerin by Wilhelm Leibl, distaff

Die Spinnerin by Wilhelm Leibl, Oil on Canvas 1892

Wool to Yarn: What is a Distaff

A distaff is a stick or spindle on which wool or flax is wound around to be used for spinning.

So what can you do with a distaff?

Well a distaff allows the spinner to essentially have a third hand. The reason for a distaff is to basically hold the fiber that is going to be spun in an orderly fashion and keep the fiber in a safe place. This allows the spinner to easily draw  fiber out of the bundle.

The distaff also helps keep the fiber away from areas that can cause problems. If you have ever tried to hold a batt or roving while using a drop spindle, I am sure you have already discovered the joy of having the roving become tangled in the drop spindle.

Some of the other benefits of using a distaff is you can pre-draft some fiber and then wrap the fiber on the distaff. This will allow you to hand spin the fiber for a longer time before needing to pre-draft again.

 

Types of Distaff’s

The distaffs can basically be broken down into one of three groups based on the way they are held. There are others ways to classify them, but I feel this way sets them apart the greatest.

distaff

Illustration of a lady using a drop spindle with a staff type distaff

  • Staff Distaff – The fiber is basically wrapped around the end of a staff. This lets the spinner carry around the fiber with them and keeps the fiber from getting all tangled up. A common way to hold the distaff is in the arm that is being used to draw the fiber. Another benefit of this type is that the spinner can place the distaff so they can spin from it without having to hold onto the distaff. It should be noted that a lot of spinners will still hold this type of distaff even while sitting down.
  • Attached Distaff – This is very similar to the staff version, the only difference is this type of distaff is permanently attached to an item. This can be seen on some types of spinning wheels such as the first photo on the top of this page. These are mainly the custom types and will vary from spinner to spinner on where they want their fiber to come from.
  • Wrist Distaff – Last but not least is the wrist distaff. I find this type to be the most unique. I have seen mainly two different ways to use the wrist distaff. One version has the distaff acting like a rubber band and holding the fiber close to the spinners arm. The second type looks like a huge bracelet. The fiber is wrapped around leaders that dangle down from the wrist distaff.
distaff

Lady teaching girls how to use a drop spindle with a distaff

How Popular are Distaff’s

It should also be noted that a distaff was so popular it had its own day named after it. Well that is not exactly how Distaff Day came around. But if you want to know Distaff Day, also known as Roc Day, is January 7th.  This is the day after the twelve days of Christmas (or the day after the Epiphany. This also marks the first day of King Cake Season Yummy!!) The importance of this day was that the women were allowed to return back to their household chores. If you are curious, the men did not return to the plough till the following Monday, which was usually called Plough Day. Distaff day was also a day for pranks as well.

How to use a Distaff

Here is a short video showing how to use a wrist distaff with a drop spindle. Hope you enjoy

 

As an added bonus here is a nice little poem I found by Robert Herrick.

St. Distaff’s Day; Or, the Morrow after Twelfth-day

Partly work and partly play
You must on St. Distaffs Day:
From the plough soon free your team;
Then cane home and fother them:
If the maids a-spinning go,
Burn the flax and fire the tow.
Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff’ all the right:
Then bid Christmas sport good night,
And next morrow every one
To his own vocation.’