Jan. 7 — St. Distaff’s Day

There is not really a St. Distaff in the calendar of saints. “In times past,” as folklore says, St. Distaff’s Day was observed on the day following Twelfth Night, when all women returned to their work of spinning thread after the 12 days of Christmas. This seems to imply that the women were not working during those 12 days. Anthony Fitzherbert wrote in his Boke of Husbandrie (1523) that spinning “… saveth a woman from being idle…” We would certainly not want to see them idle, those women. The distaff, so long associated with the spinning wheel, well represents the work of women, and today St. Distaff’s Day is still tongue-in-cheekly kept in a spinning woman’s calendar.
French spinner with a great big distaff

Here you see a postcard photo of a French woman and her wheel, and a great long distaff loaded with flax. I think she’s posing there by the archway since she seems to have a firm hold on the flyer of her wheel. This is exactly what I would do if I were asked to pose, standing, beside my wheel when I had been spinning. “Show us the thread!” “Ouí, OK,” I’d say, and would draw some off the bobbin and hold onto the flyer to keep things from getting away. “Hold up that thing now, that’s the spindle, right?” “No, thees eez not a spindle. Thees eez a distaff.” and I would put the distaff under one arm and support it on the other wrist, so to show the thread and the distaff to advantage, and still I would hold onto that flyer.

This is a Saxony wheel, a style that originated in Europe in the 16th Century. They’re still popular. That is, they are popular among hand-spinners, who may not number greatly in the population these days. On some wheels, the distaff would have been mounted vertically onto the wheel rather than held by the spinner.

I apologize to my spinning friends now, who know what follows, but some of you, my readers, are not spinners, and this will be new to you. Here is how a treadle-driven spinning wheel works: The drive wheel on a Saxon wheel extends off one side of the table; the mother of all with its upright maidens, flyer and bobbin rests at the other end above a screw-operated tensioning device. The last can be seen sticking out from the end of the table. The footman rises from the back corner (that is, the corner away from the spinner) of the treadle to the wheel axle crank, driving the large wheel as the spinner operates the treadle with her foot. The drive band transfers the motion of the wheel to the whorl of the flyer, causing it to turn much faster than the drive wheel itself (like the chain drive of a bicycle). The fiber as it is spun is drawn in by way of the tension adjustment that regulates the amount of slack between the drive wheel and the flyer whorl (or in some cases, the bobbin whorl) and accumulates on the turning bobbin in the flyer. Clear? I thought so.

Now, this next woman is clearly distracted and not really paying attention to her work.

Distracted spinner with a loaded distaff

Perhaps she would prefer to be doing something other than attending to her spinning.

Notice the differences between the two wheels. This second wheel, is known as a Castle Wheel. It has generally the same parts doing the same things as the Saxon wheel, but they are arranged vertically. Castle wheels are practical from the standpoint of saving space, and modern design spinning wheels often show their relationship to older traditions in this arrangement of parts.

Here below is a lady who is completely out of her milieu. Click on her to make her bigger — she wouldn’t fit well in my margins.

Pabst spinner

She’s wearing an Arthurian legend style gown, and sitting before a Saxony wheel which, as we have learned, she could not have had in her time. Further, she is addressing the wrong end of the machine. Make the picture as large as you can, because there is a lot of visual distraction there. The woman is at the drive wheel, not the flyer. It’s common for people who do not spin to think the thread goes around the big wheel, and when they first watch a spinner at work, they have trouble seeing what is actually going on. The big wheel is an accelerator for the flyer whorl, and that’s what makes the fiber twist into thread. All the action takes place at the flyer end of the machine. Maybe if it were not called a spinning wheel it would be easier to understand.

But I have digressed. This lady has a distaff as well, though it isn’t doing her much good. She is advertising the virtues of Pabst Malt Extract. She says, “Here is a truth you should know. A truth for the weary mind. If you take Pabst Malt Extract you will drop off to restful slumber the minute your head touches the pillow. It……………Brings Strength. It quiets the nerves, rounds the form, builds, braces and lifts the body and brain from weakness to power. Gives youthful vigor………………. To win back your health take Pabst……………….. Malt Extract.”

We were discussing the distaff, however. At last I would like to share with you an earlier portrayal of the distaff in use. Below is a page from the Luttrell Psalter, written and decorated by anonymous scribes and artists around 1330. This is  Psalm 31. Note the woman in the middle of the right margin who is smiting her poor man with her distaff, and he, the Psalmist I presume, pleads for rescue. He must have done something very wrong, and it’s right he should pray God for relief.

Luttrell Psalter, Psalm 31

Best to you all on St. Distaff’s day, 2008!

Published in: Uncategorized on January 6, 2008 at 8:24 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. So that’s what a distaff is! I’d always thought it meant “wife” altho an online dictionary I just found defines it – after its primary definition as an actual staff – as women’s work or women as a group, not apparently as individuals. I’m glad I never used the word.

  2. George —
    You are not far wrong. The “distaff side” and the “spear side” once were legal terms distinguishing the inheritance rights of female and male children. The distaff did become a synonym for woman herself. A French proverb goes: “The crown of France never falls to the distaff.”


  3. So–that’s the dichotomy between spear and distaff: Men need Pabst Blue Ribbon beer while women are lulled to dreams by their tenure at the spinning wheel. (;->)
    But re your Psalm 31 illustration: I’m puzzled how the distaff-whacker might relate what the psalm says??? Any thoughts?

    I very much enjoy your writing and its content, Susan, and am glad Richard reminds the class listserv of the Skepweaver blog

  4. Pat —

    I am not the one to consult regarding Biblical interpretation, but on the face of it, it seems the Psalm is a plea for succor: “In you, LORD, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame. In your justice deliver me; incline your ear to me; make haste to rescue me!” That woman looks like she’s about to take his head off, a good moment in which to pray for deliverance! The Psalm goes on to talk about various terrors, idols, miseries and wicked ones: “I hear the whispers of the crowd; terrors are all around me,” some of which are illustrated in the margin of the page. I think it’s a straightforward one.

    Thanks for the comment. I’m pleased to know someone enjoys it.


    PS: The Pabst ad doesn’t specifically say the malt extract is only for the use of gentlemen. Surely the distaff side will benefit from its virtues as well.

  5. Hi, Susan,

    One small correction: Twelfth Night is Jan. 5th in the evening. Jan. 6 is The Feast of the Epiphany. St. Distaff’s day, I think, follows Epiphany, not Twelfth Night. ON Twelfth Night, everyone gets mightily drunk and would probably be MUCH too hungover to spin the next a.m. Need a day to recover. The Orthodox call Epiphany Little Christmas, the day the Wise Men (if you like, or the Magi, or the Astrologers, the Scientists of their day) came with symbolic gifts for the baby Jesus, probably happened, if at all, two years after Christmas, originally. (Remember, Herod had all the babies two years and under killed? No point in that if the babe was only 12 days old!)

  6. I am corrected. Richard’s Dad will be disappointed, however, since he has always celebrated his birthday as coming at Twelfth Night, on the 6th. (Shh. We won’t tell him!)


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