Remember the Distaff
By: Robin Goatey
New for 2020, my festival class “Remember the Distaff” will focus on the ancient distaff tool, which has been used in spinning in its myriad forms. The class will be offered at most Midwestern fiber festivals.
As a fiber tool maker, research is always underway in various publications for unusual or forgotten “fiber tools” that have been used in spinning and weaving. Sources include anthropology journals, archaeology publications, Smithsonian ethnographic reports from the 1800s and online resources through the British Museum.
Among the interesting fiber tool forms that have been forgotten is the distaff. If you find any early illustration of spinning activities, more likely than not, a Distaff will be illustrated. Some of the best and most beautiful early examples of spinning activities are portrayed on pottery called “Etruscan Redware.” When spinning is portrayed on it, there is usually a spindle in one hand and a distaff in the other.
A Brief History of Distaffs
Distaffs come in a wide variety of forms from different cultures and, just like the spindle whorls that are so common in archaeology digs, distaffs are often misidentified. A great example of a commonly mislabeled distaff is the Etruscan Ring Distaff. The British Museum had examples that were listed in their catalog as stirring sticks for cooking.
The Ring Distaff is a favorite of mine to make and is an elegant, ergonomic, easy-to-use tool. Examples from classical Rome and Greece are made of bronze, tinned copper, silver, wood or glass. Most of the Roman glass Ring Distaffs are broken at the ring, but they all show amazing workmanship for items that were made, “Long ago when lanterns burned.”
The Osberg Distaff was found in the Osberg Ship Burial, along with an almost mythical assortment of high-grade Viking goods, including other fiber tools. Just like the Ring Distaff, the Osberg Distaff is made to store roving above the hand while spinning and is an elegant turning to make.
Other distaff forms include the relatively common Wrist Distaff. It is currently being made in an innovative number of ways. The Bodice Distaff of the Medieval Period is a long stick that usually had a decorative turned top and two weighted, decorative ribbons for tying up a bunch of spinning fibers.
Distaffs were used for bast fibers and animal fibers, and primarily for wool in Europe. The creation of the spinning wheel in the 1400s led to a profusion of highly decorated distaff types that were mounted as part of the spinning wheel.
What other types of distaffs from other cultures are waiting to be discovered? Egypt, Central Asia, South America, Africa, Japan and China all had ancient, unique and amazing spinning traditions. I imagine they also have tools that are just waiting to be remembered and brought back to life.
Robin Goatey is a periodic John C. Campbell Folk School instructor, woodcarver, woodturner, broom maker and folkways instructor. He is also a student of folklore, ancient metallurgy, spinning, tapestry weaving, glass making, ceramics and lapidary work. Making heirloom-quality, handmade items based on the ancient guild trades, and sharing folkways skills, are the main focus of his practice and life. Goatey is past president of The Artisans Guild of Southern Illinois and an award-winning craftsman who participates in the global marketplace for handmade goods. He helped establish The Dancing Goats craft business in 1987 and maintains an online presence through the website, YouTube and Instagram, among other sites.