Saturday, 5 December 2015

Ode to the Distaff

Handspinning has completely taken over my spare time lately. I work full time and commute for a total of three hours every day, so I need to set goals for my crafting to actually get things done. If I don't, I will just collapse on the sofa when I come home in the evening and do nothing. Sad but true. So a while ago, I decided to try to spin for an absolute minimum of eight hours per week (with a spindle - wheel spinning doesn't count). It's not much, but it's something and it has made a little difference - I'm getting faster for one thing! And since spinning for me partly consists of collapsing perching primly on the sofa anyway - see video below! - it's not even particularly taxing to keep it up.

These days, I almost always spin with a distaff if I have the choice, twirling the spindle with one hand and drafting with the other. It wasn't love at first sight when I started learning this traditional and time-honoured technique, though. I think 'complete and utter frustration' sums up my initial feelings quite accurately. All aspirations of thread control went out the window and it was like starting all over again with only thick-and-thin, useless yarn as the result (useless for my purposes, that is. I don't do art yarn. Not at the moment, anyway). It took a fair amount of practice, but once I got the hang of it, it quickly became my preferred way of spinning. I went from total frustration to 'No more suspended spindling for me, EVER!' in less than 3 months.

The distaff is a fantastic tool - it works as a third hand. Judging from how spinners are depicted in contemporary art, it also seems to be virtually ubiquitous to medieval spindle spinning (there are a few exceptions, of course, like in this early 13th century manuscript, and perhaps this one from the 14th century). Even when more or less suspended spinning is shown - as in this rather rare depiction of a top whorl spindle, for example - the distaff is still there, and the one-hand drafting technique, too:
British Library, 'The Rutland Psalter', Add MS 62925 fol. 86r, c. 1260.
With a distaff to hold the fibres, my hands are free to draft and twirl the spindle and it gives me a much better workning position than suspended spindling without a distaff does. I also find that it's much easier to control the amount of twist that goes into the thread this way (which is kind of important when you spin yarn for historical purposes). In addition, it completely removes the problem of back-spin - that annoying phenomenon when your thread has eaten all the momentum of the turning spindle and it starts going the other way while you're still busy drafting. Many medieval spindle whorls are small with a low moment of inertia, which means they spin fast, but stop turning really quickly and you have to restart them a lot to avoid back-spin when you're spinning suspended. And guess what - the distaff/spindle in hand-technique more or less takes the 'drop' out of 'drop spindle' (a term I've never really understood anyway - it has no Swedish equivalent; here we just have 'sländor' (spindles), plain and simple). Now I don't mind using my precious clay whorls on our hardwood floors at home, because even if the thread breaks, I don't drop them anymore.

Here's a video of me spinning warp thread for weaving, with a distaff made out of a broom stick. When I've spun a length of thread, I stop drafting and add extra twist to it. As I relax the thread to unhitch the half hitch that keeps it on the spindle, I simultaneously check the twist by feeling the resistance as the thread curls back on itself.
More and more medieval reenactors use a distaff and hand-held spindle when spinning these days. It's becoming quite a trend among historical fibre geeks! Usually, I'm not a huge fan of reenactment fads. Far too often they are based on scant sources and result in odd over-representations when suddenly the whole reenactment community is doing the same thing. And people often end up copying other reenactors rather than looking at the sources themselves, which is not the way to go in my opinion. But when it comes to distaffs and spinning, it's a trend that simply can't go wrong! It's raising the authenticity in reenactment displays by showing tools and techniques that were actually common and widespread both geographically and over time.

In art, medieval distaffs appear to be around a metre in length, held under the arm, tucked into the belt, held between the knees while sitting or sometimes mounted on a stand. The Roman or ancient Greek tradition of short, hand-held distaffs doesn't seem to be the way to go for medieval spinning. I've found one medieval image - or rather a sculpture - with what might be a hand-held distaff. It's St Gertrude of Nivelles, a 7th century saint often portrayed spinning and surrounded by rats. However, it might just be that the rest of the distaff has broken off, but I couldn't tell by looking at the statue whether that was the case or not. It's a nice rat, though...
St. Gertrude of Nivelles, wooden sculpture,1390-1400. Originally from Pfarrkirche St. Michael in Spiringen, Switzerland. Swiss National Museum, Zürich. Pix by Vix.
As far as I know, not a whole lot of finds have been identified by archaeologists as distaffs. I mean, a lot of the time they would just be plain sticks, so there's not much to identify really. There's a medieval one from Schloss Gottorf in northern Germany (see below), though, and several distaff heads have been found at medieval Novgorod in Russia. From Staraia Ladoga, also in Russia, there are reported finds of distaffs from as early as the 9th century. Both the ones from Novgorod and those from Staraia Ladoga seem to be 'bat distaffs' with a top section shaped like a paddle, a type that remained popular in Russia well into the 19th century (Sherman 2008). It's not a type that seems to be depicted in European medieval manuscripts, though, and although similar distaffs exist here in Sweden from post-medieval times, I've decided to stick with the straight stick version for now. Although Novgorod traded a lot with Europe through the Hanseatic League in the Middle Ages, I'm personally a little wary of using finds from such a relatively far-off place when my focus is southern Scandinavia/northern Germany (on the other hand, the huge amount of well-preserved wooden objects makes it very difficult not to glance eastwards to Novgorod every once in a while...).
Medieval distaff (and also spindles and parts of niddy-noddies), Schloss Gottorf, Germany. Pix by Vix.
There are many ways of dressing a distaff. The most commonly depicted versions in medieval manuscripts appear to fall into two (very!) broad categories:
- the more or less fluffy fibre bundle, often tied in place by a narrow band
- the cone-shaped fibre bundle, either tied with a band or with some sort of cloth (?) cover, or both. More images of medieval distaffs and spinning can be found over at my Pinterest board Medieval Fibre Preparation & Spinning, where I've also tried to add the original source for all the pins.
'The Holkham Bible', British Library, AddMss 47682, fol. 4v & 6r, 1320-30.
A nun (St. Gertrude?) spinning in the company of a helpful cat. 'Maastricht Hours', British Library, Stowe MS 17, fol. 34r, 1st half of the 14th century.
British Library, MS Royal 10 E IV, fol. 49v, early 14th century.
Another one of those rarely depicted top whorl spindles! 'The Taymouth Hours', British Library, MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 23v, 2nd quarter of the 14th century.
Could this perhaps be an image showing the elusive practice of spinning dyed wool (see this previous post)? 'Ormesby Psalter', Bodleian Library, MS Douce 366, fol. 71v, c. 1310.
Basically, it's perfectly possible to achieve all these different shapes using a simple straight stick as a distaff. The cone-shaped ones may have some sort of structure underneath, perhaps like a 'modern' (19th century) cage distaff or something similar, but it's difficult to tell from the contemporary images exactly what's hiding under the fibres.  

In some cases, it's obvious that the images show flax being spun rather than wool - if the spinner (or monkey, in the case of the illuminated manuscript below) is running the thread through their mouth, it's a pretty good indication of flax (or hemp) spinning, since it's commonly spun wet.
A monkey spinning flax. British Library, Additional 18851 f459, 1480s.
But sometimes people claim you can tell what fibre is being spun in an image just from the shape of the fibre bundle on the distaff. I'm not so sure. Medieval images just aren't detailed enough and most distaff shapes can actually be created with either wool or flax. It's just a matter of how you arrange the fibres. Wool can be gathered into long, thick tops that look very much like flax strick (hackled flax bundles) when tied to a distaff and flax, on the other hand, can be wrapped like candy floss around the distaff head. Which ends up looking rather round and fluffy and wool-like. Long fibres that hang straight down may of course be flax, but then again, this is what my distaff looks like when I'm spinning worsted wool:
Combed wool from the double-coated Värmland sheep, a Swedish landrace breed.
And this is how I go about dressing it:
Top left image: hand-combed tops rolled into little 'bird's nests' for storage. Bottom left image: a wide band of woollen cloth (150x10 cm) with pieces of the tops arranged in layers. Right image: the band and wool rolled around the distaff and secured with a pin and a linen tie. A similar way of doing this can be found at Katrin Kania's blog A Stitchin Time: How I dress my distaff.
Here's another way of getting the fibres onto the distaff; this works very well for industrially prepared tops or for hand-combed wool, but carded rolags can also be tied to the distaff in this way.
Combed tops (or their modern counterpart) can also be wound around the distaff, as may be the case in this image:
'The Queen Mary Psalter', BL Royal 2 B VII, fol 158, between 1310 and 1320.
Modern carded batts or hand-carded (or even just teased) wool collected into a big pile can be rolled into a nice little package like this...
...which looks a lot like the distaff arrangement in this image...
'Speculum humanae salvationis'. GKS 80 2o, fol. 6r, the first half of the 15th century. Det Konglige Bibliotek, Copenhagen, Denmark.

...and also like the Virgin Mary's fibre bundle in this image (but without the angel):

Virgin Mary, pregnant and spinning. Anonymous, c. 1410. Hungarian National Museum, Budapest.
The package can be attached to the distaff at a jaunty angle as in the image above, or simply stuck unceremoniously onto the top of the distaff as it is:
There! Let's start spinning already!
As long as the fibres aren't too sticky, I've found that almost anything goes when it comes to dressing a distaff. A great messy tangle is fine - as long as it's possible to pull the wool off it one-handed, it'll work - but it will affect the thread. Snags, neps and sticky fibres on the distaff naturally make a less even thread, while carefully prepared wool really helps in spinning a smooth thread. Like so many other things, the end result owes so much to the preparations. I often use the tie around the bundle to control the flow of fibres, adjusting it to give me just enough resistance to draft against when I want a non-fuzzy thread. I personally find it helps with a little bit of resistance when I want a smooth thread, but for fluffier yarn I just let twist do most of the drafting for me. At the moment (in between sessions of spinning for weaving), I trying to learn how to do a proper woollen long draw, which of course requires yet another slightly different one-handed drafting technique. I'm starting to get some usable thread out of it now, and it's good practice for the day when I finally get myself a great wheel...

Textiles tools from medieval Novgorod:

Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Volym 4: "From Flax to Linen in Medieval Rus Lands" - Heidi M. Sherman, 2008.

Dressing distaffs:
How I Dress My Distaff- A Stitch inTime

So what IS just sogreat about adistaff? - 15th Century Spinning


barazile, livpåIrland said...

Wonderfully informative post and great references , i am hoping here to get going with distaff spinning soon. Tack sa mycket!

Lena said...

Thanks for a very informative post! You're so right that the ubiquitous medieval distaff is rarely used by modern spinners, and I wonder if that would affect textile research: Do you think spinning with a distaff would significantly change the average spinning rate?

Arachne said...

I'm not sure if/how a distaff affects the rate. It would be interesting to try to study that, but difficult as the individual spinner's preference, habit and relative skill would affect the result so much... But spinning with the spindle in hand as opposed to suspended certainly makes a difference in how you think about and use the spindle. For me, when I'm constantly keeping it in motion with my fingers, the moment of inertia matters a lot less: I keep it spinning for as long as I want, and at the speed I choose. I've also found that I like smaller whorls better for this technique. The ones with a larger diameter tend to get stuck in my skirts more often unless I compensate for that by lifting my twirling arm further from my body (uncomfortable!).

ZipZip said...

Dear Arachne,

Thank you very much for such a clear demonstration and references.

I've been spinning this way a few years with a vintage Eastern European spindle -- sans distaff -- I hold a small roll of wool in my hand. Learned by watching mostly French and Eastern European videos of older women spinning.

It has worked okay, but I do produce rather neppy results at times. Your demo, with its good lighting and steady camera, is excellent in showing how the distaff helps you draft more smoothly.

Have balked at using a distaff because it won't fit in the little workbag that I carry to appointments and other places where one kicks one's heels while waiting interminably for things. Walking around with a stick with fluff on it in our town is likely to raise eyebrows. Gah: no solution to that in sight :}

Now to slow down the video to see how you flip the spindle to add the new half hitch.

Very best,

Natalie in KY, USA

Arachne said...

Lugging a great, big stick around for distaff spinning when not at home is certainly a problem! When going away for a longer time, I put a bag over the woolly end and put it in my backpack where it sticks out like a gigant cotton swab and quickly turns into a public menace if I'm not careful... When commuting to work, I usually spin supported or suspended to avoid that, but some sort of portable, telescoping contraption would perhaps work. I've thought about trying everything from a selfie-stick to a unipod for cameras to one of those collapsible pointer sticks! Still haven't got around to trying it out, though...

I've actually planned to ask my S.O. to film me close-up when I do the half-hitch flip thing - because I want to see what I actually do myself! When I first watched the video, I was surprised at how it looked; I wasn't really aware of what I was doing until I saw it!