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.|
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.
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.|
|Medieval distaff (and also spindles and parts of niddy-noddies), Schloss Gottorf, Germany. Pix by Vix.|
- 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.|
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.|
|Combed wool from the double-coated Värmland sheep, a Swedish landrace breed.|
|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.|
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.|
...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.|
|There! Let's start spinning already!|
References:Textiles tools from medieval Novgorod:
Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Volym 4: "From Flax to Linen in Medieval Rus Lands" - Heidi M. Sherman, 2008.
How I Dress My Distaff- A Stitch inTime
So what IS just sogreat about adistaff? - 15th Century Spinning