January 7, 2008

Distaff Day

In days of old, today, which is the day after Epiphany, women returned to their spinning after the holiday season of Christmas. I know of this day because I have a spinning wheel and enjoy spinning yarn from wool. And in this world of spinning, I enjoy the little tidbits of history I learn.

Proverbs 31:19 uses the word distaff: "She stretches out her hands to the distaff, and her hand holds the spindle". It's been written about thru the ages, and Chaucer classed this art among the natural endowments of the fair sex: "Deceit, weeping, spinning, God hath given to women kindly, while they may live". (We've come a long way baby!)

If you wanted clothing to cover yourself, beyond wearing fig leaves or animal skins, a fiber would need to be twisted into a thread. Then it could be crocheted, knit, or woven into a textile material. The twisting of fiber probably was discovered about the same timing as fire, the lever, and then the wheel.

With industrialization we don't have to spin anymore. This puts spinning in the category of 'heirloom art'. Why would anyone want to spin? I like is because it's fun and relaxing. I can even do it while watching movies. Heirloom art brings us into the process of creating. Heirloom by definition means something of value that is passed down through the generations. Not only its beauty but the fact that your hands created it gives it value.

I have demonstrated spinning at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, and other places. It seems men and boys are more fascinated with the process than females, but I think it's because of the workmanship of my spinning wheel - it's beautiful. I had a man watch for a long time and ask me, "How many miles do you figure you're doing with your feet treadling? How many yards of thread in say a minute, or hour? How long would it take you to get enough and make me a sweater?"

People in days of old didn't have many idle moments, and spinning was one of those very necessary jobs. Hand-held distaffs and spindles were the beginning. Leonardo da Vinci probably made the earliest drawings of the spinning wheel's design. The distaff is different from my spinning wheel. It's used primarily for spinning flax, which is a very long fiber. Once the flax plant is soaked and pounded and the fibers teased apart, they can be woven into linen. It's a much more difficult process than making wool or cotton thread, and it's harder on your hands.

In many cultures, a drop-spindle is still the primary tool, and even used by kids walking to school. In our early American history, the colonists were required to give England a quota of yarn and woven material. In order to meet that demand, many single women were taken into households to spin - thus the name "spinster".
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