International Distaff Day

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Between quarantining for nearly a year and subsequent skyrocketing prices on many of our everyday necessities, more and more people are exploring the benefits of cultivating some of the endangered heritage and homemaking arts. From canning to sewing to baking bread, our office has a full time Family and Consumer Sciences agent to help answer any questions you may have as you transition from store bought to homemade.

Going way way back in the history of the heritage arts, today we are celebrating International Distaff Day. And unless you really, really enjoyed reading Rumpelstiltskin or Sleeping Beauty as a child, and took an active interest in the spinning wheel, you may very well be asking yourself, what in the world is a distaff?

painting of a woman spinning yarn

Spinning in Art: Jozef Hanula, Spinner, 1904-1910, Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava, Slovakia.

Before there was spun fiber, clothing was made primarily from leather, fur, and woven grasses. By 3300 BCE, humans had learned how to spin various natural fibers into thread that could be loomed for fabric. However, before the invention of the spinning wheel in the Middle Ages, this was done using two pieces of wood, a distaff and a spindle. The distaff held what can be described as a “fluff” of raw fibers (looking remarkably like cotton candy on a stick), and was tucked up under the spinner’s arm or between the knees, leaving both hands free to pinch and spin the fibers. Once the fiber was spun into a thread, the spinner looped the yarn onto the spindle.



While the spinning wheel made this process infinitely easier, the process and parts remained relatively unchanged. Fluffs of unspun fibers on a distaff are twisted together into yarn and then spun onto a spindle. Further along in history, the industrial revolution made this process almost entirely automated, thus relegating this skill into the vestiges of endangered vocations.

Fortunately, in Henderson County, there are community members committed to preserving the fiber arts. The Heritage Weavers and Fiber Artists of Western North Carolina have collaborated with Historic Johnson Farms and offer a wide range of classes on the fiber arts, including spinning. Visit these sites to learn more about their classes. Happy International Distaff Day!

Henderson County Library Calendar

Historic Johnson Farm – Fiber Arts

Heritage Weavers