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Distaff Side of the Family?

Roman woman spinning yarn with a distaff and drop spindle

It can be hard to grasp the fundamental importance of the act of spinning for our ancestors. Nobody currently alive in virtually any family in a developed nation has a memory of mother or grandmother spinning yarn for cloth to be used in their own household. Since people tend to gather in communities and develop trade, the practice of spinning your own yarn for cloth may have become a very distant memory. Even the Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth (1620) depended on the next ship to bring them cloth as they did not have room for spinning wheels (though wheels did arrive on subsequent ships).

Yet, daily spinning in homes was so important to the family for thousands upon thousands of years that the practice affected our very language. “Distaff” is an Old English word, originating at least as early as the 5th century in what is now England and southern Scotland. People, we are talking the 400’s here. We got Visigoths invading Italy, we got gladiators killing war prisoners and Christians, Augustine is writing The City of God, and women in homes are spinning, spinning, spinning the yarn for their household’s clothing.

Distaff & Fibers

Spinning was a daily task, unless you were very rich and bought your cloth or hired your spinners, or very poor, and couldn’t afford the wool or flax.

Oh, by the way, all that spinning was done on a hand-held drop spindle, as the spinning wheel wasn’t invented for another thousand years.

The word “distaff” is of course a replacement for whatever word represented the task in the previous language, because though the words may differ, the woman in the household spinning yarn remained a constant.  She was just represented by different words as the cultures and their languages moved around her.

Twisting Spindle

All of that is to say that women and spinning were so synonymous, that between the 5th and 14th centuries (400 AD to 1300’s) distaff was used to represent female-ness, as we use maternal today. The distaff side of the family is the maternal side (the spear side of the family is the male side).

This representation of maternal stayed with our modern English language well into the 1700-1800’s.

Image taken from:  William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:  A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875., p. 565.

Ancient Spindles

I’m not sure how long it will take me to get over being flabbergasted at the discovery that the spinning wheel is modern compared to the length of time humanity has been wearing clothing.  Which of course means that prior to the 14th century (12th in China) every length of thread or yarn on earth was spun with a spindle and a pair of human hands. Though trade centers probably developed very early in human history for cloth as it did for other necessities, still somebody had to take that wool or flax and turn it into usable thread and yarn.

Two Egyptian Spindles and a Net Needle

Pictured here are two spindles and a netting needle from ancient Egyptian finds. This is the tool that wove history! (Honestly now, aren’t you amazed??) I read recently that the Egyptians didn’t wear much wool; they mainly spun flax into linen cloth for clothing. But the tool remained the same across all cultures, whether you spun from sheep, goats, camels, buffalo or flax or silk.

Notice the notch in the top of this spindle. This marks the place where the magic happens in spinning. Loose plant or animal fibers are held in one hand, and fed onto a device that “spins” the fibers, which causes them to grab onto each other and basically lock together. That is an astounding bit of physical science and physics all its own that we’ll get to one day!

Notice the notch!
Ancient Egyptian Spinning Tools

This photo was taken of a case in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt and shows an ancient carder, spindle, and two whorls (those round disks at the top). Carders were used to pull the fibers in the same direction to make spinning more efficient. The whorls were used on the spindle to change the thickness of the thread/yarn being spun by increasing or decreasing the amount of “spin” added to the fibers.

Hey, now the political practice of spinning makes a lot more sense! The aides are the “whorls” that control how thick or thin the cover stories need to be!

History Has Been Woven by a Stick — The Astonishing Drop Spindle

As mentioned in the previous post, I am completely flabbergasted by the importance of the drop spindle in over 10,000 years of human history.  The spindle was the only tool for spinning threads and yarns to make everything on earth ever made from fabric or cloth, up until recent history (read more here about the history of the spinning wheel).

WOW! This is the tool that spun the world!

Here is a picture of a drop spindle and some beautifully dyed bamboo yarn that MonChere purchased as her first experiment into spinning.

She spun amazingly well, as I’ve hear that bamboo is not easily spun!

But now you can see how basic and simple the spindle is, and if you weren’t flabbergasted before, I hope you are now.  Otherwise, you might be completely overtaken with the mundane-ness of buying your clothing at the store and need a shake up. Or you might be dead.

MonChere gave the unspun bamboo to Arabella to spin on her wheel, and here is the delightful result (Arabella is quite the spinner).

The “Modern” Spinning Wheel?

Because we live in a time when clothing is simply something we grab off a rack in a store, we’ve lost appreciation for what it takes to make fabric or cloth of any kind.  We rarely think of it at all–unless we were raised in sewing homes, like me, where our mothers measured, pinned, and cut large batches of cloth into pieces they would sew into our tops, shorts and matching Easter dresses.  Or maybe you’ve admired a period costume in a film and given a nod to the past ideas of spinning or whatever else it took to make such things.  That was me.  Until I started spinning myself.  (Yes, it was only 2 weeks ago!)

My natural curiosity got to me and I started wondering about origins of spinning wheels, who invented what, and so forth.  So I dove in to take a look, and I am simply flabbergasted at what I have discovered. Flabbergasted.

The spinning wheel itself is actually a very modern device, and used in only about 8% of the time that humanity has been wearing clothes and making cloth.  The very first images and mentions of spinning wheels only date back a mere 760 years. Here are some key context points:  The Magna Carta was established in 1212, Marco Polo was packing for China in 1271, and the Vikings were settling down and raising sheep instead of pillaging. (Okay, these things seem old, I’ll admit, especially compared to the latest version of MicroSoft Windows.  But it’s only 800 years!  We’ve been wearing clothes a lot longer than 800 years!!)

So, I next had to ask:  What on earth was used prior to 1250, and the invention of the spinning wheel?

The fiber: animal wool or hair, fibrous plants such as reeds, bamboo & flax, and silk

The spinning tool: a spindle and a pair of hands

The fibers have stayed consistent throughout history and are an assortment of animal and plant fibers. A spindle is basically a stick (or bone or other hard material carved like a stick) upon which fiber is twirled to produce a “twist” while the fibers are also being slowly drawn apart.  The fibers “twist” into yarn, and if they’ve first been “combed” in the same direction, the fibers “twist” even more easily. That is spinning in a nutshell.  But what’s so astonishing is that for 11,200 years every piece of cloth or fabric or yarn or thread was produced by a pair of human hands on a stick.

Now aren’t you flabbergasted, too?