What’s so Great about a Distaff?

Something you notice in medieval spinners is that whenever they spin they seem to be using distaffs to hold the fibre. The link with the distaff and spinning was so strong that the female side of the family got the name the “distaff side”. It’s not just medieval Europe, either. In my research of cultures around the world anywhere I find people still using a spindle to produce thread I tend to find them using a distaff. Compare this to cultures where our thread and fabrics are produced in factories and spinning is more of a hobby there is a tendency not to use distaffs. Or to use a small one around the wrist instead of a large stick.


I think the reason for this is in cultures where they must spin with a spindle or go naked, spinning is a constant task. I read stories of children spinning while playing, women spinning while walking to the market or watching sheep.



You can see here this lady has put up her spindle to feed the chickens, but she was probably spinning on her way to the chickens.

The key here is spinning for a length of time and spinning while being active. Yes, you can carry a basket full of wool and tuck it up into your sleeve as you go, but I guess putting it on a big stick keeps it all together. If you’re only spinning as a hobby you’re more likely to do it while sitting in front of the telly. Even if you spin during a long car journey you’re still in the one spot.

The spinning I’ve been doing involves me having my stash of fibre on the ground next to me and me picking up more as I need it. I guess this is the same thing as carrying it around in a basket or an apron. It’s not that inconvenient and I think a great big pole to lug around WOULD be, even if it keeps everything together. Why did the use a distaff? Well, for the use of one to be so wide spread throughout history there must be some good things about it. And there’s only one way to find out…

Enter the wooden dowel from the craft shop.

Because I don’t want to go to a heap of effort for my first distaff I bought a wooden dowel from a craft shop, popped a length of flax tow over it and criss-crossed a bit of ribbon over it to secure it.

The verdict? Well, It’s not too bad. Not bad at all. In the picture above I’ve had it stood in a corner and been spinning from it and it works pretty well. I thought it would be far too short to put through my belt, but when I spun down to the length that I had above I stuck it through my belt. The first time was a disaster but the second time it worked perfectly. The difference? The first time I tried it with a modern belt containing elastic at my natural waist and the second time I used my leather belt I wear with my 1480 dresses and I wore it on my ribs where the high waist of my Italian dresses sit.  The high waist brought it that much higher and out of the way of most of my body’s curves. It worked really well. I think a longer stick would work better at my natural waist with a proper leather belt.

As you can see from the picture I made sure to draft evenly from both sides of the distaff, but that was pretty easy to do.  Using a distaff is quite different because instead of holding the fibre in your left hand you have a spare hand to hold it so your left hand can pull the fibre away from the supply when you draft it. When I was drafting the flax from my shoulder I found that I had to keep picking up the fibre supply and moving it away. I have fewer tangles with the distaff and I never have to worry about getting a new lot of fibre. I only have to worry about joining the thread when I break it, not each time when I run out of fibre. What else can I say? I love my distaff. It helps when I’m sitting doing nothing but I can also see it helping if I was wondering around doing stuff.

Here’s how my spinning is going. You cans see how crappy my spindle is, but it works! That’s all for now. Next time I’ll be re-vamping my spindles with clay whorls.



Can I call this Experimental Archaeology yet?

There’s only so much looking at pictures and videos can do for you when trying to figure out how people spun. At some stage you’re going to have to just pick up a spindle, give it a go and see what works.

Of course, the first then I did was sit down and order a bunch of stuff from the internet, but with internet ordering comes the wait of up to a month for your goodies. So I got a dowel, whittled it down with a craft knife to a point on one end and a taper on the other and added a bunch of hairties to make a whorl.

Because I needed something to spin I dug around in my stash and pulled out some wool designed for  needle felting and spun that. I spun from the fold, and I used my spindle supported in a little bowl to start off with. No, I don’t have any evidence for this but I’m learning. I figure that if I don’t have to worry about keeping the spindle in the air I can work on my drafting and twist and other things.

Here’s my first attempt. I plied it because it wasn’t the strongest piece of string in the world. It could be worse for a first go. To ply it I just made a ball and pulled from the centre and the outside at the same time and spun it to ply it.

Just as I was getting bored of the felting wool my flax tow arrived. Flax tow is the waste from making line flax which comes in stricks. This is the beautiful long stuff I want for my spinning, but the tow was easy to come by and I wanted something. I’m not sure about importing flax stricks into Australia and can’t find a local supplier. Apparently there is one somewhere…


I still used the supported spinning method to spin this but instead of spinning it from the fold I lay a bit of sliver over my left shoulder and pulled from there, almost using my shoulder as a king of a distaff.

Well, that’s all for today. Next time I’ll investigate distaffs and see if I can figure out why medieval women loved them so much and modern women seem to shun them!

Experimental Archaeology– How Will It Help?

I’m at the point in my research now where I can’t understand how anyone could think that the method I’m researching wasn’t used in the 15th century. It may have been one of several methods, but not used at all? Impossible? I suppose it’s like how “pink isn’t period” or “They didn’t have buttons back then.” Someone starts a strange rumour, it gets passed around as fact until everyone believes it and then when someone actually does the research they find that the common knowledge isn’t the case and they feel pretty stupid for believing it in the first place.

My understanding of experimental archaeology is that you construct a hypothesis and then test it with practical experiments. In essence it’s applying the scientific method to reconstruct the past where the records and material culture can’t tell us what we want to know. For example, if you’re digging up a bunch of arrows and your fellow archaeologists are speculating that these were used for hunting as they “aren’t strong enough” to pierce the amour of the time so therefore wouldn’t be used in warfare. Sure you can use an electron microscope to analyse trace elements, you can look at their context in the ground, you can look at paintings and read literature but there’s another way. You can make some bows and arrows using the same materials and techniques, make some amour using the same materials and techniques and then put that amour on some ballistics jelly or a pig carcass and take some pot shots at it.

I know which sounds more fun to me.

Many re-enactors would wonder at what experimental archaeology has to do with discovering how they spun in the 15th century. The reason for this is the majority of re-enactors you see spinning use a modern-styled drop spindle made out of period materials and use it in the modern drop spindle method. Note when I say modern I don’t mean it’s recent– it dates back to well before the 15th century– just that it is the current method most westerners are familiar with. Why do they use a modern spindle? Medieval ones don’t spin well. The whorls have their mass distributed close around the central spindle which gives them a short, fast spin. Drop spinning is most easily done on a whorl weighted to the rim to give a long, slow spin. Another thing that baffles me. Re-enactors will pick up a replica spindle, notice that it doesn’t spin well and rather than questioning that perhaps they span it differently back then they trade it in for a more modern-weighted one so it’s easier and then try to prove that the way they’re doing it is the only way it was done back then. The experimental archaeology for me come in when I make some spindles in the 15th century style and experiment with spinning them. My spinning technique will be based on a combination of what I can see in the medieval images and what I can see in videos of more modern women (no videos in the 15th century, sadly!)  where their spinning technique produces the same hand positions as in the medieval images.


My next step is to order supplies! Yay! Shopping!

How did women spin in the 15th century.

So, I’ve come to the decision to start what I’ve wanted to start for a while. Spinning. 1480 style. How am I going to learn this? Well, I’ll combine a little experimental archaeology with pictorial research and reference to more modern peoples who spin in a similar style.

Why all this effort? Drop spinning is undergoing a bit of a revival (especially in America) and there are countless tutorials on how to do it.

Well, take a look at a modern person drop spinning and you’ll notice a few things. The spindle is usually dropped in front of the spinner and as it drops and spins more fibre is drafted to be turned into thread. A good modern drop spindle is perfectly balanced and often has a whorl weighted on the outer rim so it can spin a long, slow spin. This long and slow spin is perfect for spinning with a drop spindle.

Now, take a look at some paintings of medieval folks using a spindle to spin.


Many people look at pictures such as these and notice that none of the spinners are actually spinning. Some surmise that this was because they were painted winding the thread onto the spindle. There are images that depict this action so other surmise that they are simply holding the spindle and thread out gracefully. I have seen it suggested that they are actually spinning in these pictures but I have just as often seen this scoffed at by spinners as you “can’t” spin in this position. But take a look at this picture.

You can see here that the spindle has left the spinner’s hands, suggesting that she’s not just holding the spindle out to wind the thread on. The other explanation I’ve seen to explain why the spinners are painted like this is because it was simply an artistic convention and that nobody really span like that. This is possible, there were many artistic conventions at the time, but what is the proof that this was an artistic convention? The proof is that you “cant” spin like that, therefore they didn’t. They didn’t spin like that, so you can tell that it is an artistic convention. How do we know they didn’t spin like that? Because it’s an artistic convention. How do we know this? Because they didn’t spin like that. You can see where this argument is going and it’s going in circles.

First, lets start with the only external evidence—that people can’t spin like that. I have seen photos from Portugal,Russia,  Romania and other countries of women from the 18th, 19th and 20th century all spinning in a similar manner. You could argue that these woman were all just posing and copying the pose they had found in medieval pictures but that is getting a little far-fetched. Furthermore I’ve seen videos of woman from these countries actually spinning and their hand positions are very similar. Take a look.

So can you spin like that? Yes.

Did they in the 15th century? Well, it could still be an artistic convention, but if so then why did every artist paint something he saw being done every day in a way in which he had never seen it before?


And why did painters continue painting women spinning this way through the 16th, 17th 18th and 19th centuries and why when the camera came about did photographers pose their subjects in this position to imitate not what they were doing but medieval art. And then what, when video came around women suddenly started trying to spin in the way they’d been pictured? You know what, it’s possible. We have no written descriptions of how to spin in the 15th century so who knows. To me, however, it isn’t likely. Not at all. For me the proof for the 15th century ladies spinning how they were pictured far outweighs any proof that it was just artistic convention.

So if we’re happy with the conclusion based on this research we’ll move onto some experimental archaeology, where applying practical skills and  cross referencing these with the material culture from the archaeological record will yield yet more proof that women could have spun this way and did (at least some of the time).