To put it simply, a distaff is a stick used to hold unspun fibre when spinning. The use of a distaff was associated with the act of spinning so strongly that the female side of the family is also known as the ‘distaff side’.
Based on my reading and experementation, I’ve found distaffs have three main uses.
- To hold a large amount of unspun fibre. If you’re going to be spinning all day at every possible moment you’ll be spinning when walking to the market, when feeding the chickens, and during many other tasks when you’re not sitting in your own home. You don’t want to run out of fibre and have to stop spinning! A distaff means you can take a day’s (or more!) worth of fibre with you.
- You also don’t want to mess up your carefully prepared fibre before you spin it. If you carried a bag with fibre in this could happen. Putting it on a distaff keeps it the fibres aligned and clean.
- To act as a third hand. When spinning 15th century style your spindle hand is constantly at or near your spindle. This leaves you only one hand to draft your fibre. The distaff acts as a hand to hold your fibre and your distaff hand pulls the fibre away from the distaff to draft it.
15th century image showing unspun fibre held neatly on a distaff
Distaffs can be used when spinning any fibre and I haven’t seen any evidence of spinning in the 15th century without the use of a distaff. I would go so far as to say if you wish to recreate spinning 15th century style you NEED a distaff, mainly because of the third reason above. Fortunatly, they are very easy and cheap to make
To spin with wool all you need is a stick to tie your fibre onto. I use a stick from a rake (it was cheaper than buying a wooden dowel the same size! I just pulled the rake part off) with a knob screwed into the end. The knob helps me secure my ribbon to hold my fibre on.
For flax I find a cone shape top to my distaff works the best.