A friend wrote this note to me yesterday:
I had a very cool interaction with a spinner in Crete who spun with a distaff and spindle. I realized as I tried out her distaff (to be tucked under one arm) that I'd really enjoy spinning that way.
Any recommendations on where to get a distaff? I'd like a long wooden one which I can dress primarily with wool. I'm not looking to spend a bunch, in fact, I'm wondering if I can cook one up myself perhaps.
Here's an expanded version of my response, because perhaps others might also be interested.
First, a distaff is a tool that holds fiber in an orderly and handy fashion during spinning, whether the spinner is using a wheel or a handspindle.
Distaffs are wonderful! (The plural is also, rarely, distaves.) They also tend not to be things one can pick up casually, but you're never far from something you can use as a distaff. . . .
Types of distaffs
There are also many kinds of distaffs!
- The ones that are easiest to find at shops are those meant to fit a specific make and model of wheel.
- What my friend asked about is a handheld distaff, which can be used with either wheel or spindle.
- Seated distaffs are constructed for use by a seated spinner—they're attached to a board that the spinner sits on (on a bench, most likely) to keep them stable. They're usually for spindle-spinners, although there's no reason you couldn't use one with a wheel.
- Freestanding distaffs can be used with any spinning tool (wheel or spindle), although they're not meant to be used while moving around (they look like the coatracks in some people's front halls).
- In addition, there are several types of wrist distaffs. One is a piece of fabric, like a cuff without the sweater to go with it, that's a nifty addition to any spinning basket; you just tuck your fiber into it, as many of us do when we're actually wearing a sweater or sweatshirt (there's one source of cheap/free distaff—your clothing). Another is more like a cord that goes around the wrist with a dangling section that you wrap the fiber around.
Back issues of Spin-Off magazine contain articles that show several kinds of distaffs, including ideas for constructing both kinds of wrist distaffs that I've described—it's very easy, can be done with scrap yarn, and you'll wonder what you did without one. (I've done a survey of the Spin-Off indexes through 2008 and listed the results at the bottom of this post.)
Buying a distaff, other than one that's meant to fit a specific wheel
My first thought as a source for obtaining a ready-to-go distaff is Alden Amos and Stephenie Gaustad at Studio Gaustad. They make many styles of handheld and freestanding distaffs, as well as wrist distaffs.
If you buy a distaff from Studio Gaustad, you will get a tool you will use forever—also, if you don't see what you want (they do make a fancy Greek version!), you could describe exactly what you want and they'd work with you to make it happen. All of their work is custom, so you might have a wait . . . or not, if they happen to have recently made what you're looking for! Say hi for me if you get in touch.
As I look through the major suppliers I can think of off the top
of my head, I'm finding wheel-specific distaffs only (i.e., made to fit
a particular model). Susan McFarland at Susan's Fiber Shop probably has several types of distaffs—that sort of thing tends to follow her around—although I can't find them on her web page.
It looks like some people are offering some types of handmade wrist distaffs on Etsy.
Cheap or free distaffs
I promised earlier that a workable distaff can be easily obtained, for free or close-to-free. You've got one already: tucking the fiber into a sweater or shirt cuff.
A dedicated wrist distaff, of any type, can be made from scrap yarn in probably less than an hour.
You could make a long, handheld-type distaff (for tucking under your arm) with a dowel, using crisscrossed ribbons loosely wrapped around the fiber at one end of the dowel to hold things in place and tucking the other end under your arm. The strict roundness of a machined dowel, though, makes it less pleasant to hold onto and not quite as easy to use as . . . .
a V-shaped stick pruned off a tree or bush, either because the plant needs shaping or because it's a weed that can spare a small branch. Look for a relatively straight section 18 to 24 inches (45 to 60cm) long, forked into a nice V at the upper end—about 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20cm) of V is plenty. You can peel the bark and smooth your stick with sandpaper, if you like. Smoothness is good at the top, to keep from snagging the fibers, and at the bottom, for the comfort of your arm. The V at the top gives you many options for how to arrange the fiber and the moderate irregularity of the branch means it will be easier to keep it where you want it when you tuck it under your arm.
Spin-Off articles on distaffs
When I edited Spin-Off magazine (1987-2000), we published quite a few excellent articles on distaffs, and there were a couple before and have been a few since, as well. You may have to look in a guild collection or a library to find some of these articles. Here's what I come up with from a review of the indexes, and I hope I haven't made any typos. For a good baseline, dig up the ones marked with asterisks.
From the early days:
- "Dressing a Distaff with Flax," Annual 1978, page 20
- "A Suitcase Distaff," by Harry and Olive Linder, Fall 1986, page 33
Articles I edited, so I am most familiar with them—just listing these brings back good memories of working with the wonderful spinners who shared their discoveries through the magazine's pages. These are all treasures:
- * "The Art of the Handspindle and the Sitting Distaff: On Sofia Dorfi," by Sigrid Piroch, Spring 1992, pages 57-59
- * "Simple Portable Distaff," by Larry Cross, Summer 1992, page 58
- "Spinning Silk from a Japanese Distaff," by Constance Bufkin Rizner, Summer 1994, pages 88-89
- * "Wrist Distaffs," by Patricia Emerick, SPring 1995, pages 70-72
- "Peruvian Spinning Tools and Techniques," by Carol Rasmussen Noble, Spring 1997, pages 44-47
- * "Simple Distaffs," by Rita Buchanan, Winter 1999, pages 54-61
- "Estonian Wooden Distaffs," by Susan Strawn, Summer 2000, pages 81-83
More recent entries:
- "The Distaff," by Martha Monson, Summer 2003, pages 30-31
- "Alexandra Ivanovna's Distaff," by Sharon Hudgins, Winter 2004, pages 78-80
- "Ply-Splitting for Wrist Distaffs," by Linda Hendrickson, Summer 2005, pages 50-57
Discover a distaff, any distaff!
Play around. Find something close to you. Then go farther afield. You can hardly have too many distaffs. Most of them are easy to store, too. . .