Handheld distaff question, with a quick overview of distaffs

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. . .


18 thoughts on “Handheld distaff question, with a quick overview of distaffs”

  1. I have a customer who uses the dowel and ribbon version. It looks beautiful and is easy to use. I tried it and liked it a lot – but my sleeve or watchband is still my favorite.

  2. Wow, what a great post! The downside here is that now I have a reason to unpack all my magazines and see those issues of Spin-Off. (well, some of them, my collection starts around ’95-’99.) I wasn’t quite ready for that! I also have no idea where that spinning wheel distaff from Ashford is in all my belongings…ahh, the joys of moving.

    You have given me something to dream towards, though. The dowel might be ok, but I imagine in the long term, I’d dream of a beautiful tool. You know me too well!

  3. LOL! It’s déjà-vu all over again….

    It was Rita’s article that prompted me into making one of the overspun-singles-bound-in-a-couple-of-places distaff (I used some of my first KoolAid-dyed yarn to tie it up). I wear it all the time when I do drop-spinning demos, including last Sunday’s.

  4. Wonderful post!

    Thank you for listing all those articles!
    Great reference to have. I have just clipped it to save.

    I’ve been wanting to read the article on Sofia Dorfi and sitting distaffs for years! I even contacted Sigrid Piroch (who is on sabbatical!)

    Anyway…you are right, distaffs are wonderful tools 😉
    (and you have me wondering about the plural, when it is correct, that is)

  5. It’s good to have goals {grin}. Yes, I see you with a lovely distaff some day. Maybe a couple. When the time is right. Meanwhile, I also know you well enough to know that you will come up with something perfectly workable between now and then!

  6. Sofia Dorfi sounded like an absolute treasure. Working on that article with Sigrid was a delight. The plural: use whichever you like, whenever you like. Distaves is only rare because it’s less common, not because it has fewer appropriate locations.

  7. My knitted-cuff wrist distaffs (test versions) are all sitting right on top of my knitting basket. They have extra flaps to tuck the wool under. And yes, I have a couple of lovely cord-like wrist distaffs, including a treasured one of handspun cotton sent as a surprise by a friend I have only met (so far) in cyberspace.

  8. Great, Diana! SO glad to know what I’m doing is helpful. I’ve known a number of people who have been reclining spinners. A distaff could be a delightful addition to your set-up. And there are so many inexpensive ways to experiment with them. . . . One of the things I like best about spinning is that it can be completely serendipitous. Great equipment is wonderful, but one can try out ideas before investing (and the try-out version may end up being adequate).

  9. I’ve several wrist distaffs of the type described in Rita Buchanan’s Spinoff article: overtwisted yarn in a loop that hangs off your wrist…um, sorry, bad description, but you can see pictures in this post from my blog.


    I really like them, because I have eczema on my hands and the underside of my wrists, and the arrangement keeps the fibre away from my wrists.

    I wish SpinOff would republish that article.

  10. Your spindle-spun wrist distaffs are breathtakingly beautiful. I love beautiful tools. Thank you.

    Maybe Spin-Off will republish that article–and a few of the others!

  11. I have made versions of all the distaffs published in Spin Off for myself and as gifts.
    My latest one surprised me, tho. I received a new spindle in the mail yesterday with a sample of flax. I spin on my daily walks…
    I grabbed a 9 inch branch of Ocean Spray (spirea family) and wound the flax around that. I held the bottom 4 inches with my fiber supply hand and pinched off a small section of the flax between my thumb and index finger then spun from that. It was light and I didn’t have the fiber matting as it was held in my damp palm. I could also dampem my fingers occasionally and the flax smoothe as it was drawn through them.So simple. The best kind of tool.
    Thanks for all the references and memories.

  12. Lovely! Lilacs have nice branches for small distaffs, and ours is constantly growing over into the neighbor’s driveway and needing to be pruned back. . . . .

    Your point about not having the fiber mat is a really important one.

  13. Deb – ever since standing in the breakfast line with Rita Buchanan at the Northeast Handspinners Gathering in CT I have been using a hand-held Maple fork distaff. I later sent her a photo of three of us Twist o’Wool Guild members proudly using ours. Also have made many of the macrame/bead distaffs for friends and a knitted cuff or two. The first Maple fork still my go-to distaff. I have set up NHA totes, ready to grab & run, with my most used spindles (high whorls all, Forrester, Bosworth & Hatchtown), distaffs, a Spin n’Knit nostepinde and a 30cc syringe case! Sitting by Rita at that conference got me over the learning curve with my first high whorl, as did the “Teddy Bear” issue of Spin.Off.
    Btw, all our tomatoes & potatoes got the Late Blight sweeping the East this summer. Sigh.

  14. Perfect! Love your totes idea. I have something similar, although less organized–bags of fiber projects all over, ready to grab. I’m off to the sustainable living fair this morning with one of them.

    So sorry about your tomatoes and potatoes!

  15. Excellent piece, Deb. Thank you. I don’t know if he still does, but some years ago Rod Stevens (Woody) was making handheld distaves–a rod of about 14″ with his characteristic turnings. Small enough to hold in the fiber hand while spindling.

    For some years I’ve been playing with the idea of putting together a collection of my postcards that show interesting distaves–numbering probably in the many dozens. I was always held back, though, by the notion that there might only be six people in the world who would be interested. Am I wrong?

    It’s be very cool if Interweave would issue a compilation of the distaff articles, wouldn’t it? 😀

  16. Rod has, alas for us, retired. I don’t know about unofficially, but 2008 at Maryland Sheep & Wool was his last official show. I have a number of his tools, but not a distaff.

    There are probably many more than six people who would be interested in your postcards . . . and probably not enough people to support Interweave’s issuing of a compilation of the distaff articles, although yes, those of us who are interested are *very* interested! It took them quite a while to get the spindling articles together. Perhaps with electronic delivery of publications they’ll be able to issue more special-interest collections, although there’s still a lot of time involved in prep work–the hardest part is usually tracking down authors and obtaining permission–although there are ways to do that efficiently (FreelancePermissions.com is my favorite resource).

Comments are closed.