Textile Terms : The “Distaff Side”

A distaff is a tool used in spinning, to hold the unspun fibers, usually flax, to keep them untangled and ready to be spun. In the photo to the left, it is the object on the upper left that appears covered in long hair.

Because spinning was such a universal chore during medieval times, the distaff became a symbol for domestic life.

Gradually, the term “the distaff side” came to signify the female side of the family, or womanhood itself. In recent times, this descriptor has fallen out of common usage. The image at right shows a spinning wheel with a distaff dressed with flax. Sometimes  a gourd would be hung from the distaff, for holding water, with which the spinner would moisten her fingers while drawing out the flax fibers, to help “set” the new linen thread.

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