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What does St. Distaff's Day mean?

Updated: Mar 20

If you have been following me on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, or any other spinners for that matter, you have seen mention of St. Distaff over the past couple of weeks. Distaff Day or St. Distaff's Day won't appear on most calendars these days, and it usually isn't talked about in excited tones or come with big fancy decorations in the stores the way Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas do.

Why? Because it simply signals a return to work.

Who is Saint Distaff?

The medieval calendar revolves around harvest, church holidays, and pagan events (actual or repurposed). In early Tudor England, Christmas celebrations really did last for 12 days, extending into the new year. (Maybe next year, I'll do an entire post about the 12 Days of Christmas.) During this time, very little actual work was done, several feast days are featured, and the festivities end with Epiphany, which commemorates the magi (or wise men) visiting baby Jesus.

The following day is January 7. This is the day when spinners went back to work, thus Distaff Day. Referring to a tool as a person is simply poetic license.

The following Monday after Epiphany is when the men went back to work. This was referred to as Plough (plow) Day.

However, all of this returning to work wasn't completely serious business in merrie olde England. It was a great time for pranks to be played, just as they were during the 12 days prior. Men would try to distract the women from their work by stealing and burning flax and spindles and distaffs (or distaves), while women would often retaliate by soaking the men with water. (In the dead of winter? Brr!)

This merriment is immortalized in Robert Herrick's poem from "St Distaff's Day or the Morrow After Twelfth Night."

"Partly work and partly play

You must on St. Distaff’s Day:

From the plough soon free your team;

Then come home and fother them;

If the maids a-spinning go,

Burn the flax and fire the tow.

Bring in pails of water then,

Let the maids bewash the men.

Give St. Distaff all the right;

Then bid Christmas sport good night,

And next morrow every one

To his own vocation."

What is a distaff?

Photo credit: Bob Harbison

You might still be wondering what this word is. Simply put, a distaff holds fiber for spinning. If you have seen me at events, you have probably seen the tall spire on my wheel where I wrap pieces of wool roving to be ready for spinning.

Prior to this style of distaff, they were usually seen as sticks that could be tucked under the arm or in a belt. The flax, wool, or other fiber was wrapped onto the distaff with a bit of ribbon, spare cloth, or string, and the spinner could spin from this onto their spindle.

Distaffs could take many different shapes, from tree forks, to intricately carved paddles, to loosely woven baskets, and have been used all over the world. (Check out more photos from a museum in Finland on the Barbro's Threads blog post.)

In celebration of Distaff Day here at the Studio, I released a new video, the first in what I hope will be a series of videos where I read a story set to the visuals of fiber arts. You can see that here. If you want to know when I post new videos, be sure to subscribe and click the bell to be notified.

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