Thursday, January 19, 2017

“To Spin a Yarn: Distaffs, Folk Art and Material Culture” — Explaining Distaffs

“To Spin a Yarn: Distaffs, Folk Art and Material Culture” opens this Saturday, January 21, and runs through April 16. Sponsored by the Friends of the Georgia Museum of Art and organized by the Stephen F. Austin State University Galleries, this exhibition consists of about 40 decorated wooden distaffs from the collection of Michael T. Ricker.

Detail of a short-form distaff, 1845 (Sweden, probably Vätö, Uppland)

The biggest question we get when discussing the exhibition is: What’s a distaff? 

A distaff is a tool used in spinning, which is the process of converting raw fibers — like wool just sheared off the sheep — into thread or yarn. Until the rise of manufacturing in the late 1700s and early 1800s, spinning was an important art as it was the only way to produce thread or yarn for weaving into cloth and textiles. Distaffs were used to hold raw wool or fiber (for example, linen or cotton) in position during spinning and could also be used in conjunction with a spinning wheel.

Dating from the 19th and 20th centuries, the distaffs featured in “To Spin a Yarn” come from regions across Europe (in Russia, Lithuania, Finland, Sweden, France, Germany, Albania, Greece, Serbia and Bosnia), each of which has its own style. Visitors will see three different types of distaffs. Distaffs from Russia often featured a large base for the spinner to sit and use her weight to hold up the distaff. Short ones with no base sometimes attached to a spinning wheel. Long distaffs without a base could be held under the arm, tucked in the belt or, as seen in the video, tucked between the knees. Here a woman in Breb, Romania, uses a distaff in the traditional manner, working with raw wool by hand.

The museum will also show a “walking wheel,” or large spinning wheel, in the exhibition from its own collection, which was donated in 1997 but has never been on view. All three types of distaffs can be used with a spinning wheel or a drop spindle. The wheel creates the momentum needed to wind thread around a spindle or bobbin, while drop spindles are weighted to create the same spinning momentum to collect the thread. In the video demonstration by spinner Pegg Thomas below, she holds a small amount of llama roving (fibers brushed in one direction and ready for spinning) in her hand as she turns the wheel to wind the fiber around the spindle. If she were to use a distaff, the roving would have been wrapped around the distaff.

Distaffs were more than tools. Originally simple sticks, distaffs evolved into highly decorated objects with intense cultural significance, more important for their meanings than for their function. In some ways, they were the equivalent of an engagement ring today: a gift from a young man to his hoped-for spouse. A more expensive and elaborately decorated distaff expressed wealth and status. The time and money spent on these objects help to show the important place of cloth in a pre-industrial era. Today, we appreciate these diverse distaff traditions as splendid examples of folk art and material culture.

Distaff, early 20th century (Russia, Archangel province, Puchuga village)
Events related to the exhibition include:

All events are free and open to the public unless otherwise indicated.

Stella Tran
Department of Communications

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