Thursday, March 02, 2017

"To Spin a Yarn": A Brief History of Women and Distaffs

With Women’s History Month upon us, it seems an ideal moment to feature one of our current exhibits, “To Spin a Yarn: Distaffs, Folk Art and Material Culture,” on view through Sunday, April 16. Distaffs are inherently feminine objects; the word acts as both a noun, giving a name to the tool used to hold unspun fiber in the spinning process, and an adjective, to define a feminine aspect or association. Featured in the exhibition are about 40 distaffs hailing from Russia, Lithuania, Finland, Sweden, France, Germany, Albania, Greece, Serbia and Bosnia. Despite the geographic lines and design differences that separate these objects, the distaff retains its cultural significance across borders.

To better understand the cultural importance of the distaff, it may be helpful to consider representations of women and distaffs throughout history. Images of women spinning are not unfamiliar — they appear in paintings, carvings, stained glass windows, frescoes and illuminated manuscripts, among other artistic mediums. Frances Biscoglio, in her research on medieval representations of women spinning, parses out two separate perceptions of spinners: one created by the “hierarchal ordering of the medieval world” that views the spinner as an “ideal woman: charitable, industrious, obedient, a model of virtue, her time and space circumscribed by the patriarchal society that asserted its power”; and the other a more mythical interpretation of spinning that perceives the spinner as “the creator, life-giver, intermediary, and source of wisdom.”1

Karl Müller, Holy Family with John the Baptist, 1866

The notion of spinning as a sort of cosmic act, of taking formless fiber and creating something from it, is one that appears in classical mythology and also in the bible. The Virgin Mary is commonly portrayed spinning and is an interesting figure with which to consider the two separate representations Biscoglio discusses. Proverbs 31:19–22 says:

She stretches out her hands to the distaff,
And her hands grasp the spindle.

She extends her hand to the poor,
And she stretched out her hands to the needy.

She is not afraid of the snow for her household,
For all her household are clothed with scarlet.

She makes coverings for herself;
Her clothing is fine linen and purple.

A Serbian painted distaff
with circular inset mirror.

This excerpt follows the heading, “Description of a Worthy Woman.” The association of spinning to altruism and diligence is not new, and is the mark of a worthy woman both in the bible and in medieval times. Paintings in which Mary spins are interesting, then, for the ways in which she seems to fulfill both archetypes of the hard working, obedient woman and the cosmic woman holding fate in her hands. In Karl Müller’s painting, Holy Family with John the Baptist, Mary sits to the side spinning while Joseph performs the duties of a carpenter. They are engaged in their menial daily tasks, but Mary gazes towards the center of the scene in contemplation. Biscoglio suggests that Mary inhabits a “role as intermediary between God and man, binding the divine and human together to forge a new reality” and that “portraits of the Virgin which show the spun thread passing across the center of her body demonstrate her powerful role in the divine plan.”2 For this reason, she is a unique representation of a spinner.

The distaff during this time, and continuing throughout history, manages to assume two almost contradictory meanings. It is on one hand a symbol of obedient domesticity at the hands of a patriarchal society and, on the other, a symbol of female power. The woman holding a distaff in art, then, is an intentional, yet difficult to interpret, representation of femininity.

Considering the many (distinctly feminine) associations attached with spinning, it is unsurprising that distaffs themselves occupy such an important space within different cultures. While the style and décor may change from Russia to France to Serbia, distaffs are items of great importance — women might receive two in their lifetime, and they were passed down between generations. Commissioned oftentimes as engagement gifts, a market emerged for the creation of distaffs, and they became increasingly elaborate. In the original exhibition catalogue, Michael Ricker says of the decorative element of the distaff: “a beautiful distaff reminds the spinner, in a sense, that they too are beautiful and appreciated.”3 When engrossed in such a tedious task, this reminder was probably much appreciated. An interesting addition to a couple of Serbian distaffs is the incorporation of a mirror — maybe this was a way to more explicitly remind a spinner of her beauty.

Ultimately tools of great womanly strength, Ricker remarks that distaffs are simultaneously “a tool, sculpture, and a work of architecture.”4 As a tool in their utility, distaffs increased the functionality and productivity of spinning. As a sculpture in its beautiful decor and three-dimensionality, a distaff is artful. As a work of architecture, distaffs contributed to the structure of both the home and the textile market. These are objects that paint portraits of many different cultures’ women and their fortitude.

Sarah Dotson
Publications Intern

1. Biscoglio, Frances M., “’Unspun’ Heroes: Iconography of the Spinning Woman in the Middle Ages.” Journal of Medieval And Renaissance Studies 25, no. 2 (1995): 163–176.
2. Ibid., 171.
3. Ricker, Michael T., To Spin a Yarn: Distaffs, Folk Art and Material Culture (Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2013).
4. Ibid.

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