Museum of Ancient Inventions: The Distaff

A person who spins needs two things, in addition to time: the raw material (wool, flax, cotton) that is to be spun, and a spindle or wheel with which to spin it.

Throughout history, most spinners have also used a simple device called a distaff. A distaff is a wooden board, sometimes plain but often intricately carved, to which the raw material is tied, and from which the spinner draws as she spins. (Most spinners, in all times and places as far as we know, have been women. That’s why the matrilineal side of your family is called the “distaff side”.)

If you spin with a distaff of the type shown here, you can walk and spin (with a spindle) at the same time. Other types of distaffs are attached to stools on which the spinsters sit, or to the spinning wheels themselves.

Method of Construction

Constructed by: Meredith Matthews ’01J

I made this distaff and spindle of cherry and then applied a mahogany stain. The distaff is a single piece of wood; the spindle is two separate pieces. On one side of the distaff I carved vines using a triangle chisel. On the other side I carved my mother’s initials with her maiden name initial the largest (seemed appropriate because it is the “distaff side” of her family). The project looks simple enough and I initially thought it wouldn’t be too complicated. I was wrong.

Science Topics
Inventions & Scientists
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Ancient History
K-6, Middle School, High School
Kindergarten, 1st Grade, 2nd Grade, 3rd Grade, 4th Grade, 5th Grade, 6th Grade, 7th Grade, 8th Grade, 9th Grade, 10th Grade, 11th Grade, 12th Grade, Adults

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