Today, January 7th, is Distaff Day, or Roc Day. Historically, this day after Epiphany is when women return to their work after Christmas festivities. The twelve days have passed, and the holidays have wound down. The decorations were put away last night, and it’s time for women to get back to their main daily chore: spinning. The men get their own day on Monday, Plough Day, but this is about spinners. And we won’t talk about how the men sometimes get an entire extra week off. I mean, who’s going to feed the damn kids?
The distaff is a tool that holds fiber for the spinner as they spin. Seen as a medieval symbol for the feminine power and for women’s work, we spinners don’t often use distaffs any longer. The fiber we use has either been commercially processed or hand processed in a way that we don’t need to tie it to a stick to manage it. It’s pretty manageable on it’s own.
But today my spinning group will get together at my house. I’ll make champagne jello shots (We’re a classy bunch, we spinners.) and people will bring tasty nibbles for our spinning break times. And we’ll set up wheels and play with our spindles. Jane got an e-spinner recently and I want to check that out again. And we’ll celebrate Distaff Day in a way that women of the 17th and 18th centuries never expected: as a way to get back to playing.
Spinning and cloth production was a natural job for women in our evolving species. Since women would need to be close to their children in order to breastfeed them, women weren’t regularly stomping off to the hunting fields. They stayed at home while the men went away to hunt. Being close to home, they tended fields and took care of the home and village. Because the furniture-like spinning wheel is a pretty recent invention, it was easy for the ladies to grab a spindle and make some thread while fussing with the kids. It’s an easy task to stop and start again. You don’t really lose your place if you set it aside to go make dinner. So it’s really always mostly been women’s work.
So women would spin year round while multitasking around the house. Then yule time would arrive and the spinning would tend to get set aside for a couple of weeks. There were decorations to put up and lots of food to make, both for immediate consumption and to store for throughout the winter. The daily work of spinning (Seriously, it takes a shit-tonne of thread to have enough to weave a decently sized piece of cloth. Women were spinning all the time.) could then be resumed when the xmas celebrations were over. Women would work all year, do different kind of work through the winter holidays, then get together in one last hurrah to celebrate getting back to their routine work. Work, work, work.
We modern spinners have kind of flip flopped that. We spin for fun. If we need fabric, we go to JoAnn’s. We don’t spin because we need to clothe our family. We don’t knit socks because we can’t buy them at Walmart. We spin and knit and weave because it’s relaxing and we we enjoy the process of making things. So while we are certainly getting back to our pre-holiday routines, our gathering is more about celebrating that fact that we have our own free time to work on hobbies after the hustle and bustle and extra work of the holidays.
I’m excited to see my friends today, and to share some bubbles and fiber with them. We’ll raise a glass to our spinning ancestors, thanking them for the art that they’ve passed down to us, even though it was hard work for them. Especially since it was hard work for them. Thank you, my spinners of old and my spinners of now, for counting me among your people.