Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Handling the Hand Distaff

Dressing Wool Viking, Roman & Greek Style

Blog Instructions to go with the "Spin Like a Viking" YouTube video by missingspindle. I've uploaded a (non-professional) video of this distaff type in action on my Flickr account here:
(https://www.flickr.com/photos/29553597@N07/16384579277/in/photostream/) You might have to click twice-I'm am amateur.
You can find the Oseberg-style distaffs (distaves) for sale in my Etsy shop missingspindle.etsy.com.

The Distaff, sometimes called the Roc or Rock, is an ancient and ubiquitous tool throughout history used in spinning wool fibers into yarn on a spindle.  With the invention of the spinning wheel and the advent of the Industrial Revolution, its use gradually vanished in urbanized Western Europe and the USA.  With the craft revival(s) of the 20th and 21st centuries, many techniques have been devised to prepare and control wool fibers while hand spinning.  The trouble is, the wooden wool distaff has been ignored, even though it is a delightfully effective tool for controlling wool fiber while spinning.  It acts as a third hand.  The binding cord holds back the upper wool fiber and creates 'drag' on the lower fibers, making pulling out the right amount per draft much easier and more accurate for the spinster.

There are three basic 'sizes' of the distaff:  Hand, Waist and Free Standing. I am going to concentrate on the Hand Distaff below.

The Hand Distaff is manipulated as it is held in the hand.  It is shorter and lighter than the Waist Distaff (which is tucked in the belt in use) and far more portable than the tall free-standing distaff.  The Viking Oseberg ship grave find contained at least two hand distaffs (distaves), the larger of which I recreated to study.  The larger Oseberg original was 19" long (Quite possibly designed for bast/flax fibers at that length, but I wanted to work with wool here.). It was not found "dressed", so no proof of what fiber was used.).  I resized mine to use with drum-carded wool batts, which were pulled in half to fit comfortably on a hand distaff of 16-17", with the bottom wool draping over my holding hand. 

I found that the narrow hand distaff style of the Oseberg (and some of the Roman and Greek grave finds/images) suits long fibered wool (over 3"- 4-5" is pleasant to use) combed or drum carded so that the long length of the fibers is bound longways to the distaff staff.   The Oseberg hand distaff has features that make the mounting and spinning off of the fibers much easier than using a simple straight stick. The distaff carries several batts easily and keeps them in good order even in windy conditions.  The spindle tucks into the cross binding tape/string when the Distaff is not in use.  It is sized to fit in a large bag and quick to grab when traveling by car.  It is easy to use in a car and small enough not to assault other travels when in use in small spaces.  It suits my modern spinning life very well, as it must have done for millions of women working inside and outside their homes throughout history.

Dressing the Hand Distaff with Wool

  1. Prepare or purchase drum-carded batts of wool.  Several can be dressed on a hand distaff; I generally use two or three.
  2. Obtain a binding cord or tape.  Spinsters in the past have used cotton tape, wool tape (narrow), coarse wool braid (3 strand or more), and sturdy twine.  The cord should be three times the height of the hand distaff.  It can be trimmed shorter if necessary.
  3. Lay the pile of batts, fanned out at the bottom and narrowed at the top, under the distaff.  Larks' head the end of the binding cord or tape to the narrow groove at the top of the distaff.
  4. Gather the top of the batt so that it is compressed and slightly higher than the top of the distaff.  Wrap the binding cord firmly two or three times around the distaff tightly over the wool.  Spiral down the distaff (firmly again) until the binding cord is about 2-3 inches from the 'knuckle' at the top of the hand hold bottom area.

  5. Spiral back up to the top grooves, where the cord will be half hitched two times to hold.
  6. Spin the wool from the bottom of the distaff, using your distaff-holding hand for both holding the distaff and for pulling down wool as needed.  Both hands work together for this task.
  7. When a length of yarn has been spun, wind the fresh yarn around your distaff-holding hand in preparation of winding it onto the storage area of your spindle.  
  8. Begin again from no. 6, being certain that you rotate the distaff so that the wool is spun up evenly, level by level.  
  9. Adjust and retie the binding cord so that the wool is tied lower toward the distaff hand area as the wool batt becomes smaller.  
    Eventually you will be holding the distaff higher on the shaft to 'reach' the last wool tied there.
  10. Remove the last bit of unspun wool and binding cord.  Begin with fresh wool batts and redress the distaff.


  1. I will try this later today. I have a "distaff" that was sold as a nostepinne. Looks very similar to your photographs. I will be carding wool shortly. Thanks for the information.

  2. Dear lois, your video's on youtube are absolutely brilliant. I have learnt so much from you in just a day of watching them a few times. I have some Roman whorls and have been making the spindles myself as well as a distaff, I just needed your tuition to bring it all together, thank you so much for being a great instructor and a humorous, inspiring spinner. Kind regards, Sue

  3. Lois your videos have inspired me to embrace the distaff in all my spinning activities! My favourite handheld one so far is an old industrial pirn like the ones you turn into dealgans. At 8" it's kinda short, but it has a metal knob at the bottom which balances it very well in the hand.

    My smallest son wants to design the ultimate distaff for the 21st century. He is considering several new design features, mostly involving lasers. I have some more basic questions however.

    Your 17" handheld wool distaff, is there in your opinion an ergonomically optimal weight and centre of balance point?

    I realise you sell your distaffs, so I don't want you to reveal any trade secrets. Unless they involve lasers, in which case, yes please!

    Love your blog and vids,

    Helen (and Robin).