Settle in with your spindle this evening to mark St. Distaff Day.
Yes, a distaff is an object, not a person, but the English name for today is, indeed, St. Distaff. Less poetically minded people may refer to this as Roc Day, “roc” being a synonym used mainly in northern Europe for a distaff. This very useful object, worthy of its own saint’s day, is the stick or bat that spinners would use to hold fibers to be pulled out and spun into yarn or thread.
The day originated in medieval Catholic countries to mark the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and the return to the normal work rhythms of life. But Christmas festivities weren’t ended completely. Roc Day falls on the Monday after Epiphany, the twelfth day. Plough Day, when men returned to their usual routines, falls on the first Monday after Epiphany. If, like today, Plough Day and Roc Day are the same, well, the only work that happened in medieval communities was young men would grab flax and wool from of young women’s distaffs and the pretend to light it on fire. Young women would retaliate by dousing the potential fiber arsonists with buckets of water. A lot of flirting was accomplished, but probably little else.
St. Distaff’s Day is seeing a revival in textile communities across the country, minus the fire and water. Now spinning is done for the joy of creating something beautiful and useful and to remember when spinning was vital work and an absolute constant in women’s lives.
Creating thread and yarn was such necessary, time-consuming work that all women of all classes spun. Viking women of rank spun on more ornate spindles and distaffs than women of lower rank or slaves, but they still did the same task.
If a woman of any rank should feel her hands tire or have the truly discouraging accident of dropping a skein of freshly spun yarn, representing hundreds of hours of spinning, in the mire around the village, they could appeal to the goddess Frigga, who would understand because she, too, was always spinning. (Losing skeins must have been heartbreaking for the women, but their losses have turned into archaeological treasures at the Viking excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland and York, England.)
St. Distaff Day is also a time to honor that miraculous substance: mother’s spit. Mother’s spit was an important ingredient in flax production and hence to clothing earlier generations. Flax fibers were spliced together into thread by wetting them with saliva, which contains an enzyme that decomposes the cellulose of the flax into a gluey substance. So never apologize for using a bit of spit to splice a bit of yarn or shape a thread so you can get it through the eye of a needle. You’re just helping the thread decompose a bit and keeping an ancient tradition alive.