An Encounter at the Spinning Wheel, George Goodwin Kilburne
Other Scottish Country Dances for this Day
Today's Musings, History & Folklore
The Temper Pin
Distaff Day, also known as Saint Distaff's Day or Roc's Day, is the day after the feast of the Epiphany.
The distaff, used in spinning, was the medieval symbol of women's work.
In many European cultural traditions, women resumed their household work after the twelve days of Christmas. Women of all classes would spend their evenings spinning on the wheel. During the day, they would carry a drop spindle with them. Spinning was the only means of turning raw wool, cotton or flax into thread, which could then be woven into cloth.
Men had the equivalent Plough Monday when they returned to the fields the first Monday after the twelve days of Christmas.
Every few years, Distaff Day and Plough Monday falls on the same day. Often the men and women would play pranks on each other during this celebration.
Robert Herrick, a 17th-century English lyric poet and cleric chronicled this celebration in his poem:
"Saint Distaffs day, or the Morrow After Twelfth Day"
Partly work and partly play
Ye must on S. Distaff's day:
From the plough soon free your team,
Then come home and fodder them.
If the maids a-spinning go,
Burn the flax and fire the tow;
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maidenhair.
Bring in pails of water, then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give S. Distaff all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night;
And next morrow everyone
To his own vocation.
The spinning wheel appeared in China, probably in the 11th century, and very gradually replaced hand spinning with spindle and distaff. Spinning machinery, such as the spinning jenny and spinning frame, displaced the spinning wheel during the Industrial Revolution.
Even if you don't have a spinning wheel handy, you can spin some sugar by hand to make sugar threads, either as a decoration for a dessert or for an interesting science project for kids. Click the painting by Giovanni Battista Torriglia (1858-1937), The Thread of Life, for an easy spun sugar recipe.