In times past, January 7th, the first free day after the twelve of Christmas was known as St. Distaff's Day. It had no connection whatsoever with any saint but its place in the folk calendar gives an indicator of the importance of spinning at a time when this was the only means of turning the raw wool, cotton or flax into thread capable of being woven into cloth. The day, which was also know as Rock Day (referring to another name for either the distaff or the spindle) indicated that this was the end of the Christmas festivities and the return to the normality of spinning whenever there was a spare moment. As Anthony Fitzherbert, wrote in his 'Boke of Husbandrie' (1523) 'it stoppeth a gap it saveth a woman from being idle, and the product was needful'.
Before the invention of the Spinning Wheel, spinning on what is known as the Drop Spindle (a pin or stick weighted by a whorl) was a slow and tedious task. The spinning of one pound of woollen yarn could take about one week and one pound of heavy cotton yarn several weeks to spin. The method had not changed since the earliest times. There are images from as far back as time of the Ancient Egyptians showing how the distaff was used to hang the flax or tow and the spindle to effect the twisting. The distaff was carried under the arm, and the spindle left dangling and turning in the fingers below, and forming an axis round which to wind parcels of the thread as soon as it was made.
Women of all classes would spin. Everyone from the Lady to the peasant was expected to spend time on the task, though the wealthier may have elaborate spindles. In the evening, after the chores of the day were done, there would be spinning, and the spindle would be taken to visit friends as the task could be undertaken at the same time as a conversation.
The woollen industry became in the Middle Ages, the major industry in the land with huge areas gaining there main income from sheep. It is said that many of the elaborate churches in East Anglia, such as those at Long Melford and Lavenham, were financed from the woollen industry. In the 14th century, Edward III commanded that the Lord Chancellor should sit on a sack of wool - a reminder of the importance of the trade, for not only had home consumption increase but there was now a thriving export market.
It was at about this time the spinning-wheels first started to appear, to replace the drop spindle. There are several depictions of women from this time using the spinning wheel - all show the woman standing at her work, moving the wheel with her right hand, while with her left she twirls the spindle. The introduction of this method speeded up the production of spun wool and the addition of the foot driven mechanism in the 1500s made even more of a difference.
Land use was also greatly affected by the wool trade. Many of the deserted villages that have left their mark on the English landscape, particularly in Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire occurred as a result of whole communities being moved to make space for the grazing of sheep between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries. Spinning the wool became more important than ever and Distaff Day a crucial date in the calendar
But whereas women would recommence spinning on Distaff Day, the men did not return to the plough until after Plough Monday when their ploughs had been blessed. Robert Herrick in the seventeenth century collection of poems 'Hesperides' describes young people maids and ploughboys messing around at this time with the lads setting fire to the flax and in return, the maids soaking the men from the water-pails
Partly work and partly play
You must on St. Distaffs Day:
From the plough soon free your team;
Then cane home and fother them:
If the maids a-spinning go,
Burn the flax and fire the tow.
Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff' all the right:
Then bid Christmas sport good night,
And next morrow every one
To his own vocation.'
A further indicator of the importance of spinning in the life of women in the past, is the fact that it has entered the language. Spinster was a recognized legal term for an unmarried woman. In his Law Dictionary, Blount, wrote: 'It is the addition usually given to all unmarried women, from the Viscount's daughter downward.' Similarly the distaff side and the spear side were once legal terms to distinguish the inheritance of female from that of male children-and the distaff became a synonym for woman herself. A French proverb states that "The crown of France never falls to the distaff."
By the 18th century the mechanisation of all manufacturing processes including spinning led to the rapid decline of hand spinning and the movement of the process from the hearth into the factory. The invention of the new machinery such as the 'Spinning Jenny' and Crompton's 'Mule' speeded up the process to keep pace with the technology in weaving. Huge manufactories were built, and houses for workers around the premises so that the men, women and children could get to work easily and quickly to carry out the processes needed to spin and weave the cloth for the expanding world market.
But the efficient production of the cloth was seen by many manufacturers as more important than the welfare of the workforce, particularly with regards to children, who were cheap to employ and were given the most menial of tasks. In 1796 the Manchester Board of Health reported that
'It appears that children and others who work in the large cotton factories, are peculiarly disposed to be affected by the contagion of fever, and that when such infection is received, it is rapidly propagated, not only amongst those who are crowded together in the same apartments, but in the families and neighbourhoods to which they belong...the large factories are generally injurious to the constitution of those employed in them, even when no particular diseases prevail, from the debilitating effects of hot and impure air...The... labour of the night, and the protracted labour of the day, with respect to children,.... tends to diminish future expectations... by impairing the strength and destroying the vital stamina..'
It is said that Lancashire's mass produced textiles destroyed the handloom industry in India. In the 1930s Gandhi came to England to explain why he was encouraging India to pursue independence through the boycott of foreign-made especially British goods. He believed that Indian women, rich or poor, should spend time each day spinning in support of the independence movement. He visited the Lancashire cotton workers, and despite the fact that many of them were resentful of his actions, he received a warm welcome. Little did any of them know that by the end of the century the English wool industry would have declined and India would have emerged as a major exporter and producer of textiles.
Today most High Street brands base much of their manufacturing in Export Processing Zones in the Far East where the basic employment rights of the host country are not applicable. Exploitation can include wages as low as 10 pence an hour, no overtime pay, seven-day weeks, female workers who become pregnant sacked, and factories without fire exits. In the Dindigul cotton mills in Tamil Nadu, India an estimated 950 children are employed. There is old machinery and conditions are unsafe, so that fingers are often cut and sometimes amputated. The air quality is also poor with the fine cotton dust affecting the respiratory system of the workers.
Pressure is also put on farmers to use excessive quantities of dangerous pesticides that some reports say, can literally result in death for those in fields and in the garment factories. Do these people have a 'Distaff Day', do they have a break for their festivals? Writing this article made me wonder if we should bring back Distaff Day - not as a time for us to pick up our spindles, but as a time to consider those who are doing the spinning now
© Maureen James 2005