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Device used in hand spinning in which individual fibres are drawn out of a mass of prepared fibres held on a stick (the distaff), twisted together to form a continuous strand, and wound on a second stick (the spindle). It is most often used for making linen; wool does not require a distaff (seecarding). The first stage in mechanizing spinning was to mount the spindle horizontally in bearings to rotate with a large hand-driven wheel; the distaff, carrying the mass of fibre, was held in the left hand, and the spinning wheel slowly turned with the right. The Saxon, or Saxony, wheel incorporated a bobbin on which the yarn was wound continuously; the distaff holding the raw fibre became a stationary vertical rod, and the wheel was activated by a foot treadle, freeing both the operator's hands. From 17th-century England, the word distaff became a synonym for maternal as most spinning was done by women in their homes. See alsodomestic system.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on distaff, visit Britannica.com.