AskDefine | Define distaff

Dictionary Definition

distaff adj : characteristic of or peculiar to a woman; "female sensitiveness"; "female suffrage" [syn: female]


1 the sphere of work by women
2 the staff on which wool or flax is wound before spinning

User Contributed Dictionary



From distaf < distæf < dis- cognate with Middle Low German dise "bunch of flax" + stæf "staff".


  1. of, relating to, or characteristic of women
  2. referring to the maternal side of a family




of, relating to, or characteristic of women

Derived terms


  1. a spindle, the rod used for spinning and then winding natural fibres, especially wool.
  2. the part of a spinning wheel from which thread is drawn to be spun
  3. anything traditionally done by or considered of importance to women only
  4. women considered as a group


part of a spinning wheel
anything traditionally done by or considered of importance to women only
women considered as a group

Extensive Definition

As a noun, a distaff (also called a rock) is a tool used in spinning. It is designed to hold the unspun fibers, keeping them untangled and thus easing the spinning process. It is most commonly used to hold flax, and sometimes wool, but can be used for any type of fiber. Fiber is wrapped around the distaff, and tied in place with a piece of ribbon or string. The word comes from dis in Low German, meaning a bunch of flax, connected with staff.


There are two common forms, depending on the spinning method. The traditional form is a staff, held under one's arm while using a spindle. It is about 3 feet long, held under the left arm, with the left hand drawing the fibers from it. This version is the older of the two, as spindle spinning predates spinning on a wheel.
A distaff can also be mounted as an attachment to a spinning wheel. On a wheel it is placed next to the bobbin, where it will be in easy reach of the spinner. This version is shorter, but otherwise doesn't differ from the spindle version.
Recently handspinners have begun using wrist-distaffs to hold their fiber; these are made of flexible material such as braided yarn, and can swing freely from the wrist. They generally consist of a loop with a tail, at the end of which is a tassel, often with beads on each strand. The spinner wraps the roving or tow around the tail and through the loop to keep it out of the way, and to keep it from getting snarled.

Dressing a distaff

Dressing a distaff is the act of wrapping the fiber around the distaff. With flax, the wrapping is done by laying the flax fibers down, approximately parallel to each other and the distaff, then carefully rolling the fibers onto the distaff. A ribbon or string is then tied at the top, and loosely wrapped around the fibers to keep them in place.

Other meanings

The term distaff is also used as an adjective and is used as a descriptor for the female branch of a family (e.g., the "distaff side" of a person's family refer's to the person's mother and her blood relatives). This term developed in the English speaking communities where a distaff spinning tool was used often to symbolize domestic life. The term distaff has fallen largely into disuse in recent times, although its antonyms of sword and spear to describe a male grouping are even more obscure.
One still-recognized use of the term is in horse racing, in which races limited to female horses are referred to as distaff races. From 1984 until 2007 American Breeders' Cup World Championships, the major race for fillies and mares is the Breeders' Cup Distaff. It is commonly regarded as the female analog to the better-known Breeders' Cup Classic, though female horses are not barred from entering that race.
The Women's division of the mixed-martial-arts organization EXC(Elite Extreme Combat) is known as the "Distaff Division".
In Norse mythology the Goddess Frigg spins clouds from her bejeweled distaff in the Norse constellation known as Frigg's Spinning Wheel.


See also

distaff in German: Rocken
distaff in Polish: Kądziel
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