Distaff Day: Fun and Fire?

Distaff day falls on January 7th each year. It is the day after 12th night, also known as Epiphany. Traditionally, it was the day when the festivities of Christmas were over and women went back to their distaves and resumed the regular daily duties of spinning.

There is also some fun folklore that spinners talk about on this day. The tradition, supposedly, is that when Distaff day and the men’s equivalent, Plough day (the Monday following Epiphany) fell on the same day there was mischief afoot!

According to the folklore, the men would leave their ploughs, return home and tease the women by lighting the flax on fire. The women would retaliate by dumping buckets of water on the men. This is the story that I and many other spinners have heard about the bygone traditions of this holiday.

The source of this folklore is a 17th century poem written by Robert Herrick. With all the work it takes to prepare flax for spinning, and the very real danger of playing with fire indoors this tradition sounds shocking to say the least! When I learned it originated from a book of poetry titled, Hesperides, (a reference to Greek mythology) I began to doubt that this was a literal description of Distaff day traditions. I’m sure there was fun and antics, but I’m skeptical about the idea that people were trying to light any flax on fire, especially indoors.

I made a video explaining my thoughts about this spinner’s holiday and you can watch it here!

Here is the original St. Distaffs Day poem by  Robert Herrick (1591–1674) describing the St. Distaffs Day antics:

St. Distaff’s Day; Or, the Morrow after Twelfth-day

        PARTLY work and partly play     
          You must on St. Distaff’s Day:     
        From the plough soon free your team;     
          Then come 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.    

~ Robert Herrick  

What do you think? Was Robert Herrick writing a funny poem perhaps a little like the Shel Silverstein of his time? Or is this poem a documentation of ceremony? A pastoral themed literal description of a quaint country tradition for the 7th of January?

If you would like to learn more about Robert Herrick, his life and poetry, I found this article by Poetry Foundation to be very interesting and thorough!

I learned about St. Distaffs day when I became a spinner. It has been claimed as a modern spinning holiday when spinners get together for spin-ins, demonstrations, and as seen in this post from Fiberygoodness, spin together events. I don’t want to be a St. Distaff day Scrooge so let me just say that I think any reason to get together with spinners and have community is wonderful! Thankfully, we don’t have to light flax on fire to have a good time. I look forward to when we can all safely celebrate St. Distaff day together in person again!

My personal tradition is to keep a bit of fluff from every project I do over the course of the year. On Distaff day, I card all the fluff into a textured batt and spin a commemorative skein of yarn, using a distaff of course. It is like a scrap book of the prior year, similar to a memory quilt.

My Distaff Day yarn from 2021 includes a piece from every project I spun in 2020.

2 thoughts on “Distaff Day: Fun and Fire?”

  1. What a fun history! Taking time to find fun and joy in an everyday event should be practiced now! It reminds me of a philosophy I read once in school. I cannot remember the philosopher and my books in storage so cannot review at this time. The idea was if you are digging a ditch make it the best ditch you can dig and enjoy the challenge of devising the best ditch possible.

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