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. As an adjective the term distaff is used to describe the female side of a family.
In Western Europe, there were two common forms of distaffs, 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 (0.9 m) 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 is in easy reach of the spinner. This version is shorter, but otherwise doesn't differ from the spindle version.
By contrast, the traditional Russian distaff, used both with spinning wheels and spindles, is L-shaped, and consists of a horizontal board, known as the dontse (Russian: донце), and a flat vertical piece, frequently oar-shaped, to the inner side of which the bundle of fibers was tied or pinned. The spinner sat on the dontse with the vertical piece of the distaff to her left, and drew the fibers out with her left hand. The distaff was often richly carved and painted, and was an important element of Russian folk art.
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.
The term distaff is also used as an adjective to describe the female branch of a family (e.g., the "distaff side" of a person's family refers 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, and its antonyms of sword, spear and agnate 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 at the American Breeders' Cup World Championships, the major race for fillies and mares was the Breeders' Cup Distaff (beginning in 2008, the event is referred to as the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic. Starting in 2013 the name of the race changed back to being called 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 Xtreme Combat) is known as the "Distaff Division".
In the video game Loom by Lucasfilm Games (1990), the Weavers' Guild, the game's equivalent to wizards, and the main character, Bobbin Threadbare, use wooden staves called distaffs to control their magic, described as "weav[ing] the very fabric of reality".