By Haydn Brown.
Before factory-made cloth was invented, spinning was considered one of the most demanding female chores as before the Spinning Wheel arrived, this activity was slowly and tediously done on a Drop Spindle. One pound of woollen yarn might take a week to spin and a pound of heavy cotton yarn, several weeks. Women of all ages spun threads and when normal activities resumed, they would also spin at home in the evenings, after daytime working in the factory. Spinning was the only way to turn raw wool, cotton or flax, into thread, before it became cloth.
Several times recently, readers have enjoyed descriptions of certain dates connected with historic events, famous people and more. We’ve just had New Year’s Day and next month, comes St Valentine’s Day. But there are other “named” days relating to unusual, forgotten or bygone customs and the following is one example:-
In England, as well as other European countries the days from Christmas through Twelfth Night were once considered a time of rest from the labours of spinning. The maidens returned to their work on St. Distaff’s Day, January 7th. This day was also known as Rock Day, which is derived from the German word rocken, which means both distaff and woman’s. Robert Herrick’s poem about St Distaff’s Day comes from the anthology, Hesperides, and was published in 1647:
St. Distaff’s day, or the morrow after Twelfth-Day
(from Hesperides by Rober Herrick)
Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on S. Distaffs day:
From the Plough soone free your teame;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Bring in pailes of water then,
Let the Maides bewash the men.
Give S. Distaffe all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.
The general suggestion of the poem seems to be that men and women should go back to work after the Christmas break but should do so lightly and with some playfulness thrown in before settling in for the long haul. The command ”Partly worke and partly play/ Ye must on S. Distaffs day” is probably a fair observation on the actual state of affairs, given that Plough Monday games (on the Monday after Epiphany) are well attested in many rural areas, especially East Anglia. Little it seemed was therefore taken too seriously on the first day back at work; it became a joke holiday and they called it St. Distaff’s Day. Of course, there never was a real St. Distaff, the “distaff” was, in fact, a principal spinning tool – a rod on to which flax was tied and from which, thread was pulled.
Although women resumed work on January 7th, men still stayed free until Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany (6th Jan). If that fell on a Tuesday, they wouldn’t return until Monday, 12th January! As it was, the Plough Monday celebrations were a great deal more popular in the days leading up to the 19th century when England still had a sizable rural, agricultural population. A large number of rural customs that flourished in England in the mid-19th century were dying or dead by the beginning of the 20th as people migrated from the country to cities and lost their ties to rural life. Antiquarians and, later, folklorists and anthropologists took to the task of recording the remains of these customs, as well as hunting down snippets of information from archives. As for the plough-boys when the festival was at its height, well they used this discrepancy to no good by playing pranks on the busy spinners. The most popular of these pranks was to set fire to the tow and flax which was awaiting processing. The spinners in turn would quench the fire with buckets of water, drenching both fire and firebug.
Large and small St Distaff’s Day gatherings of the fibre-based community were held nationwide on 7th January, with little work being done that day. Records suggest that in England, St. Distaff’s Day was only ‘celebrated’ between the 13th and 17th centuries.