A Distaff from the Russian Arctic

Since I’m retired,

and collect on a budget, I’ve become two further things. 

First, I’m a “bottom-feeder.”  I need nearly to “steal.” 

Second, I’ve become increasingly eclectic in my collecting.

I go to places, and look for things in locations most collectors, who would call themselves “serious” at all, would not consider.

Recently, my wife and I were in an antique mall near Hagerstown, Maryland.  I knew there was a dealer couple in this mall who often had interesting things (I’ve talked to them off and on for two years about an attractive, Kashmir-type shawl they have that was woven in Scotland).  On this day, as I approached the area in which they have their stalls, I saw the husband talking to a couple about an odd object they had for sale.  Their conversation ended, the couple moved off and I walked up to the object.

It was a carved and painted, wooden, upright “blade,” standing on a foot, that looked like this.

Its upright section turns at the bottom and the “foot” is broken off at its end.  It is entirely of a single, continuous piece and must have been made from a trunk and branch section of a tree.

It is painted on the other side, too, and that looks like this.

It seemed, clearly, a piece of folk art, but what was its purpose and where was it made?  I hadn’t a clue.

The dealer didn’t know much either.  He said he had bought it from some friends because it intrigued him.  The tag said “possibly eastern Europe, 19th century or earlier.”

He was not asking a high price, but it is a sign of how dangerous my tendencies are now, to myself, when I have to admit that I couldn’t walk away from it, despite having no  idea what it was or where it had been made.  So wrote my check and I carried off my “treasure,” wondering all the while whether it was such.

The Washington, D.C. rug community has goodly number of people who have (and often still do) travel widely and who have considerable knowledge of a variety of items, from all over the world.  So, I took it to some rug events and showed it to a number of folks.

It is about 3 feet high and its blade is 9 inches wide.  It tempts one to think “fire place screen,” because of its overall shape, but the blade is too narrow to screen much, and there is no sign at all of exposure to heat.  Guesses ranged from “Pennsylvania Dutch” to “looks like some designs on Pazaryk felts.”

Mike Tschebull was visiting, and suggested that I ask Robert Chenciner about it.  I wrote an email message to Chenciner,  attaching lots of photos of it, and asked my questions.  His response came quickly.

Chenciner wrote:


What you have is a painted and carved pryalka or distaff with the bottom bit which the woman sits on broken off.

 Yours is a nice example with the horse drawn sleigh.

 I have one in almost the same group with horses and stags copied from archaeological finds.

 There are two illustrated in colour in my catalogue p.14 Carved and Coloured Village Art from Tsarist Lands, Pushkin House London Exhibition May-June 2009.

 They are early 20th century from Archangel region in the Arctic produced in three villages: one in Borok area, Puchuga; and Pervaya Zherlingskaya at the mouth of the Lower Toima river.

Many of the villages where the craftsmen worked and the identities of the craftsmen  ‘have been’ identified, for example the veteran Master distaff-maker Dmitri Khirpunov of Permogorye district Archangel region, photographed by Krugolova c. 1987, p.8. ibid. ”

 They were Old Believers exiled by Peter the Great.

 The method of painting using a chalk based ground and colours mixed with egg yolk,   owes much to Novgorod icons and the designs are related to older illuminated manuscripts.

 The slim but profusely illustrated catalogue is $20 plus postage which I will find out, if you want.

 The dealer who put the show on with me has lots more if you want to buy some and they cost (I think) between £sterling £300 and £1200.


Incredible!  I buy something, absolutely blind, and find that it’s textile-related, from a very specific, exotic-sounding location and made by a specific group of “exiles.”

I sent off and bought Chenciner’s little exhibition catalog.  In it, he and his co-author, John Cornall, mention four other books on such distaffs.  I found and bought three of them.  Wikepedia is a risky source of information, but seems to have some sound stuff on distaffs, including these Russian types.  In what follows, I’ve consulted and drawn on all of these sources.

Chenciner has named it, but what is a “distaff” anyway?  A distaff is a tool to aid a spinner by holding the material being spun conveniently nearby.

Sometimes the “tool” used to hold the material being spun is the spinner’s arm.  Here, below, is an image of a contemporary Turkish lady, spinning with a drop spindle who has simply wound the roving of wool to be spun around her left arm.

But, apparently, it was seen as advantageous to have the material being spun held separately, that is, not on the arm, and some distaffs are separate items of wood that take the arm-like, shape of a pole.

The material being spun is wound or tied onto the pole, so that it can be pulled down easily for spinning.  The spindle above is a also drop spindle.

Here is another image in which girls are being taught to spin using pole-type distaffs.

Here is a Romanian lady spinning, using a pole distaff, while walking in a field.

“Pole” distaffs usually have to be held.  They were supported, when being used, either under the spinner’s arm, or between her legs.

Distaffs are also used with spinning wheels.  Here, below, is one such.

But the pole distaffs are not of the type I found.  Mine is of the sort that feature a “blade” area at their top.

Sometimes the blade area has carved “teeth” at the top, seeming to provide a way of securing the material to be spun onto the distaff.

In fact, though, it does not seem, usually, that the material to be spun is piled on the “teeth” (although that does happen).  Instead, more frequently, the  material to be spun is tied onto the blade with  top and bottom cords, in a way that lets it be drawn out easily by the spinner as she spins.

Here are some old Russian illustrations showing blade-type distaff being used by spinners using drop spindles.

In this illustration it does appear that the material being spun has been piled on the “teeth.”  Notice, also, that the blade distaff is placed so that the spinner can sit on its foot.  This design is an advance over the pole-type distaff, since it frees both of the spinner’s hands and arms for the feeding-spinning tasks.  This illustration also shows that some distaffs were made in two or more pieces, rather than of a continuous, single piece, as mine is.

Here is another illustration that shows blade-type distaffs being used with drop spindles.

This illustration appears as decoration on some distaffs.

Here is a closer look at just one of the spinners in it.

You can see, clearly, in the image above, that the material being spun is being held on the blade by two horizontal cords.

Although Chenciner and Cornall show Romanian and Bulgarian distaffs of the “pole” variety, all of the Russian distaffs I have seen illustrations of, so far, have been of the blade-type. 

There is, however, quite a variety of blade-type distaffs.

There are some that, while they have feet, have such narrow blades that they seem to echo the pole-type.

As the images both above and below this sentence show, there are some distaffs that are carved, but not painted.  Distaffs were carved long before they were painted.

The distaffs above are carved in relief.  Some are also carved “lattice” style, as is the one below.

Notice that the blade of the distaff above is both carved and painted.  The lion image at its bottom is painted.

Among distaffs with painting, some are elaborately painted on the foot, but not the blade.

Here is a color detail of the foot in the image above.

But with other painted distaffs, as is the case with mine, the reverse occurs.

The designs and devices carved and/or painted on Russian distaffs also vary a great deal.

In more remote areas, like the northern one from which mine comes, local folk art traditions seem to have guided distaff decoration more closely and external influences seem less in evidence.

Old geometric forms, and floral patterns are used together with panels, the designs on which are called “genre” usages: pictorial depictions of peasant life.

In more urban areas, exposed to external influences, distaff designs exhibit a broader range of variation.

More than one writer on Russian distaffs has noted that the layout and designs appropriate to particular parts of the blade seem traditionally defined in the remote Arctic locale where my distaff was made.  

The fact that traditional methods have still been used fairly recently in these Arctic villages has permitted the documentation of such aspects of distaff making there. 

In their catalog, Chenciner and Cornall provide a photo (mentioned by Chenciner in his email to me) of a distaff maker, still living in 1959,  who is holding a distaff that is of the type mine is.

And in her book, Russian Folk Art, 1995, Alison Hilton, who teaches at Georgetown University, just down the road from where I write, describes in some detail how the folk artist, Pelageia Amosova, working in the 1950s, in the mode of her family, who were specialists in distaff making in the villages around Borok, worked to make one.  She was interviewed and observed explicitly following the practices of her father in making and painting a distaff.

The surface of the blade was treated, as icon makers did their icons, with “a mixture of glue and honey, so that the paint would not soak into the wood.”  After further ground preparation of the blade surface, Amosova, began decorating work on the  side of the blade that faces away from the spinner as she sits on the foot.  She divided it (by drawing) into three horizontal bands across the entire blade.  These bands have names.  The top row is described as the one “with window.”  The next lower row is described as the “center” one or “the one with the bird.”  The bottom row is called the one “with the horse.”

Here, again,  is that side of the blade of my distaff.

You can see that this “windows” band,” bird,” band, “horse” band, design recipe has been followed precisely.

Hilton writes that “Hundreds of Northern Dvina distaffs display this same pattern with the topmost section symmetrical and generally architectural, the center often containing a bird, a flowering tree, or some other heraldic image, and the bottom portion filled with a lively, asymmetrical scene of a sleigh or carriage ride.”

Similarly, the inner side of most such distaff blades was divided into two parts, the upper, containing floral ornamentation, the lower, a genre scene, most often something social, like a tea party.  This side of the distaff blade might also be left with an unpainted area in its center, so that a small mirror could be attached there.

Here, again, is the side of my distaff that would be next to the spinner, when in use.

The layout of this side follows the prescribed division into two bands.  The decorations in the top band might be seen to be sourced in foliage, but are abstracted.  There is a large undecorated central area that would make a place for a mirror.  The genre scene is not social, but is used instead to provide images of two horses moving prettily, with one leg up and extended, perhaps demonstrating the ability to perform one of the intermediary speed four beat horse gaits.

Alison Hilton says that “Distaffs…were the only implements preserved well enough and in sufficient quantity to allow thorough study of their forms, styles of decoration, and geographical variations…”  This is important because of the great quantity of time that had to be devoted to the various tasks entailed when societies were: 1) growing the animals  or plants from with the fibers were taken, 2) taking and preparing the fibers for spinning, 3) spinning them, 4) dyeing the spun fibers, if that was needed, 5) weaving them and 6) making them into items of clothing.  I heard John Wertime say, once, that the amount of time that had to be devoted, in traditional societies, to tasks associated with creating textiles and using them to fashion a variety of things, including clothes,  was greater than that of  any others in the necessary task universe.

And spinning is one of the most time-consuming of these six kinds of tasks.  It took several spinners to keep a single weaver provided.  So lots of time (usually of girls and women) was spent spinning.  It was something that had to be arranged so that it could be done on an intermittent basis, almost anywhere, including when the spinner was walking (and perhaps even carrying a child on her back).

Now there are, no doubt, real satisfactions associated with being able to spin well.  (Mark Traxler, the spinner-dyer-weaver in Minnesota, is always exclaiming when he finds a good, old piece of Turkmen or Baluch weaving and is in awe of the spinning of its very fine warps.  Real skill is exemplified.)  But if you are spinning for the large amounts of time that women were, in traditional societies, then there must, also, be spinning tedium.

One of the ways in which the potential tedium of solitary spinning could be avoided was to add a social dimension, the “spinning party,” so to speak.  The women of these northern Russian towns would assemble in groups to spin.  The press of the spinning requirement, and the social character of such spinning contexts seem, in turn, to have the shaped the character of the tools, like the distaff, used in spinning. 

First, the distaff needed to be carry-able.  Mine looks possibly heavy, but is not.  A quite light wood was chosen for it. It could be carried a considerable distance without much exertion.

Second, the drop spindle was what was usually used by these northern Russia spinners, because it is far easier to transport than the large spinning wheels, required for flax, would have been.

The social setting of group spinning and the fact that it was done in front of one’s neighbors, added a “looking good” dimension to the ways in which distaff were decorated.  Remember that the distaff has a blade that moves to a foot at the bottom on which the spinner sat.  The blade is turned 45 degrees from the direction of the foot, so that one side of it is facing the side of the sitting spinner and the other is facing outward and is more visible to the other spinners in the group. 

Guess what?  These lady spinners wanted their distaffs to “look good” to their spinning colleagues, and differences in the intensity of decoration of the two sides of their distaffs reveals that.  The side facing away from their side, the one more visible to their fellow spinners, was noticeably more intensely decorated.

Here, looking again at my piece,  is the decoration on the blade on the side facing out (that others will see).

And here is the decoration on the side of the blade that is next to the weaver (so be less seen).

Not only is the decoration less intense on this side, it includes an central open space.  This open space is potentially provided for attachment of a mirror (with which the spinner can check to see if she is “looking good” on another dimension).

The desire to maintain this difference in intensity of decoration is strong enough that it affects the decoration of the stem of the distaff as well.

Here is the decoration on the side of the stem most visible to others.

And here is the decoration on the stem side closest to the spinner.

Such things give us glimpses of the way in which the distaff functioned in these communities.  Functions that often moved well beyond spinning.  These spinning gatherings were sometimes marked by singing and were joined by men who played musical instruments.  Real parties.  Distaffs were part of the social “fabric” of these peasant communities.

Chenciner and Cornall observe that while “the majority of distaffs were plain and functional,” they were often “given as a gift for a betrothed, or a daughter, or a wife.” (ed., There are child-sized distaffs.)  That “some were exquisitely carved and personally inscribed. ”  They continue, “Russian distaffs were the most special and spectacular.  They were usually painted on both sides as well as carved. ”  Alison says, “just as some textiles had ritual importance, for instance the embroidered towels, used in greeting ceremonies or to embellish the icon corner and garments worn for the first day of harvest, tools for making these textiles were also invested with special meanings.”

  One last issue, then I’ll stop:  How did this distaff made in Arctic Russia in the early 20th century, get to Hagerstown, Maryland?

Well, something Chenciner said in his note to me may provide a basis for conjecture. 

He said that the craftsmen who made my distaff came down from communities of “Old Believers” exiled into the far north by Peter the Great.  Peter ordered this internal exile, in the 17th century, because of the Old Believers’ resistance  to changes in the Russian church and to westernizing in general. 

The character of the beliefs of Old Believers affected many parts of their lives.  Alison says “In the Old Believer communities of the north, painting was still regarded with a kind of mystique, as a divinely given art…In these areas there was much overlapping of religious and secular life and it is not surprising that the painted decoration on objects used every day — dishes, distaffs, storage boxes and furniture — helped perpetuate styles and images from earlier religious art.

 “Old Believers” were concerned about more than religion.  They were trying to hold onto a “way of life.”  This led not only to internal exile, but also to emigration.

So a next question, related to trying to determine how my distaff got to the Maryland countryside is, were/are there Old Believer communities in the U.S. and, if so, where were/are they?   So I checked.  It turns out that there is more than one community of Old Believers in the U.S., but the one closest to Hagerstown, Maryland is a, once vigorous one, in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Here is what I could find out about it, conveniently:

In the early 20th century, Erie had a significant Russian immigrant community, many of whom worked in the shipbuilding plants along the bay front. Unusual for a Great Lakes city, a substantial number of these Russian immigrants were priest-less Old Believers.  In 1983, most of this community united with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and became priested Old Ritualists.  Even today, the gold-domed Church of the Nativity,on the bay front near the former heart of the Russian community, is an Old Ritualist church, home to famed icon painter Fr. Theodore Jurewicz.  Bishop Daniel of Erie, of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, is based in Erie and is the Vicar President of the Synod of Bishops for the Old Ritualists.

So  perhaps  my distaff migrated south and east a few hundred miles…but who knows?  Might be worth a trip, sometime, to poke around Erie a bit.

I can’t recommend my eclectic tendencies to you, but I’ve already had a great deal more enjoyment from this blind purchase than I would ever have predicted.


R. John Howe


Most of the images and quotations above were taken from one of the following sources:

The Soviet era publication above presents distaffs from the Russian Museum (Leningrad).  It is mostly in Russian.  A two-page summary and captions for most images are provided in English.  It claims to include every type of “artistically executed” distaff known in European Russia.  Aurora Arts Publishers, 1970.

The wikipedia link that results from a Google search for “distaff” is:


It worth looking down into it, even into the Russian sources listed.  There are, often, lots of images.

A last note, not about a source I used in this piece, follows.

As part of my thanks to Robert Chenciner for his very great and precise help in this matter, let me alert you to his forthcoming book. 

Here is the publication flyer he shared with me (wordpress, unfortunately, limits me to a maximum image width of 450 pixels).

Below is the text alone, to give you a better chance to read it.

Robert says his book is expected to be printed in three or four months.

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