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Large and small distaffs

Nowadays you can often see flat carved wooden pieces with or without a handle hanging as decorations on the walls of people's homes. Specimens of such small ornamented boards can be seen in museums, their illustrations are included in books on folk art. Those are small and large distaffs, the main implements of women's work, passed on from generation, closely related to the spiritual world of the Lithuanian nation.

Before the advent of the spinning wheels in the 18th century, distaffs were the main implements for spinning. In the eastern parts of Lithuania and the western parts of Byelorussia, inhabited by Lithuanians, distaffs were used as late as the beginning of the 20th century. The shape of a distaff reminds of a spade turned upside down. There are three main parts, the head, the shaft and the seat for the spinner. The head and the handle are made of the same piece of wood. The heads may have one of the three shapes: those with a broad flat top end, those similar to a willow leaf and those with a pointed head. The first ones are rather heavy, the second ones are small, graceful and fight, the third ones are of medium size, harmonious and peaceful. The front side of a distaff is heavily ornamented. The back side to which the tow is attached while spinning, has ornaments only on the parts which are not hidden by the tow.

The first thing that attracts the eye is the great variety of ornaments and compositions. A closer look reveals that the number of the main ornamental motifs is not very great, there is , in fact, only one compositional scheme of infinite variety. There are three main ornamental elements: circles with segmented stars, circles' with triangular small teeth, and parallel lines going in all directions.

Circles and segmented stars predominate. The stars may be large and small. They may have four, six, eight or even more points which may pass into flowers, petals and other things. It is enough to change the proportions of the star segments, the number and form of the petals, to vary the depth of the cut, to change the form of the encircling line and the star will look quite different. Toothed lines and squares are combined in various ways. There are also great possibilities of variation in the placing of parallel lines.

The composition of the ornaments is rather stable. The central line contains from one to four and even more segmented stars, the size of which increases toward the bottom. The circles are placed within bands of parallel lines. The borders of distaffs are adorned with lines of triangular teeth. The ornamentation is rather dense, but it never looks overdressed. Sometimes free spaces are filled with figures of men and birds. The shaft is, as a rule, less ornamented.

With the appearance of the spinning wheel, the demand for distaffs decreased. While using a spinning wheel, the tow is fastened on a small board called distaff. In Zemaitija and Suvalkija small distaffs are very often given to women as gifts.

Differently from large distaffs, small distaffs are more varied. Some of them are similar to large distaffs except for the carved top and edges. The dominant ornamental motif is that of the sun - two connected circles around segmented stars. The ornaments may also include a rosette with nine segments, half-moons, rhombuses, small circles, ornaments in the shape of the letter S, and others. Many possibilities are offered by different carving techniques. Sometimes the old symbols go hand in hand with Christmas symbols - crosses, chalices and hearts. The front side is more heavily ornamented than the back side.

At the beginning of the present century small distaffs underwent the greatest changes. The ancient symbols were replaced by plant motifs, pot flowers and lilies. Little by little the ornamentation was becoming more realistic. Lithuanian women used to spend of lot of time working at a spinning wheel or a distaff and at the same time passing down on to their children stories, legends, riddles and proverbs. A great number of them used to be created just there, under the aegis of the sun rays, symbols of virtue, beauty and hope. A woman at a spinning wheel or a distaff was also the clandestine instructor in Lithuanian letters at the turn of the century when Lithuanian books were banned by the Russian tsar.

Nowadays large and small distaffs have become popular ethnic souvenirs.

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Copyright , 1996 Lithuanian Folk Culture Centre.