Spinning Flax

Last week was April vacation, which meant I had more free time than usual to do fun things. Last Tuesday I was thrilled to spend about four hours with Lisa Bertoldi getting some instruction in spinning flax. You might think, with all the flaxy things I do, that I would already be good at spinning flax. Not yet. It has been a goal for me for many years, but recently it has made it to the top of my “urgent” list. Urgency plus vacation days equals actually devoting time to it! Thanks to Lisa, I am quite a bit better at spinning flax now. (12/30/2023 Edited:  Lisa no longer has a website but you can read more about her on the Working Weavers Studio Trail website)

Here is the strick of flax spread out on the table. I am getting the fiber ready to dress the distaff. You can see the distaff on the left:

Continue reading “Spinning Flax”

Handspun Louet Flax Top

Thanks to more snow days than usual this winter, I have finally finished spinning up a fiber preparation I bought years ago, 8 ounces of Louet bleached flax top. I have not spent much time on spinning in recent years, hence the delay. My plan was to experiment with wet-spinning and dry-spinning the fiber, to see if it made a significant difference in the yarn. I think it did. Continue reading “Handspun Louet Flax Top”

Perchta and Flax Burning

I have been having a hard time wrapping up this thread because the more I read, the more complicated this whole subject becomes. I was initially annoyed by the idea of wanton flax-destruction on St. Distaff’s Day or Rock Day (a rock is a distaff). Then I was intrigued by the relationship between St. Distaff’s Day/Rock Day and Plough Monday, which is the following day. Known by these names, these two traditions appear to be mostly English. However, there are plenty of similarities to other holidays in other parts of Europe that are celebrated around the same time. Then I became intrigued by the holidays that are celebrated the night before St. Distaff’s Day. To sum up, there were theatrical antics on Twelfth Night/Perchtenlaufen, then antics on Rock Day, then more theatrical antics on Plough Day. The dates of these holidays are January 5th, 6th, and 7th, respectively. If everyone had to celebrate each of these holidays, we’d all have to spend several sleepless nights and exhausting days parading around in the snow in fantastic costumes, running or getting chased, making a lot of noise, getting wet and/or being set of fire. Phew. I can hardly get out of bed this time of year. The timing struck me as more than co-incidental. These holidays seem to be related, but how? Continue reading “Perchta and Flax Burning”

When to Weave and When Not

I know that I ended my last two posts by saying that my “next” post would be about goddesses, carts, and plowing and/or Plough Day. Instead I continued to write about spinning prohibitions and the goddesses/folklore figures who imposed them. Well, this post isn’t about Plough Day, either. Sorry about that. I will get to it eventually. Very soon. I promise.

Meanwhile, I have been doing more reading and thinking on the topic of why and when people may have engaged in or avoided certain tasks (spinning, weaving, plowing), and the festivals or traditions that demarcate the appropriate times for these labors. I’m still just talking about Europe, here.

Just as there were prohibitions against performing certain textile-related tasks on certain days, there were also days on which it was considered advantageous to begin or perform certain tasks. In the Carmina Gadelica I came across a footnote that mentions that “setting” the warp was done on a Thursday in Scotland. Continue reading “When to Weave and When Not”

Possible Rock Day Antecedents

medieval-spinners3To begin, I must start with a spelling comment. I have been spelling Rock Day “r-o-c-k but it is often and perhaps more correctly spelled r-o-c with no “k”. A German-language thing maybe? Not being a linguist nor a German speaker, I humbly accept critical comments on this issue. I cannot endorse one spelling versus another for any reasons other than personal: I like r-o-c-k because it is more punk rock! Roc conjures images of a ginormous killer bird, which on second thought I suppose is badass in its own way. So, either way, I don’t mind.

To quickly sum up earlier posts: celebrated on the day after Epiphany (the twelfth day of Christmas), Rock Day or St. Distaff’s Day marked the return of spinners to their spinning after the mid-winter holiday hiatus. Festivities were marked with the burning of flax by the ploughboys, and the dousing of the fires–and of the ploughboys–by the spinners.

Historically in Europe, spinning was prohibited on certain days or during certain times of day. The Twelve Days of Christmas were not the only days during which spinning was banned  (12/24/2023 I tried to edit this link to bring you to the search results for the term “spinning,” but I’m not sure that helps. Below, I deleted the links to Davidson’s books on Googlebooks because they were clunky to navigate. Check out the book from the library, instead!) Depending on the region and the time period, these prohibitions were imposed by goddesses, hefty folklore figures, or the church.

In general, I subscribe to a view of history that accepts this hypothesis: many traditions which came to be associated with powerful folklore figures or Christian saints in relatively recent times were, during more ancient times, the province of goddesses and gods. In the same way that geological principles of continuity help us understand how layers of the earth were created, despite significant disruptions, I like to think that continuity of human traditions through time gives us glimpses to the past, despite the disruptions of history. On the other hand, history is a tricky thing. Knowing who truly might have done what, when, where, how, and (most importantly) why is boggling in its distance and inaccessibility, yet so compelling. I try to find sources and ideas that seem reasonable, to question what seems too thin, and scrutinize what seems prejudiced. Again, I humbly accept informed critiques. Nevertheless, here are my two cents.

In Celtic and Germanic regions of Europe, according to Hilda Ellis Davidson (The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe and Roles of the Northern Goddess), there were many spinning prohibitions. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, two figures known by various names including Holda or Holle and Perchta or Berta, would punish spinners who worked on Saturday evenings, Sundays, or the evenings of a number of other festivals. Spinning at night was also prohibited. In the northern latitudes, it is hard to avoid doing anything after dark in the middle of winter, so an extended period of abstinence around midwinter makes sense. Holda or Perchta would punish transgressors by setting fire to their distaffs, tangling or breaking their yarn, and other terrible things. These figures also punished lazy or careless spinners no matter when they were spinning, and rewarded diligent ones. Despite their punitive aspects, these figures were also protective and beneficent.

Also according to Davidson, in Blekinge, a region of Sweden, spinning was not allowed on Thursdays because the goddess Frigg was spinning on Thursdays. Apparently there is only so much spinning the world can handle on a given day. This makes a certain sense, especially if goddesses were spinning Z and humans were spinning S. Ha! The earth might come to a standstill. “Z” is used to describe the twist in yarn spun with the wheel turning clockwise. “S” describes the twist in yarns spun counterclockwise. Here’s a picture:

Davidson also notes that in Latvia, spinning, knitting, and chopping wood were prohibited on Thursday evenings, thanks to a goddess named Laima.

Davidson comments that even though the festivals of these beings (which, by the way, included dietary stipulations including dumplings and fish on Berchta’s holiday) all took place in mid-winter, she disagrees with Lotte Motz that they represented an earlier Germanic winter goddess. Spinning is not confined to winter and their powers extended beyond the winter season. However, I am intrigued by the association between Berchtentag and the feast of the Epiphany in the Wikipedia article about Perchta (see link above). Someone with more linguistic knowledge than me will have to figure out if that association–which suggests that these holidays may be linked– is well-founded or not.

In Ireland, spinning was forbidden on February 1st, the feast of St. Brigid and also the holiday Imbolg or Imbolc. February 1st was also the first day of ploughing to prepare the fields for spring planting, according to Pamela Berger in The Goddess Obscured. More on that, and on the possible relationship between spinning female characters and processional ploughs and carts, when I finally get to Plough Day.





Rock Day Part Two

OK, back to the main topic of research: St. Distaff’s Day a.k.a Rock Day. What was it, when was it, and why was it so important? And was it ever linked with quasars? No, just kidding! It was actually linked with Plough Day.

Here’s the short form: During the Twelve Days of Christmas, women ceased their spinning labors (and probably increased their cooking labors, to everybody’s satisfaction). When the Christmas celebrations were over, the day that spinning commenced once again was acknowledged with traditional “pranks”. Apparently, one of the principal forms of entertainment was that the ploughboys (who did not have to go back to work until Plough Day or Plough Monday, which was either the next day or a fortnight later, depending on what you read) would light the spinners’ flax on fire. Continue reading “Rock Day Part Two”

Rock Day

A few days ago someone on the Yahoo Flax and Linen group sent an announcement about the celebration of St. Distaff’s Day, or Rock Day, at the Westford Museum in Westford, MA on Sunday January 6th.  I meant to post about it before the event actually happened, but then I had to do some research and go on some tangents, and that took a few days.

Even though I am very interested in old European traditions regarding agriculture and textiles, I had never heard of St. Distaff’s Day or Rock Day by those specific names before. However, I had read about prohibitions against spinning on certain holidays, so, I figured they were probably related. It was time to go into research mode. Continue reading “Rock Day”

Mystery Cordage Plant Identified

Simone and I concur that our mystery cordage plant is Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. What a name! The milkweeds are named after the Greek god of healing and medicine, Asclepius. According to The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (Eastern Region) this is “undoubtedly because some species have long been used to treat a variety of ailments.” The Latin species name incarnata means “flesh-colored,” according to the Audubon Guide. Incarnata doesn’t make it into the “epithets” list in The Hutchinson Dictionary of Plant Names: Common and Botanical, unfortunately. To me the name implies that this is the god Asclepius incarnate (made physical, made flesh, the body of the god), which is spectacular. Continue reading “Mystery Cordage Plant Identified”

Mystery Cordage Photos

Back in May I was visiting family in Maryland, and made some cordage from an unidentified plant growing behind my sister’s apartment. Click here to read the earlier post and Simone’s comment. Now it is in bloom, and she has sent me some photos. At first glance I think it is some kind of milkweed relative, judging by the flowers. I will look into it. Here are the leaves.

mystery cordage leaf structure

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