|A distaff is the stick that the bunch of flax fibers or wool is|
wrapped around, from which the thread is spun.
(Webster's New 20th Century Dictionary)
Note: Contains violence. Once upon a time, in Sicily, there lived a farmer. He and his wife rejoiced when a beautiful baby girl was born to them, but alas! Their happiness could not last. Before the baby was a year old, her mother's soul had returned to Heaven. Now the farmer took a second wife. This lady had also born a little girl, less than one year before. Her husband, like the farmer's wife, had expired. This lady became a step-mother to the farmer's child, and raised her alongside her own daughter. Yet her preference among the two girls was clear. As soon as both little ones could walk and speak, one became the pet and the other the drudge. The years passed, and poor little "Ugly Centenerola", as her stepsister and mother called her, was always dirty from her toils. Her father, in his fields from dawn to dusk, left household matters to the women. Thus it was that his own child was fed upon old crusts even as she cooked rich meals for the other two in the house. Stepmother did not miss a chance to berate the girl. She seemed to take pleasure in devising absurd tasks to demand, then beating Ugly Centenerola for disobedience. Her own simpleton of a daughter was now grown plump and prone to whining from a childhood of idleness and dainties. Mama was was feeling particularly vexed at both girls, and the thought struck her to send the Ugly One out to the cow pasture for the day. She sent with her a distaff (which is a big wooden spool) of flax, and promised her a sound beating if it was not spun into thread by sunset.
Ugly Centenerola took up her spindle and distaff, and a great tow of flax. The large bundle of fibers and stems was nearly as big as she was. Alone in the cow pasture, she began to spin, and then to cry. Finally, her tears spent, she blew her nose, and said to the nearest cow, "O my cow! What shall I do?' 'You spin, whilst I wind!' says the cow." And in this way, she spun the flax into thread and went home at sunset with a full spindle. Now her stepmother saw an opportunity to profit. If the girl could spin so quickly, why then the next day she would load her with twice the flax. Surely the Ugly One could not succeeed at that! So the next day, poor Ugly Centenerola was given two distaffs full of flax, and threatened with two beatings if they were not spun by nightfall. This time when she got to the pasture, she asked politely whether the kind cow might help her once more? When she showed the two distaffs, the cow said again, "You spin whilst I wind." and in this way, the thread was spun. But night had fallen by the time Centenerola was back at the cottage, and her stepmother was very angry. She beat the girl until she was even uglier than before, and in the morning, gave her three distaffs of flax to spin. And then she spoke words that sent chills into the young girl's heart: Stepmother had seen the cowing winding the thread. That evening, after it had helped Centenerola, the stepmother was going to butcher the cow! Poor girl. Though she wept and pleaded, her stepmother only laughed the harder and beat the girl right out the door. Centenerola really did look ugly by the time she came to the cow pasture. Her nose red and swollen, her eyes streaming with tears and her back sore from the beating, the child dragged her three heavy distaffs to the pasture. When she told the cow what was going to happen that evening, the cow said again, "You spin whilst I wind." And when all the flax was spun, the cow told her friend what she must do. "Tell your father you want the cow's paunch. Wash it, and you will find a ball inside you will find a box. Whenever you need clothes, or anything whatsoever, look inside the box and you will find it." So Centenerola took her distaffs and her spindle and led the cow home. Her father promised that she would have the paunch, but the stepmother was suspicious. When her ugly stepdaughter said that she only wanted the paunch to eat, she relented. Let the girl fill her belly with that of the cow, who cared? So the cow was butchered and the paunch given to Centenerola, and in this way, the girl was kept in health and comfort. One day her stepmother announced that there was a festival in town, and the she and her own dear daughter would be attending. "What does that matter to me?" asked Centenerola. But when the other two had gone, she went to her box and asked for fine clothing. She put it on and went into town. Passing the church, she went in to pray, and there she found her stepmother and sister. Spying the fine lady at the door, the stepmother commanded her dear daughter. "Fetch a chair for this lady." The stepsister did so, and Centenerola then gave her a ring in exchange. She completed her prayer, walked through the fair, and returned home. There she ranto her room and took out her box. "Take these lovely clothes away, and give me back my rags, I pray." she chanted. It was no sooner said than done. The next week, when her stepmother and sister had gone to Mass, Centenerola again beseeched the box for finery, and again it was provided. A small bag of the coins called quattrini appeared as well. When Centenerola got to church, there was the prince, kneeling in the front row. She slipped right in beside him! Who was this mysterious, pious girl? The prince had never seen her before. Everyone around treated her with such respect, and a lady sent her daughter to fetch the maiden a chair. The prince noticed that when the chair was brought, the gracious stranger gave the girl a ring in exchange for it. But no sooner had the stranger said her prayers than she fled from the church! The prince simply had to know who she was. He therefore commanded his servants to follow. But Centenerola drew out her silver quattrini and flung them over her shoulder as she ran. Back home in her rags, she waited for her stepmother and sister to arrive. When they did, and showed Ugly Centenerola the the second ring which the fine lady had given, the girl gave the same saucy retort for the second time. "What does that matter to me?" Meanwhile, the coins she had thrown struck the servants in the eyes and they were blinded. Feeling their way along the ground one of them found a shoe, and this he took back to the prince. When the prince saw the golden shoe he was overcome with curiosity about its owner. He would find her, he declared, if he had to try it on every girl in the kingdom. This he proceeded to do, but on "one girl it was too tight, on another, too loose." At length, he came to the house of Centenerola. He tried the shoe on her stepsister, and by no means would it fit. Desperate, the prince asked if there were not one more girl in the house? That's when Centenerola stepped out. The shoe slid onto her foot as if it had been made for her! The prince asked for her hand in marriage, and this was granted. But now the stepmother bade the prince return to the palace so that she could prepare the girl for the wedding feast. Cunningly, she built the fire up high, and dragged the wash tub out for a bath. Ugly Centenerola watched these preparations, and quietly went to her magic box. There she procured another ring, and with this pretty trinket, persuaded her stepsister to take her old ragged apron and climb into the wash tub, the better that she could scrub it clean. Stepmother's fire was hot now, and the cauldron full of water was boiling. When she saw the filthy apron of her ugly stepdaughter as the girl came into the kitchen, she was consumed with hatred. Quick as a wink she pushed the girl into the wash tub, and sluiced the boiling water until the Ugly One was drowned! That's when she heard a noise behind her. Turning to tell her dear daughter the good news of her stepsister's death, she saw to her horror Ugly Centenerola instead! The girl was dressed in her magical finery, and her own dear daughter lay boiled like a chicken in the pot. Centenerola went to the palace, and she and the prince were married that same day. The stepmother could do nothing but jump into the cauldron after her daughter, and so she met a fitting end.
Notes: This is Cox Number 34, P.210 (Cox, M.R. 1892/2010)
Spinning was an life dominating task for women for centuries. That is why the expression "to come from the distaff side" means to come from the mother's side: women were always, but always, spinning! When we understand that to make a dress, one had first to raiser either an acre of flax or a couple of sheep. Then came the chore of harvesting the flax fibers, or shearing the sheep. Then the linen (for that it what is made from spun flax) or the wool had to be cleaned and prepared into a tow, or bundle. And then it could be spun. Of course this produced thread, which had to be woven into cloth! When the yardage was ready, the sewing could begin. We see why a new dress was no small request, and why Cinderella's rags were so hard to replace.
Montessori Connection 10+ Fundamental Needs/Clothing/Spinning and Weaving.
1 Read the story and and find out what a DISTAFF AND SPINDLE are.
2. Learn about different ways of making thread (spinning wheel, distaff and spindle; Native American methods: Clothing in the Middle Ages (Medieval World or How People Lived or The American Revolution for Kids: A History with 21 Activities (For Kids series), or The Well-Dressed Child: Children's Clothing, 1820-1940,
3. Try to find a resource for raw wool, and see if you can card some.
4. Learn to spin or learn about cloth making: Navajo: Kids explore traditional arts and lifeways.