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Painted distaffs come to Georgia Museum of Art
Unidentified maker (perhaps workshop of Fyodor Kuznetsov) (Russia, Archangel province, Puchuga village), Distaff, early 20th century. Single piece of carved wood with painted decoration. Collection of Michael T. Ricker.


ATHENS, GA.- The Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia presents the exhibition “To Spin a Yarn: Distaffs, Folk Art and Material Culture” from January 21 through April 16, 2017. Organized by the Stephen F. Austin State University Galleries, this exhibition consists of about 40 decorated wooden distaffs, or spinning implements, from the collection of Michael T. Ricker. Originally simple sticks, they evolved into highly decorated objects with intense cultural significance, more important for their meanings than for their function.

Dating from the 19th and 20th centuries, the distaffs come from regions across Europe (in Russia, Lithuania, Finland, Sweden, France, Germany, Albania, Greece, Serbia and Bosnia), each of which has its own style. Distaffs hold unspun wool or fiber during the spinning process. They could be used with or without a spinning wheel to create thread or yarn for weaving cloth. Because spinning was traditionally women’s work, the word “distaff” came to mean “female.”

This exhibition includes three different types of distaffs. Russian ones often featured a large, footed base, where the spinner sat. Short ones with no base usually attached to a spinning wheel. Long ones without a base were held under the arm or tucked in the belt. All three kinds could be used with a spinning wheel or a drop spindle.

Distaffs were more than tools. In some ways, they were the equivalent of an engagement ring today: a gift from a young man to his hoped-for spouse. A more expensive and elaborately decorated distaff expressed wealth and status. Individuals made some distaffs, but a workshop-based industry also sprang up in response to demand. The giver and the maker were not necessarily the same person. The time and money spent on these objects also show the important place of cloth in a pre-industrial era.

In addition to the distaffs, the museum is showing a “walking wheel,” or large spinning wheel, from its own collection, which was donated in 1997 but has never been on view.

Hillary Brown, director of communications, and Todd Rivers, head preparator, served as the museum’s in-house curators for “To Spin a Yarn,” which is sponsored by the Friends of the Georgia Museum of Art.






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