history & philosophy · quotations · spinning · textiles as fine arts · textiles in literature

Texts & Textiles: Traditional Proverb

Get the distaff ready, and the Lord will send the flax.

This traditional proverb, which I first encountered as a teen reading Louisa May Alcott’s Jo’s Boys, is an example of a saying which once illustrated its wisdom with everyday experiences, but which is now more or less opaque.

A distaff is a tool used to hold fiber that has been prepared for spinning, most commonly flax. The distaff helps prevents tangling and keeps the fiber ready for the spinner, who would draw fibers off the distaff, using her spindle or spinning wheel to twist the fibers into thread. In the painting above, the distaff is the stick the young girl holds under her arm, and the flax is secured to its top with ribbons.

Knowing this, the archaic proverbs becomes clear: prepare your tools, focus your attention on good work, and God will send the materials you need to accomplish that work.

Image source: Albert Anker, La Reine Berthe et les fileuses. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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