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A Nearly Forgotten Part of Our Cultural Patrimony
by Vincent Erickson

In past generations our female ancestors used numerous artifacts in the home preparation of fibers destined to become fabric: metal brushes or cards, the spinning wheel and the loom are likely the tools which come to mind. But, there are other hand-made wooden artifacts which were often elaborately decorated either in terms of the selection of colors used or in the skills shown in their construction.

One such piece, called a “distaff” in English, “linfäste” in standard Swedish and “linbräde,” “rockbräde,” “flagabrä” or “flagabräde” in the Swedish dialects spoken in Finland, came to me by inheritance from an aunt some years ago. My example is roughly rectangular in shape and slightly concave. When viewed from the front, the top and bottom of the object jut slightly forward. At its greatest length, it is about 19 inches (49cm) long, 3_ inches (14cm) wide at its thickest point, and about 3/8 of an inch (about 1cm) thick. The bottom of the distaff has a rotatable foot which allows the tool to turn when it is placed into a small opening at the front of the spinning wheel.

In the second half of the 19th century, the distaff was used for holding and facilitating the orderly unwinding of flax fibers in the production of linen thread. The process is as follows: a bundle of flax fibers is tied around the distaff and the spinner slowly draws the fibers from the bundle, twisting and turning them to produce a thread. The thread is passed through the eye of the flyer, where it winds around a slender spool. The flyer is operated by a pulley which is driven by the spinning wheel. The wheel itself is set in motion by a treadle which is controlled by the spinner’s foot. The linen thread is formed by means of the mechanism of the flyer. Both hands of the spinner, therefore, are free to control the flax fibers coming off the distaff. With skill and patience, a reasonably constant thickness of thread is produced. People who have attempted to spin linen thread tell me that flax is a very difficult fiber to work with. The spinning of woolen fibers is said to be easier. The flagabräde can be used in the preparation of hemp thread and possibly woolen yarn too, but the name itself suggests that its association with flax fibers was primary.

Although my grandmother had both a spinning wheel and a distaff, I never saw her using either of them. From my earliest childhood memories, I recall seeing the distaff hanging on a nail in the dining room of my grandparents’ farmhouse near Mount Vernon, Washington. The distaff was a constant source of conversation for both first time visitors and for my grandparents’ contemporaries who knew how linen thread had been spun by this method in Finland.

For us grandchildren, the distaff was an exotic cultural artifact from the past, not particularly pretty from our point of view, but so elaborately carved that we knew that it must have had great significance and was to be handled with respect. We were never convinced, however, that this strange object had ever had any practical use. This distaff was not among the items which my grandmother had brought with her when she and her children had emigrated to the United States in 1905. Grandmother and her second oldest daughter, my Aunt Bertha, had made a visit to Finland in 1928, and the artifact had been found in the main house of the farm, Gertruds/Soklot/Nykarleby, where my grandmother was born. Aunt Bertha had discovered it there and, not being certain what it was, brought it downstairs. Great-grandmother explained how it was to be used and provided a brief history of the piece. Bertha asked if she might bring it back to America as a souvenir, and the wish was granted. When Bertha died in 1949, the distaff was taken over by my grandmother.

It had been used as a hackle, an implement used to break up the flax fiber prior to its being tied onto the distaff. The tines of the crown had not been rugged enough to stand up to this rough treatment and one had broken off. Grandmother had suggested that this was unfortunate because if the distaff had been in perfect condition, it would be worth a great deal of money . From my point of view as a child, I wondered why anyone would have gone to the effort of carving such elaborate designs in a piece of wood and then to cover them with red-brown, dark olive green, blue, and yellow paint.

I did not think much about the distaff during the next ten years, until about 45 years ago, when I purchased a copy of Veera Vallinheimo’s 1956 monograph, “Das Spinnen in Finnland.” It was included among the duplicate books on sale at the Yale University Library. The book contained excellent illustrations, including one of a distaff from Nykarleby, which looked quite similar to the one my grandmother inherited. Although Aunt Elvera had inherited the distaff after my grandmother’s death, I thought that the book would make an ideal present for my mother’s approaching birthday. Mother knew some German, and the illustrations would be useful to any family member who might glance through the book. Now the distaff hangs on the wall at an out-of-the-way corner of my den. Vallinheimo’s publication is on a nearby shelf.

Vallinheimo’s book is full of useful information. Most of the carved or painted distaffs were in museums or other public collections. Of the 2,729 pieces she had located, only 221 were in private collections. She found that 1,036 of the total came from Swedish Ostrobothnia, while 863 were from the Finnish-speaking communities of that province. We assume that she had used only 19th century or even earlier representatives in her sample, because in the years following WWII, home craftsmen began to make reproductions of earlier styles for sale. Very likely, however, Vallinheimo missed other old examples besides ours when making her inventory.

Among our widespread group of first, second and third cousins in North America, the distaff Aunt Bertha brought home from Finland is the only one we know about in our family. Unlike the spinning wheel, the bridal chest, wool carders, bobbins, and shuttles used for weaving, the Finnish distaff did not often make its way across the Atlantic.

I became increasingly interested in the distaff after it had been passed on to me. By this time, my grandmother was long dead, so none of us could rely upon her great store of knowledge for more information. My mother, her eldest daughter, was also very vague on details. Undoubtedly, my mother had been told the story over and over again, but when the persons involved had been distant relatives, themselves long dead, the details were perhaps seen as less important.

I doubted whether I would find more information, but I thought that I should at least try. The late Kate Evans of Blue River, Oregon, the family genealogist of the Olin family of Soklot (Gertruds farm), told me that she had obtained much information from Åke Aspnäs of Jakobstad, her second cousin. Both he, as well as June Pelo, had done much in the past year or two to fill in great gaps in my family record, so I turned to him for help.

I knew that the distaff was frequently given as an engagement gift by the prospective bridegroom to his intended bride. My distaff had the initials MMD carved into its surface in addition to the date 1855. Since the distaff had been found in great-grandmother’s house (in point of fact, the farm had belonged to one of her late brothers who had sold it to his nephew, Henrik Danielsson Sundqvist, Greta’s son), I assumed that the distaff had been given to some young woman in the Sundqvist/Danielsson family in 1855. Moreover, since my great-grandmother, Greta Jakobsdotter Olin/Gertruds, gave the distaff to Aunt Bertha, I assumed that Greta had considered herself the owner. Obviously, however, the distaff had not been carved for her, because these were not her initials, and the date “1855” was problematic -- Greta was born in 1845.

I suggested to Åke that the distaff in question must have been an heirloom by the time that Greta received it from her future husband, Daniel, and that the person MMD must have been related to him through one of his ancestral lines. I suspected that this was someone in his parental generation, since Daniel was named after his grandfather.

Was there a Maria Magdalena Danielsdotter for whom the distaff was made and for whom it was offered as an engagement gift in 1855? The dates did not seem early enough, and my genealogical data was inadequate. I was certain that Åke Aspnäs could provide the information. I wrote to him at the end of January and received an answer in early April 2002.

Aspnäs’ letter was long and detailed containing information for which I shall be forever grateful. Without saying so directly, he implied that my hypothesis was too narrow. Great-grandfather Sundqvist’s mother was born in 1816 and married in 1841. Moreover, she did not have a younger sister named Maria Magdalena, nor was it even necessary.

He wrote that the final initial on distaffs is often D, and it stands for “dotter” (daughter). The middle initial stands for the patronymic, i.e., the father’s first name. The first initial represents the female’s first name. If the woman has a middle name, it may be omitted in the monogram. If this is true, then MMD might be Maria Mattsdotter, Magdalena Markusdotter, Matilda Månsdotter, Maja Mårtensdotter, Mia Mickelsdotter, or any similar combination of the above. Aspnäs told me that the farm name is usually not included in the monogram used on women’s objects, although it occurs on objects owned by men. Perhaps the logic of this rests on the fact that the bride was expected to move to her husband’s farm or more likely the farm of her husband’s father. Exceptions, however, were not rare.

A second factor which Aspnäs brought to my attention was one not discussed by Vallinheimo. There were other men who could give the distaff as a gift to a female besides her fiancé. For example, a girl’s father could do so as early as for his daughter’s sixth birthday. I can see why this was done: to encourage a young girl to learn and attempt to master tasks which would be of use to her when she married. The gift of a distaff was something highly portable and might be one of the first items placed in her bridal trousseau.

Which names, therefore, come into consideration for my distaff? There was an Anna Maria Danielsdotter Pörkenäs, born in 1836. She was a younger sister of Daniel Mattsson Sundqvist’s mother. She would have the monogram ADD or AMDD, not the MMD we are looking for. Although the date is promising, the initials are not.

Greta Danielsdotter Pörkenäs did have a daughter, Maja Lisa Mattsdotter, who was born August 20, 1843. If one omits the girl’s middle name, she has the monogram MMD. She would have been twelve when the distaff was made. Could it have been as gift from her father? The answer, unfortunately, is negative as he died in 1854! Could it have been made by her fiancé? It could have, if twelve-year-old girls had fiancés, if she and her future husband had a 14-year engagement, and if he had carved it when he was 15. Maja Lisa married Anders Johansson Nyman Gunnila on July 3, 1869, in Pedersöre. She was the sister of my great-grandfather, Daniel Mattsson Sundqvist. While Daniel moved to the Gertruds farm in Socklot, neither Maja nor Anders had any connection to the place. Since their first six children were born on the Gunnila farm in Bennäs/Pedersöre, we assume that the newlyweds were living on the farm of the groom’s father. In the early 1880’s, the family moved to Åbo. This was the same year that Daniel Mattsson Sundqvist died, so it is likely that Maja Lisa only rarely visited her sister-in-law in Soklot after that date.

While it is possible that a fifteen year old could carve and decorate such an elaborate distaff, would he have done so? Community mores would never have permitted him to marry a girl of twelve. Maja Lisa was yet to be confirmed, and it was only with confirmation, which proved that she could read and write, that the clergy would allow her to marry. If a fifteen year old is so committed to marrying a twelve year old, why does a couple wait 14 additional years before they go through the ceremony? It seems doubtful whether Anders Johansson Nyman Gunnila was the maker of the distaff.

I can anticipate a scenario, however, in which Maja Lisa became the recipient of the distaff and can suggest how it ended up later in my great-grandmother’s possession. When Maja Lisa’s father died, another male family friend might have made the distaff for her, perhaps in sympathy, perhaps as he was temporarily unattached, he hoped that she might eventually accept him.

Maja Lisa accepted the distaff because she saw the maker as a father substitute, but not as a potential husband. Some years later this became even clearer to her when she found a younger man to be a more suitable life’s partner. He, Anders Johansson, resented the fact that a competitor had earlier given his future bride a distaff. Consequently, Maja Lisa left the distaff in her mother’s home when the newlyweds moved to the home of Anders’ father.

Daniel Mattsson Sundqvist, Lisa’s brother, and a man with few financial prospects, became interested in Greta Jakobsdotter Gertruds Olin of Soklot. He offered her the distaff, made originally for his sister. Greta accepted the distaff even though it did not have her monogram. The couple married October 17, 1868. The distaff, in a sense, was akin to a recycled family engagement ring.

There is another person, however, having the initials MMD. This was Maria Mattsdotter Aspnäs, born December 30, 1849. In 1870 she married Jakob Jakobsson Olin, Greta’s brother. Unlike Maja Lisa Mattsdotter, Maria Mattsdotter Aspnäs had a connection to the Gertruds farm in Soklot. Upon her marriage, she moved from her father’s home in Staraby/Pedersöre to the Gertruds farm. Greta Jakobsdotter and Daniel Mattsson Sundqvist lived in a small cottage at Gertruds. Jakob Jakobsson Olin and Maria Mattsdotter lived elsewhere on the Gertruds place. This continued for seven years until 1877, at which time Jakob bought the Snåre farm in Soklot. How did Maria Mattsdotter get the distaff? It was a gift from her father on Maria’s sixth birthday.

Aspnäs suggests that at the time of the move to Snåre, Maria’s distaff was knowingly or inadvertently left behind. Perhaps Maria presented it as a friendship gift to her sister-in-law. Perhaps Maria had only displaced it and, sometime later, some member of the Sundqvist family had brought it into the attic when linen thread was no longer spun at home by rural housewives.

There are conflicting dates as to when Maria Mattsdotter Aspnäs died. Åke Aspnäs indicates December 27, 1928. Kate Evans gives December 27, 1927, but this is likely a typographical error. It is very likely that Maria was still living at the time my grandmother and aunt visited Soklot during the summer of 1928. Maria, however, does not appear on any of the family photographs which Aunt Bertha made. Another elderly in-law of the Olin family appears on the pictures, so this may mean that Maria was too ill to attend this family gathering. Maria’s husband, Jakob, appears along with his sisters. It is possible that Greta gave away the distaff while her sister-in-law was still living.

Too many years have passed for any of us to find conclusive answers now. Undoubtedly, my grandmother would have had an opinion -- and certainly would have known which of her two aunts by marriage had been the original owner. Some Gunnila descendents in the Åbo area may know whether indeed Maja Lisa and Anders had a fourteen-year-long engagement and whether Anders was known to have had remarkable carving skills as a fifteen year old. Inasmuch as Greta Jakobsdotter did not die until 1933, one or another of Henrik August Sundqvist’s surviving daughters in Finland or Sweden may remember stories their grandmother might have told them about the distaff. If Maria Mattsdotter Aspnäs had sisters, perhaps their father had given them distaffs too, on their respective sixth birthdays. If so, these interesting works of folk art may be compared with the one I have. Perhaps they all represent a distinctive style attributable to a single carver.

When I discussed the family distaff with Arne Applegren in Vasa in 1964, he indicated surprise that we had one which was both elaborately carved as well as painted. He said that elaborately carved pieces are kept in their natural color while painted distaffs are usually not elaborately carved. Mine consists of four rosettes. The one near the base is very large. Above it are two small rosettes, one to the right and the other to the left of the large rosette. Above these three is a medium-sized rosette. At the very bottom are the date 1855 and the initials MMD. The sides of the distaff are smooth, but the front has a border consisting of a relief of parallel, v-shaped and zigzag lines. A similar border decorates the largest rosette. Besides the crown which tops the distaff, the remainder of the surface of the front is covered with stylized leaves and grasses. Near the top of the distaff beneath the crown is a configuration of four circles or dots painted yellow. They might be seen to form a face, a part of the vegetation to comprise a beard. The back of the distaff is uncarved and painted a dark olive green.

Aspnäs suggests a third possibility as to the original owner. It could have been neither Maja Lisa Mattsdotter nor Maria Mattsdotter. The distaff may have been purchased at auction, making the MMD no relative whatsoever. To me this is the least likely option. Greta’s husband died at sea in 1880. After this time, funds needed to support her large family became even more scarce than when the family’s revenues came from Daniel’s skills as a fisherman.

By 1928, the distaff appears to have been rarely if ever used by women of the Olin family, otherwise it would not have been relegated to the attic. Was it still used in 1877? If so, how could Maria Mattsdotter have gotten along without it when she and her husband moved from the Gertruds farm? Undoubtedly, the distaff used in the production of linen thread had sentimental value long after it had any practical value. When linen thread could be produced by more modern means and less costly in terms of “womanhours,” linen distaffs took on a sentimental value.

As to whether it was Greta’s, Maja’s, or Maria’s distaff, I suspect that we will never know for certain. Nonetheless, we can all reflect on its artistic merit, appreciate the excitement the original owner experienced when she received it as a gift, and know for certain that someday this distaff will find its permanent home in a suitable museum where it can be appreciated by all. This document may help some future curator and, I trust, our own appreciation of our patrimony.


  • Vallinheimo, Veera
  • Das Spinnen in Finnland: Unter Besonderer Berücksichtigung Schwedischer Tradition. Kansatieteellinen Arkisto 11. Helsinki 1956

Vincent Erickson of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, may be reached by E-mail at: vericks@nb.sympatico.ca

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