This section is from the "A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods" book, by George S. Cole. Also available from Amazon: A complete dictionary of dry goods and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool and other fibrous substances,: Including a full explanation of the modern processes ... together with various useful tables.
Distaff. The "staff" or stick which holds the carded material in hand spinning. Generally it was a stick about 3 feet long with a forked top, on which was wound a quantity of wool or flax to be spun. The lower end of the distaff was held between the left arm and the side, and the thread, passing through and gaged by the fingers of the left hand, was drawn out and twisted by those of the right, and wound on a suspended spindle made so as to be revolved like a top, which completed the twisting. In Asiatic countries and in some districts of Europe, especially Italy, the primitive distaff and spindle are still used; but after the introduction of the spinning-wheel into Europe, about the 15th century, the distaff became an attachment only of that designed for flax, and thus continued in general use till a recent period.
"- The loaded distaff in the left hand placed,
With spongy coils of snow-white wool was graced; From these the right hand lengthening fibres drew,
Which into thread 'neath nimble fingers grew."
The "distaff" side, or "distaff side of the house," was formerly an old collective phrase for the female members of a family, as the distaff was always used by the women, and was common among all ranks; used especially with reference to relationship and descent, and opposed to the "spear side" which on account of the men alone using this weapon signified the male portion of the family; as, he is connected with the family on the distaff side; or, he traces his descent through the spear side of the house. [See Spinning Wheel, Home Weaving] ,