Among the folk art treasures at St. Petersburg’s Russian Museum, a collection of pryalki catches the eye. Carved from oak, fir, birch, linden or other available wood, each of the thirty-plus artifacts on display has an oar-shaped base (dontse) and an upright “blade” (lopaska). Some are incised with intricate designs, others brightly painted with floral, bird, or tree motifs and geometric patterns. Ornate, ridged “combs” at either end of their rectangular blades bring to mind the turrets of a castle or kremlin.
To the museum visitor familiar with “typical” Russian objects like lacquer boxes, matryoshka dolls and Fabergé eggs, the pryalki provoke curiosity. They could be unstrung musical instruments, or pieces of exotic furniture, but neither seems quite right. It turns out, not only foreigners find this folk art strange. Show them to a young Russian of the smartphone generation and ask, “Что это?” and he will likely say, “I have no idea.”
In fact, pryalki are distaffs, portable spinning tools designed to hold un-spun flax or wool. Dating from the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries, they hearken back to a simpler time, when people consumed what they made and marriage was the defining moment in a woman’s life. Until the machine age, domestic tasks like spinning, weaving, sewing and cooking dominated a peasant woman’s daily existence. The role linking women and skills like spinning and weaving crossed cultures. In English, “distaff” means spindle, but also refers to a woman or to the female side of a family.
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