How many times have you wondered where niddy-noddy got its name? Or why the stick for taking the batt off the drumcarder is called a doffer? And what about roving? Spinners and others new to the craft often raise their eyebrows at the use of words like these.
While I was spinning at a historical reenactment, a funny incident concerning a diz went something like this. “What’s that?” a woman asked, pointing to the diz in my hand. “It’s a diz.” “A what?” “A diz. It lets you pull the long fibers through the hole while keeping the short fibers behind.” “Oh.” Her expression clearly indicated who might be a “diz.”
Or here’s my favorite, upon hearing the description of a niddy-noddy—“Must’ve been a woman who thought that one up.” These incidents put my wheels in motion and I began to ask where these terms came from. The search proved fascinating. Some answers were easy to understand while some were surprising. Do you like solving mysteries? Join me as we discover the history behind the terms of an enchanting craft.
Batt: A) A flying creature? B) A wooden stick used to hit baseballs? or C) A rectangular volume of carded fiber? Of course “C” is correct. While the origin of this word is unknown, the dictionary defines it as layers or sheets of raw cotton or wool for lining quilts or stuffing or packaging.
Bobbin: A cylinder or spindle on which yarn or thread is wound.
Cards (carders, or hand cards): These paddle-like devices covered with wire cloth are used to open and align fibers. The term comes from the Latin word carduus which means “thistle.” In Roman days, people used tools equipped with the burr-like seedheads from fuller’s teasel plants, a relative of thistles, for raising a nap on woven fabrics. Hand cards, which were invented much later, resemble those early tools.
Crochet: Crochet is a way of manipulating yarn or thread with a hooked needle. This French word means simply “hook.”
Distaff: A staff, usually of wood, freestanding or attached to a spinning wheel, that holds flax in preparation for spinning. In northern Europe the distaff was known as a “rok.” Distaff derives from the Anglo-Saxon words dis for “flax” and staef for “stick.” In earlier times the distaff or spindle side of the family referred to the female side. St. Distaff’s Day, or rock day, January 7, is the day when spinners traditionally resumed work after all Christmas festivities had ceased on Twelfth Night (January 6).
Diz: A curved device with a hole in the center used to prepare top by pulling combed fibers through the hole, leaving short fibers behind. The origin of this term is uncertain. It may come from the word dizen, an archaic form of bedizen, or disen, to dress a distaff with flax.
Doff: To take off. It comes from the words “do” and “off.” In spinning, to doff usually means to take a batt of fibers off a drumcarder or hand cards, but you can also doff, or take off, a bobbin.
Drafting: The act of pulling a mass of fibers into a thin strand before twisting them. From the Anglo-Saxon word draught, meaning “to draw.”
Flax: An annual plant, or the fiber of the plant, botanically known as Linum usitatissimum.From the Old German word flahs meaning “flax.” In France, flax is known as lin; in Italy, lino; in Ireland and Scotland, lint. The term “linen” describes spun flax and cloth woven from flax yarns. Linseed oil also comes from the flax plant.
Hank: Hanks of yarn, skeins of yarn, coils of yarn—all these words mean the same thing. The Irish called them “spangles” and the word “hank” comes from the Old Norse word h‘onk meaning a coil or loop.
Knitting: Using two or more needles to manipulate yarn into a desired pattern. From the Anglo-Saxon term cnyttan which means “to tie a knot,” “to make a net,” or “to weave threads by hand.”
Lanolin: The yellow-colored grease that helps protect a sheep from moisture. From the Latin words lana, for “wool,” and oleum, for “oil.”
Lazy Kate: This device used to hold spinning bobbins was known in England as the Lazy Kate and this is now the universally accepted term in the spinning industry. In Scotland, it was known as a “whirrie.” So just who was Kate anyway? And why was she considered lazy? Do you picture her an unkempt woman with questionable morals and a sloppy house? Or was she just a resourceful woman who found a way to make her task of plying more efficient? Unfortunately, we may never know for sure as neither a definitive answer nor a historical reference could be found. Of course, we as spinners prefer the latter explanation because we are definitely a resourceful, determined group, always on the lookout for a different way of doing things.
Maiden: The two upright supports that hold the flyer and bobbin or spindle are referred to as “maidens” or sometimes “sisters.” The word maiden comes from the Old English word mægden meaning “an unmarried girl or woman.” An unmarried female was often assigned the task of spinning.
Mordant: A chemical that fixes a dye in or on a substance by combining with the dye to form an insoluble compound. Mordant comes from the Latin word mordere meaning “to bite.” The use of mordants, particularly alum, was discovered by the ancient Egyptians.
Niddy-noddy: A device used to skein yarn having ends perpendicular to one another. Niddy-noddies often measure 18 inches long and make a skein one yard in circumference, for ease of measuring yardage. Some say the name stems from the odd nodding motion used to wind the yarn with a niddy-noddy. Another explanation is that since the job of skeining often fell to an elderly granny who was sometimes known as a “niddy,” the combination of her name with the nodding motion used in winding led to the term.
Orifice: The opening through which yarn is drawn onto a bobbin on a spinning wheel. From Latin orificium, for mouth or mouthlike opening.
Plying: Twisting two or more yarns into one, usually in the direction opposite from the original spin. From the Latin word plicare, “to fold.”
Rolag: A cylindrical mass of fibers produced by using hand cards to prepare fibers. This term has unclear origins.
Roving: Fibers that have been cleaned, carded, or combed, pulled into a long rope-like form, and given a slight twist. The verb “rove” means to form a roving. Origin uncertain.
Sliver: A thick, continuous strip of carded fibers, similar to roving but without twist. Slivere in Middle English and slaefen in Old English mean “to cut or split.”
Staple: A textile fiber (as wool and rayon) of relatively short length so that when spun and twisted it forms a yarn rather than a filament. In the Middle Ages, a stapler was someone who sorted wool fleeces according to their quality. In another sense, estaple is Old French coming from Middle Dutch stapel, meaning “a chief commodity or production of a place.” Wool was one of the King’s staple commodities in earlier times, along with skins and leather.
Thread: A continuous strand of twisted fibers. From the Anglo-Saxon word thraed, meaning “what is twisted.”
Warp: The lengthwise fibers in a woven cloth. From Old English wearp meaning “to throw.”
Weft/woof: The horizontal or crosswise fibers in a woven cloth. From Old English wefan meaning “to weave.”
Whorl: A circular part on a spinning wheel flyer or bobbin, usually grooved to hold a driveband or a brakeband. This word meant the same thing in Middle English but was spelled wharle or whorle, probably derived from “whirl.”
Wool: The fiber produced by sheep. From the Latin vellus, meaning “fleece,” and Old English wull or wolle.
Worsted: A yarn that is spun smooth, shiny, and strong and contains only long wool fibers is called “worsted.” Named for Worstead, a town in England where fine wool fabric was once woven.
Yarn: A continuous strand or thread made of fibers. From Old English gearn, meaning “spun wool.”
Maryanne Ladensack lives in Fairview, Michigan. She is currently working on a 165-piece granny square afghan that contains yarn made from every fiber animal that has lived on her property. She has thirty-five more squares to go.
Editor’s note: We relied on the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition for the definitions in this article, though we recognize that other resources offer slightly different definitions of the same words.
- Anderson, Enid. The Spinning Encyclopedia. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 1987.
- Kluger, Marilyn. The Joy of Spinning. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1993.
- Raven, Lee. Hands on Spinning. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1987.
- Ross, Mabel. The Encyclopedia of Handspinning. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1988.
- Spark, Patricia. The Fundamentals of Feltmaking. Coupeville, Washington: Shuttle-Craft Books, 1989.
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., 1979.
- The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
- Webster’s New International Dictionary. 2nd edition, unabridged. Springfield, Massachusetts: G. & C. Merriam Company, Publishers, 1940.
This article first appeared in Spin Off Summer 2001.