The preparation of textile fibres and the production of fabrics engaged Serbian peasants for much of their year. While some tasks were performed by both men and women, it was the woman’s prerogative to produce threads and yarns from processed fibres using their spindle and distaffs, their preslice and their vretena.
The preslica was more than a tool; it was a symbol of a woman’s status. a token of affection, an amulet and even a memorial. Young men courted girls by carving them a distaff or spindle, often incredibly ornate. As part of marriage rituals, the dever – the groom’s brother – traditionally gave his new sister-in-law a gift of a distaff with some wool on it and a spun thread already begun. This was to recognize her as an adult woman of their own family now, and the thread was a new beginning, a symbol of the newlywed’s future progress. The preslica was a symbol of hard work, diligence and talent. It was memorialized by Serbian folk poets, as in the epic poem Predrag i Nenad collected by Vuk Karadžić:
Храни мајка два нејака сина, у зло доба, у гладне године, уз преслицу и десницу руку…
Hrani majka dva nejaka sina, u zlo doba, u gladne godine, uz preslicu i desnicu ruku…
Once a mother raised two young sons, in bad times, in years of hunger, by her distaff and her right hand alone…
In the environs of Užice in Western Serbia, women were buried with their preslica beside them. In Brakovina near Valjevo, only women who died during pregnancy were buried in this manner. Often, the fresh grave of a particularly skilled spinner was marked by placing her preslica beside the cross marking it.
Spinning, or predenje, was done throughout the year, often during other tasks such as shepherding. Pavel Rovinski, a Russian traveller, recorded in 1869 that “often I would encounter on the road a woman who was nursing a child, strapped to her chest with a wide cloth, carrying a basket of food balanced on her head, a distaff tucked under her left arm, and a spindle twirling in her right hand, drawing out the thread effortlessly”. Serbian women were excellent multi-taskers, out of necessity. Women spinners, called prelje, did not do this task on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, fasting days in the Orthodox tradition. They often had other calendar restrictions, such as the women of Stapar near Sombor in Bačka region, who tried to work their fastest to get as much spinning done during the last two weeks before Great Lent, as they did not spin during Lent. In another town nearby, Odžaci, the women did not spin from Christmas to New Year. Further east, around Knjaževac, women extended the restriction from St Ignatius (Ignatijevdan) to St John (Jovandan), which is the entire festive season for Christmas.
The evenings of late fall, winter and earliest spring were prime time for prela, or working bees. They served an important social role as a place where young people could meet, flirt, sing, and while away time while working. The spinning bees were the most common, and girls would hint to boys they liked that they have lost a vreteno, and should they find one, could they please bring it to the prelo tonight… This flirtatious fiction is immortalized in the folk song, Kolenike vreteno, also. Today, folkloric ensembles and associations often recreate the prelo on stage, speaking to its enduring appeal even to people born oceans away from their ancestral land. However, if you seek, you will find these gatherings alive and well in remote rural areas.
A vreteno or spindle was usually carved out of soft wood, rarely decorated beyond their shape and perhaps a bit of paint at the top. They varied in length depending on the type and quantity of fibre being spun. The distaffs themselves, the preslice (pl), came in a number of forms.
The most primitive distaffs were similar to the spindles, but longer. These were the paličaste preslice, the staff-like distaffs. They were fairly common up until the second World War. They were called by the specific names kudiljara or furka, with a variant that was slender and conical like a spear head, hence kopljasta preslica (spear shaped). In Bosnia these were called bašluk, and it is interesting that the Šokci, Roman Catholics of Srem, Slavonija and Bačka, called them bašljuk, perhaps a carryover from their distant heritage.
Forked distaffs, called rašljaste preslice (forked) or viličaste preslice (fork-like distaffs) allowed for the raw fibre to be tucked into the gap between forks. The simplest ones had two forks, others had four or more. It is from these latter ones that the krošnjasta preslice (“the distaff shaped like the crown of a tree”) developed. By bringing together all of the forks or tines to a central point, it created a cage in which the wool could be tucked. Once widespread, these are only found in the south of Serbia and Kosovo today. They were called brkljica or kudelja in South Morava, and bunđaste vurke around Pirot and Niš. This last type would have smooth stones, clay spheres or glass marbles put inside them during construction so that they would make an amusing rattling sound.
A short distaff, less than 40 cm in length, was used for particularly delicate fibres such as cotton or silk, especially if they were intended for embroidery rather than weaving. These distaffs were called vlasarke (from vlas, a single hair, i.e. they could be used to spin a thread that thin) had an opening carved into their centre to hold the raw fibre. Often they had krila (wings), which were decorative but also gave the person using it additional places to tie in cord or braid that held the fibre in place.
The major form of distaff is the lopatasta preslica (paddle shaped distaff). Simply called kudelje or preslice, they were about a metre long or more, with a flat surface, often with ridges or “teeth” (zubice, resme) that could hold the cord or braid that tied the raw fibre to the flat surface. The reverse sides of these were often beautifully carved with floral, human and animal forms, or geometric designs. Sometimes they were painted, sometimes they had small mirrors embedded in them. These mirrors were meant to deflect the evil eye (although prelje, it was though, could not be cursed while spinning, due to some magical power of the distaff!) but girls often used them to reflect sunlight and signal their sweethearts while they tended their family flock.
From the mid 19th century on, the spinning wheel – nemačka preslica (German spindle), kolovrat (wheel spindle) or čekrklja (“the thing that makes that rattling noise”) slowly made their way throughout Serbian lands via the Pannonian regions under Austro-Hungarian control – Banat, Bačka, Srem, Baranja, Slavonija, central Croatia. The new technology did not supplant the distaff, though; it would take industrial machinery to do that. Leskovac, in particular, became a centre of textile production, earning it the nickname “Manchester of the Balkans”. Still, travelling through more rural areas of all of the Balkan countries, you can still encounter the preslica in use. It endures, playing much of the same role in village society.
Ethnographic Museum of Belgrade, The Distaff in the Traditional Culture of Serbia (1995)
Ethnographic Museum of Belgrade, Folk Culture of the Serbs in 19th and 20th Centuries (2003)