A Homespun Life: Textiles of Old Russia

Overview

Display of Prialki, late 19th-early 20th century. Russia. Private Collection of Susan Johnson. Wood.

An ancient tool of Russian spinners, a prialka is a simple device used for spinning.  Known as a distaff in Europe, a prialka consists of an upright blade to hold the flax fibers and a horizontal base on which a spinner sat to keep the prialka steady while she spun the rough yarn, drawing out fleecy threads with precise fingers.


In ancient times, spinning was regarded as a sacred skill. In Greek mythology, Athena was the patron of weavers and in Roman mythology the Parcae (Fates) were personified as three old women spinning the threads of human destiny.   The goddess of ancient Slavs, Mokosh, was also a spinner, and the skill’s high status gave rise to countless rituals associated with yarn, thread and spinning.  On the last day of the spinning season in late winter, village women would take a ride downhill sitting on their prialki, and according to tradition, whoever went the furthest distance would have the best harvest of flax in the coming summer, but woe to her who would fall down from her prialka: she might not live to see the flax grow tall. In old Russia, spinning was an essential part of a peasant girl’s upbringing.  A small prialka was put into a newborn girl’s crib, to hold on to for the rest of her life.  Winter spinning sessions, called posidelki, provided an opportunity for courtship, and many village matches were made at spinning bees.  A brightly colored prialka was the pride of the young spinner.  She would carry it to the posidelki, holding it in front of her for everyone to admire its bright colors and stylish shape. Traditional spinning survived well into the 20th century, and is still practiced today by individual craftswomen.



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