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Roc Day in Mississippi

Roc Day in Mississippi

It’s bright and early on a Saturday morning at the beginning of January, and we are getting ready to welcome visitors for our event at the Willam Lowe (Bill) Waller Crafts Center in Ridgeland, Mississippi. We are members of the Chimneyville Weavers and Spinners Guild. The visitors are spinners and other fiber artists from the Gulf States. The event is Roc Day.

What is Roc Day? Quilters have quilting bees, spinners have spin-ins. The difference is while generally quilters sew on a common quilt, spinners use their own wheels or spindles to make their yarn in a communal setting. Roc Day is a spin-in turned into festivities: we celebrate our heritage, we share knowledge, we strut our stuff, 1 we support our vendors, we catch up on life events, and well, yes, we have fun.

Above (main image): Measuring the length for a handspun yarn competition at Roc Day.

Right: The inside of the Craft Center getting ready for our visitors.

Article Photography by Terry Dwyer  

The Origins of Roc Day

Roc comes from the old German word “Rocken,” meaning a distaff, a tool used in spinning flax and other long fibers. The word is sometimes spelled rock or rocke, and it is found in literature from the 1500s and 1600s. 2 In Northern Europe, the cold weather is ideal for growing flax, which for centuries has been turned into linen yarn. The flax is combed; the long fibers can be spun, but a distaff is needed to hold them, otherwise they may tangle. The remaining short fibers, called tow, are rougher and used for fabrics like grain sacks. My Lithuanian grandmother spun flax to make household linens. Distaffs can be added to spinning wheels, but they are absolutely necessary when spinning long fibers with a spindle. The distaff holds the long fibers as shown in Figure 1 so that the spinner has two free hands to control the flow of the fiber into the spinning wheel bobbin.

Figure 1: A spinning wheel with a distaff “dressed” with long fiber.

Distaffs come in a variety of types and sizes, ranging from sticks held together by string to elaborate carved distaffs that become prized possessions. It would be impossible to spin flax without a distaff. Up until the early 1900s, a fellow in the Baltic states who wanted to impress a lady for potential marriage would carve her a distaff, much the same way that a spinner might have made socks for a fellow she was trying to impress. There are many beautiful, elaborately carved distaff examples in Lithuanian museums, and the one pictured in Figure 2 is a modern reproduction of a Baltic design from the webshop, The Dancing Goats

Figure 2: A modern distaff with a historical Baltic design made by Robin Goatey of the Dancing Goats webshop. The pictured distaff is from the personal collection of the author. 

Historically, in the Catholic tradition, the Epiphany falls on January 6th, the day when the Magi brought gifts to the baby Jesus. January 7th, the following day, is Roc Day, also called St. Distaff Day, even though there is no Catholic Saint by that name. But there is one for spinners! 3

...some of the old Cajun spinners whom I met when I first moved to the South in the early 1980s would talk about “putting up” their wheels for the holidays, to make room for the festivities.

The origin story of Roc Day is part truth and part legend. The truth is well known; the legend makes the story more fun. In centuries past in some European countries, the winter holidays started on the solstice, December 21st or 22nd, and ended on the Epiphany. The daily task of spinning was postponed during this period in celebration of the holiday season. In more recent times, Christmas Eve has been substituted for old pagan solstice festivities, but Twelfth Night on January 6th still marks its end. 4 Even in modern times, life changes in Europe during those two weeks. I remember as a child growing up in Italy, that while daily chores still needed to be done, what could be postponed would be in favor of cooking and baking holiday specialties and celebrating with friends and families. There was no school for the children until January 7th when life would go back to normal. Even more recently, some of the old Cajun spinners whom I met when I first moved to the South in the early 1980s would talk about “putting up” their wheels for the holidays, to make room for the festivities. 

After having been “put up” for the holidays, this spinning wheel at Roc Day needs its bobbin and the drive band attached before spinning can start.

Returning to spinning on Roc Day was serious work. However, at some point, Roc Day turned into another festivity. It is not clear exactly when, but a poem by Robert Herrick seems to be responsible for spreading the legend, which says that while the spinners returned to making yarn on Roc Day, the ploughmen in the family did not have to work until Plough Day, the first Monday after Twelfth Night. Free from chores, they could tease the spinners! 2 Robert Herrick’s poem is called St. Distaff’s Day, or The Morrow After Twelfth Day, published in 1648. In it, he describes the activities: after the ploughmen feed the animals, the men are freed from the plough. The now famous line among spinners follows:

If the maid’s a-spinning go
Burn the flax and fire the tow.

This is followed by scorching the spinners’ “plackets.” Herrick cautions the ploughmen not to burn the spinners’ hair and to have water available to stop the fire. The spinners may decide to douse the ploughmen with that water. Merrymaking lasts through the night. 4 7

While I am sure that Herrick took poetic liberties, there are some parts of the poem that do not seem plausible. I am sure the ploughmen had work to do on the Monday after Twelfth Night, but plowing the fields covered with snow was probably not one of them! Even more unbelievable is that the men would burn the flax, putting fire to the tow and even scorching the spinners’ garments! Obtaining flax is a very laborious process that involves removing seeds and separating the fibers from the woody stem outside. This requires at least four different steps before combing. Fiber is precious. Would they burn it?  

Burning flax and tow? The brown linen yarn is from combed flax, the pink tow linen comes from shorter fibers.

The legend persisted, and while there may be parts of it that aren’t true, it gave rise to what we do today: start up our new year of spinning while merrymaking, even if nobody in modern times burns flax. Many spinners attribute our Roc Day celebrations to the poem.

The tradition came to the United States and Roc Day was held in colonial times on the Monday after Twelfth Night. The event was more of a spin-in than a celebration. 8 Irene Miller is credited for reviving the tradition in modern times. In the late 1960s, she read about the colonial events and started a Roc Day in her fiber shop, the Niddy Noddy, in Croton-on-the Hudson, New York. Spinners enthusiastically went to her Roc Day on January 7th for many years.  9 10 By 1972, Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot, the publication of the Handweavers Guild of America, reported several Roc Day celebrations from the East Coast to the Midwest and Colorado. 8

The niddy noddy is used to make skeins from bobbins or balls of spun yarns.

Roc Day on the Gulf Coast

The Gulf States Roc Day started in New Orleans in the mid 1980s.  As had happened in other parts of the country, guild members came together to spin on January 7th or a Saturday close to that date to give those who work outside the home a chance to participate. Slowly, guilds started joining together and inviting others to participate. At its peak, Roc Day included guilds from the Mississippi coast, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Plaquemine, Lafayette, and Lake Charles, as well as our own guild, the Chimneyville Weavers and Spinners Guild (CWSG), from central Mississippi.

The roomy and bright Guild Hall of the Craft Center is an ideal place for Roc Day.

If craftsmen can make a living producing beautiful crafts, the traditions may have a better chance of survival.

Once a guild participates, it wants to host the event as well. The CWSG has hosted Roc Day five times to date. The first time was in 1996 in Canton, MS. The second was in 2002 at Hinds Junior College in Raymond, MS. The Bill Waller Craft Center, the home of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, opened in Ridgeland, MS in 2007, and the following three Roc Day celebrations were held there: 2008, 2014, 2020, with the Craftsmen’s Guild co-hosting the event. The Craft Center is a perfect place for the event: open and bright, with floor to ceiling windows on two sides, roomy, and an outside patio perfect for those lucky January Saturdays when the temperature lets us forget that it’s winter. 

Sheep to Shawl event hosted by the Chimneyville Weavers and Spinners Guild at the Craft Center.

In a lot of ways, through Roc Day we had come full circle: the Craftsmen’s Guild was instrumental in starting the CWSG. Soon after Governor Waller was elected in 1972, 12 he tasked Dan Overly to start a craftsmen’s guild, both to preserve traditional and modern Mississippi crafts and to encourage economic development. The two are related, of course. If craftsmen can make a living producing beautiful crafts, the traditions may have a better chance of survival. The Craftsmen’s Guild was born in 1973, and Dan became its first executive director.

Dan traveled the South comparing how other states promoted crafts. One of the things he noticed was that many cities or areas had weavers’ guilds. Why not Mississippi? He found weavers and spinners from around the state by word of mouth, and then obtained a list of members from the Handweavers’ Guild of America (HGA). In 1980, he sent a letter to everyone on his list, inviting them to a meeting and asking that they invite any other weavers or spinners they knew. At the time, these guilds were named “weavers” guilds, even though their membership may have included spinners and other fiber artists. Weavers were the first to get organized country-wide and most weavers were spinners as well at the time. 

Guild members visiting and relaxing with handwork during the thirty-five anniversary of the Chimneyville Weavers and Spinners Guild.

Even though spinning is an ancient art, the tools have improved with technology, both for spinning wheels and spindles.

I moved to Jackson, MS, in January 1980. I had lived in two other states with guilds and was saddened that there wasn’t one in Mississippi. Shortly thereafter, Dan’s letter arrived. I was on his list because I was and am a member of HGA. I was thrilled. In 1981, the Chimneyville Weavers Guild was founded. In 1994, the name was changed to Chimneyville Weavers and Spinners Guild. As time went on and more people who knit learned to spin, it was appropriate for the name to be inclusive. In 1998, we incorporated in the state of Mississippi.

For a small guild, averaging around 30 members, we have accomplished a lot. We hosted the Handweavers Guild of America Board of Directors meeting; we organized a touring exhibit for the 1993 Year of American Craft; and we hosted Southeast Fiber Forum, a regional fiber conference; among others. We hold yearly Sheep to Shawl events—where guild members demonstrate how wool is shorn, processed, and then used to make fabric—and various other demonstrations. But the Roc Days are some of the most popular events we do. 

Vendors are an important part of Roc Day.

Each time we host, a guild member volunteers to chair the Roc Day celebration and assembles a committee; a registrar, a vendor liaison, door prizes, goodie bags, and food coordinators are the usual, but each event is unique. Some members organize other events, including fashion shows, show and tell, demonstrations of special techniques, and various spinning competitions. 

A beautiful handspun, handknitted shawl at a Roc Day Fashion Show.

After everyone gathers, it’s fun to see the variety of wheels that we use. Even though spinning is an ancient art, the tools have improved with technology, both for spinning wheels and spindles. I have not seen many distaffs at Roc Day. That’s because flax is not a usual fiber we spin in the South, and cotton is more common. Cottons are on the other end of the spectrum of fiber length from flax: while the length of the cotton fibers ranges from ½” to 2”, flax ranges from 15” to 30”. It is harder to go back and forth spinning at the extremes. 

A spinning wheel with cotton being spun.

Spinning wool is still a favorite. It’s the easiest fiber to spin, and in fact, wool is the fiber used to teach people to spin. A medium wool is about 3” long. More experienced spinners prefer spinning wool to other fibers while at a gathering so that we can pay less attention to our work. There are wool farms in Mississippi and surrounding states; they come to Roc Day as vendors, and we like to support them. While wool is preferred, some spinners also work with alpaca fiber, and alpaca farms are found in our state and surroundings. A Stroka Gene-Us Alpaca and Gould Paradise Farm are often vendors at Roc Day. The alpaca fiber is about the same length as a medium wool, slicker because it is not wavy like wool, but more luxurious. 

Bags of wool and alpaca fiber ready for spinning.

Our guild’s 2020 Roc Day was the last before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, we have lost a bit of the impetus, where each year a guild would come forward and invite everyone to the next Roc Day. There were few if any gatherings in 2021. In 2022, most guilds held a local Roc Day, more like a spin-in. In 2023, Roc Day was held in Plaquemine, LA, and the Chimneyville Weavers and Spinners Guild will be hosting Roc Day 2024 on January 6 at the Bill Waller Crafts Center in Ridgeland. Over the years, guilds have gotten smaller; we have lost several members, others are no longer able to spin, and others find it difficult to travel. Some guilds have disbanded. However, with the event in 2023, I have hope that the tradition will be re-established.

With the pandemic behind us, I hope that Roc Day will regain its former following. At the time of this writing, the Chimneyville Weavers and Spinners Guild is in the middle of organizing Roc Day 2024 and the excitement is mounting. Guilds from Tennessee and Alabama, which traditionally have not participated in the Gulf States Roc Day, have asked to be included, and of course, they have been. Participants register ahead of time so that name tags, chances for door prizes, goodie bags and lunch can be provided. However, the event is open to the public for viewing. We hope to see you at a future gathering, and that you will join us in the centuries-old tradition of merrymaking and celebrating fiber arts on Roc Day!

A variety of spinning wheels at Roc Day.

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  1. ^ This is a phrase used by the Handweavers Guild of America and other guilds meaning to show off. I generally put this in quotes because "strut" has a negative connotation of being conceited. 
  2. ^ Kluger, Marilyn, The Joy of Spinning. Simon and Schuster, New York, N.Y, 1971
  3. ^,to%20work%20after%20the%20holidays
  4. ^ Kluger, Marilyn, The Joy of Spinning. Simon and Schuster, New York, N.Y, 1971
  5. ^ Kluger, Marilyn, The Joy of Spinning. Simon and Schuster, New York, N.Y, 1971
  6. ^ Kluger, Marilyn, The Joy of Spinning. Simon and Schuster, New York, N.Y, 1971
  7. ^
  8. ^ Thorne, Sylvia, “It’s Time to Rock”, Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot, Volume III #1, Winter 1971/1972.
  9. ^ Thorne, Sylvia, “It’s Time to Rock”, Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot, Volume III #1, Winter 1971/1972.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Thorne, Sylvia, “It’s Time to Rock”, Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot, Volume III #1, Winter 1971/1972.
  12. ^

Marcy Petrini

Marcy Petrini

Marcy Petrini is a fiber artist, teacher, and writer. She is the regular feature contributor for “Right from the Start”, a column in Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot, the quarterly publication of the Handweavers Guild of America, Inc.; she also writes monographs and a monthly blog. Marcy teaches weaving locally at the Bill Waller Craft Center, nationally and on zoom. She has received a Lifetime Achievement Award for her teaching from the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, Inc. Her website: