There are two common forms, depending on the spinning method. The traditional form is a staff, held under one's arm while using a spindle. It is about long, held under the left arm, with the left hand drawing the fibers from it. This version is the older of the two, as spindle spinning predates spinning on a wheel.
A distaff can also be mounted as an attachment to a spinning wheel. On a wheel it is placed next to the bobbin, where it will be in easy reach of the spinner. This version is shorter, but otherwise doesn't differ from the spindle version.
Recently handspinners have begun using wrist-distaffs to hold their fiber; these are made of flexible material such as braided yarn, and can swing freely from the wrist. They generally consist of a loop with a tail, at the end of which is a tassel, often with beads on each strand. The spinner wraps the roving or tow around the tail and through the loop to keep it out of the way, and to keep it from getting snarled.
The term distaff is also used as an adjective and is used as a descriptor for the female branch of a family(e.g., the "distaff side" of a person's family refer's to the person's mother and her blood relatives). This term developed in the English speaking communities where a distaff spinning tool was used often to symbolize domestic life. The term distaff has fallen largely into disuse in recent times, although its antonyms of sword and spear to describe a male grouping are even more obscure.
One still-recognized use of the term is in horse racing, in which races limited to female horses are referred to as distaff races. From 1984 until 2007 American Breeders' Cup World Championships, the major race for fillies and mares is the Breeders' Cup Distaff It is commonly regarded as the female analog to the better-known Breeders' Cup Classic, though female horses are not barred from entering that race.
The Women's division of the mixed-martial-arts organization EXC(Elite Extreme Combat) is known as the "Distaff Division".