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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

30 March 2012


Knots tied by Spike Africa in the 1970s
Object history from the archives of the
 Saltwater People Historical Society©
"The sailor, from the very nature of his craft, has a dependence upon rope and a consequent familiarity with knots that is demanded of no other workman. It follows that most important knots owe both their origin and their names to the requirements of a ship at sea. So diverse are these requirements that the number of knots devised by the sailor is probably ten times greater than the sum of all other handicrafts combined. Nor is this surprising if we consider that on a full-rigged ship, in everyday use, are several miles of rigging, and an able seaman, of necessity, is acquainted with every inch of this extent.
      Knotting has been an important adjunct to the everyday life of all people from the earliest days of which we have knowledge. There are still primitive races who fasten their huts, traps, canoes, and harness with knotted thongs and withes. But civilized man is no less dependent on knots than his more backward brothers, even though knots today are much less in evidence in sophisticated surroundings.
      Long ago man recognized the decorative possibilities of knots, and 'fancy knotting' is one of the oldest and most widely distributed of the folk arts. But it remained for the sailor to seize upon this art and to develop it into something that is peculiarly his own.
      Aboard ship knotting had reached its flood early in the 19th-c and by mid-century, with the commencement of the Clipper Era, it had begun to ebb. Folk arts flourish best where there are leisure and contentment, and either of these conditions obtained on clipper ships. After the American Civil War the economic situation in the merchant marine was such that all ships were undermanned; sailors had little or no time to spare from their labors, and knotting was pushed into the background.
      At the beginning of the 19th-c it was unusual to find in the forecastle of a sailing ship more than one or two sailors who could read and write. It was a common thing for boys to go to sea before they were 10-yrs old, and cabin boys of 7 and 8-years of age were not unusual. Even ashore, at that time, education was considered unnecessary in the classes from which seamen were recruited. But the isolation of the sea was such that the sailor's inability to read and write was an almost intolerable hardship. In order to keep his mind occupied when off duty, it was necessary for him to busy his hands. Fortunately there was, aboard ship, one material that could be used for that purpose. There was generally plenty of condemned rope with which to tie knots.
      There were two arts that belonged to the sailor: scrimshaw, which was the carving and engraving of whalebone and ivory, peculiar to the whaling fleet, and knotting, which belonged to all deepwater ships, including whalers.
      Jackknife industries also flourished aboard ship, and much of the tattooing of the old days was done in the forecastle. Sailors knitted, sewed, and crocheted; made baskets and straw hats. But the true shellback was more apt to specialize in knots.
      Aboard coasters and fishermen knotting has has never been so widely practiced. There is a fundamental difference between the deepwater and the coastwise sailor. The latter, in common with the fisherman, spends much of his time ashore, making harbor at short intervals. Usually he has a home and family ties of some sort. His excursions on the sea are too brief, and his hours at sea too busy, to encourage handicrafts. But the shellback, if he has a home, generally ignores it when ashore so long as his health and thirst last. Most of the days of his life are actually lived at sea.
      The character of a sailor's knotting depends to a great extent on what branch of the service he is in. It would be impossible in the Navy to hand out rope in sufficient quantity for the large crews that are carried. Generally the men have to be content with log line, fishline, and such small stuff. This has resulted in the Navy's seamen specializing in 'square knotting' or 'macrame.'
      Merchant sailors have been better provided. Although they seldom obtain new material to work with, junk is generally issued, which they 'work up' into foxes, nettles, and twice-laid rope.
      It was the whaleman who fared best; his voyages were longer and less broken, and his ship was heavily overmanned. New whale line was frequently allowed, that had been broken in the whale hunt. This was the best quality rope that was manufactured; and could be worked up into any size material required. But to balance against these favorable conditions was the divided interest of the whaleman. Unless he possessed a special gift for knots he was apt to succumb to the lure of scrimshaw.
      The interest of seamen in their knots was widespread and intense, and often decidedly competitive. Complicated knots were explained under pledge of secrecy; often a knowledge of one knot was bartered for another. I have heard of a sailor who carried an unfinished blackjack in his ditty bag for several voyages until at last he found a shipmate who could teach him the knot. A sailor was judged by his chest beckets and his bag lanyards. A superlative knot tier, in the middle of the 19th-c, stood in the estimation of the forecastle about where the Artist of the Cavern Walls stood in the Cro-Magnon days.
      Very little nationalism is evident among knots. One reason for this may be that the merchant sailor has never been too particular about what flag he sailed under, and in the general shifting about, knots soon became common property. Here and there we have a 'Spanish', 'Portuguese', 'English', 'French', or 'American' knot, but seldom is the application of such a name at all universal. 
      It is impossible to make a distinction between the British and the American contribution to knots. There were English sailors in every Yankee forecastle. But it would seem that English-speaking people as a whole have made the largest single contribution to the subject. At the present time Scandinavian sailors are doing more toward preserving the traditions of marlingspike seamanship than any other seamen.

Above text by Clifford Ashley (1881-1947)
Two pages from the 620-pages of the encyclopaedic reference, 
The Ashley Book of Knots,
Doubleday & Co.,1944



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