|THE ART OF
By: Vince Brennan
(With ALL my affection to those who want
to make themselves THIS crazy!)
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The art of doing fancy ropework is quite simple, really. It can be summed up in one word: dedication.
The true artist is one who will do the same piece over and over until it meets his/her demands and specifications. I
do my work as if (1) I was going to use it and (2) with an eye that -perhaps- when the present user passes on, it
might just be passed from generation to generation as a "family heirloom" and even might wind up in a museum
That may sound a bit pretentious to some, but I assure you that the exhibits in any museum of Nautical Objects were
NOT created to be exhibits... They were done in a masterful manner and thus survived because someone thought
them attractive or sufficiently interesting to keep around and pass down thru the family until someone eventually
donated it, but almost every object was made for a purpose... scrimshaw pie-crimpers were routinely USED by sailor's
wives and sweethearts to do just that: crimp piecrusts! Bodice busks were for stiffening... Secondarily they were
embellished with artwork by the sailor on the voyage . About the only items produced purely as "art" were the
scrimshawed whale's teeth, which served no other purpose than to look pretty. Everything else had an every-day
Thus we can see that the true art is that of making an object as well as you possibly can. Practicing on something
until it's the best you can do. All the rest is "look-see pidgin". All knotwork is only making a series of tucks and
passes in a certain order... Any knitter or crocheter can tell you that there are only about six different moves to make,
then all the rest is repetition. In that repetition is the true art found.
Now, this is NOT to discount the enormous amount of research done by the many authors of books on knotting and
fancywork. To truly be comfortable with ropework, one MUST know the mechanics of the rope itself, how it is laid up,
the materials used in it's construction, how it can be best preserved, etc. One needs a working knowledge of many
"simple" knots and their limitations and foibles, but all that WILL come to those sufficiently interested to read a few
books on the subject.
One also needs to at least be conversant with ships and riggings and the specific reasons many "fancy work" items
were invented, such as "pointing a hawser". Even the simplest of fancywork items, the "footrope knot" was invented
to give the sailor aloft a secure footing when working the sails and spars. As they were mostly barefoot aloft, the
footrope knot provided a "stopping point" when one's foot slid along the "footrope" below the spar.
The "star knot", arguably one of the prettiest (and hardest to learn) of the terminal knots was used to stop the end of
the lanyard from pulling thru the deadeye of the block when tensioning the shrouds on the mast. It also made an
excellent coat or seabag button!
"Baggywrinkle" was used as a form of "scotchman" to prevent a standing rigging line from chafing thru the sails as
they worked back and forth on it.
The list of things goes on and on, but ALL "fancywork" had a real purpose which drove it's invention.
Do your best. Pay attention to the work-in-progress. Use the best material you can get.
If there's a mistake, go back and fix it or dump the work and start anew. YOU will always know it's there, and so will
anyone conversant with the craft.
I look back on some of the lanyards I made when first getting into this professionally after a twenty-year hiatus and
wish I could take them back and re-do them. I assure you that, as long as you constantly feel that way, you will know
you are progressing in your skill levels.
Don't "settle". If you were buying it, you wouldn't "settle"... You'd want the best you could get for your money. Just
work to your top level and all will be very well in the end.
I envy you younger folk who are getting fascinated by this art. You have a long trip ahead of you and - if you're any
good at all - a long succession of people who will enjoy your handiwork and think of it's maker with respect.
Above all else, try to find other knotters, meet with them and exchange ideas. Swap techniques or just learn from
them. In the old days of sail, a man might go from berth to berth with an unfinished knot in his seachest until he
found someone who could show him how to do it. Today, we have the internet and a cadre of skilled knotters who
are more than willing to share their knowledge for the asking.
Online is fine, but sitting head-to-head with an experienced knotter is priceless. Do it whenever possible and you will
speedily increase your level of skill.
Pretentious and patronizing as this may have been, it is not a whisker to my first instructor's attitude of, "You'll
(censored) NEVER learn to do this (censored) knot the right (censored) way, you (many censored items) idjiit!"
So: Learn constantly, work to the top of your skill level and do your best. You cannot go wrong.
Fair winds and no hockles in the line!