Macrame Is About Much More Than 1970s Plant Hangers

My nephew was visiting last week, and because he is a big fan of Captain Jack Sparrow and all things tall ship, we visited the Maritime Museum of San Diego. You can walk through a variety of ships and submarines, all of which are listed on their website.

Besides being able to walk through all the ships at your own pace, the museum offers educational programs with instructors dressed in historically appropriate clothing, teaching various lessons about history and sailing. There are also exhibits about everything from emigration to tattoos to salmon fishing.

One display that caught my eye was about fancy knot work. I immediately flashed back to my tween years in the 1970s when I believed all homes should be decorated with macramé. Although since most of the macramé I remember were plant hangers, maybe I just liked the thought of all those plants.

Fancy Knot Work display at Maritime Museum of San Diego. Photo: Cathy Hanson

I’ve always known that ships are full of ropes, but I never thought about sailors through the centuries having free time. Combine free time, expert knowledge of knots and lots of rope, and it makes sense that they spent time knotting ropes to makes items both practical and decorative. Historically, they created a lot of floor mats to prevent slipping, covers for bottles to prevent breaking, covers for knife handles for a safer grip, and hammocks for sleeping.

Ropes and knots everywhere! HMS Surprise at the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Photo: Cathy Hanson

On boats, different functions are served by different knots. If a sailor went to a new boat, or a boat from another region, they may need to either learn knots that are new to them, or teach others to create the knots from their repertoire. Some knotters, then and now, kept knot boards, which display their skills and knowledge. After all, the safety of the ship and the crew depended upon the sailors’ skills with ropes and knots.

Various types of knots, Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg, Author: Andrey Belenko of Moscow, Russia

The first manual for seamen written in English was A Sea Grammar written by Captain John Smith and published in 1627. (Yes, that’s the same John Smith from the Pocahontas stories.) This book was mostly about sailing and living a life at sea, but included a section about splicing rope and tying knots.

Almost 400 years later, there have been many manuals written about knot-tying, most including illustrations to show how to tie each of the knots. The definitive reference is The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford W. Ashley, published in 1944. It includes entries for over 3,800 knots. An alternate source of all things knots is the International Guild of Knot Tyers.

If you’re interested in creating your own decorative or practical items, or just learning how to tie various knots, there are many workshops and online tutorials available. If you like the nautical look of these items, but don’t want to make them yourself, there are plenty of places to buy items made by experts in the field.

Now, if we could only get Captain Jack Sparrow to lead a workshop about knot-tying.

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About Cathy Hanson

I’m a military brat and grew up on Air Force bases around the world. I discovered my love for history when I was 14 years old and the U.S. Air Force transferred my family to a base in England. Traveling from castles to cathedrals to ruins to cities, I felt the stories of these places and understood that history is not solely about events whose dates we are required to memorize. History is stories. My passion for those stories led me to a master’s degree in history.

Please feel free to comment, ask questions, supply answers, or tell me your favorite history resource or artifact.

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