A walk through many maritime museums leaves one with the impression that, by and large, historical sailors were a pretty artistic breed. Glass cases showcase worn and weathered but incredibly intricate artwork ranging from scrimshaw etchings on whalebone to elaborate “beckets” which served as handles for sailor crafted sea chests. Macramé belts and tattered canvas ditty bags, remnants of a long gone sailor’s artistic past, are easily found on display next to generic artifacts such as a button or a fork.
Yet when one thinks of historical sailors, who thinks to label them as “consummate artists”? Well, this may not surprise you, but we at the Sailor Arts Society do. Sailors were known for lacking formal education and possessing a propensity for rough and unrefined living, attributes not commonly linked with artistry. But we believe sailors should be known for their art. Indeed, traditional sailors had such a broad range of artistic skills that it is even hard to define the label of “sailor art”. But we’ll try anyway.
What is Sailor Art?
Sailor art is… a masterful blend of the practical and ornamental. It is artistic craft built out of practical craft. It is the reflection of a sailor’s world through embellished items of necessity. As such, it is hard to define where their artistry begins or ends. Can their artistry ever be separated out from “their work”? We are led by these definitions to see sailor art as a folk art. But also, isn’t sailor art just art done by sailors?
The truth is, sailor art is really many things which all reflect important aspects of their culture. Here at the Sailor Arts Society, we are particularly interested in the objects which traditional sailors made for personal or shipboard use. We are interested in the ways in which these items were traditionally constructed and embellished, as well as how they represent the practical skills a sailor needed. Sailor art is so encompassing that it is hard to pin down a narrow definition. But we can easily apply some broad categories to sailor art based on the medium and methods used.
Categorizing Sailor Art
The most prevalent categories of sailor art are rope work, macramé, canvas work, leather work, carving, and scrimshaw. Such categories are not all-encompassing and are just a taste of the visual arts of the sailor. After all, sailors also had a rich musical tradition as well. But the aforementioned categories at least give a good starting place for appreciating the sailor arts.
Perhaps the two most encompassing categories of sailor art are rope work and canvas work. Both of these areas of sailor art are closely tied to practical skills used everyday by historical sailors. Leatherwork and woodworking are also practical based categories of sailor art, but are less encompassing. This is probably due to the fact that they were skills less frequently needed by sailors. Of course, in a discussion of sailor art it would be hard to overlook scrimshaw. Scrimshaw is perhaps the most artistically driven area of sailor art, as it had the most to do with aesthetics and the least to do with utility. Let us take a closer look at each pf these categories…
Rope work is perhaps the art most closely tied to the everyday practical skills of a sailor. Indeed, traditional sailors are only as good as their knot tying; and knot tying is the essence of rope work. Beyond knot tying, rope work also encompasses hitches and splices– really anything that can be done with rope and twine. Sailors would make rope mats, tool lanyards, lanyards for ditty bags and sea bags, beckets that functioned as handles for their sea chest, and bracelets for themselves and loved ones.
Macramé, which later became very popular in the 1970’s, was also used by sailors. While distinct from fancy rope work, macramé is not out of place grouped in rope work since it involves knots and twine. In it’s most basic form, macramé is made up of square knots, which are on of the most essential knots for sailors. Sailors would use macramé to make belts for themselves. Sometimes they would even make bags from macramé.
Larger sailing ships typically had a designated sail maker aboard. But the ability to work with canvas was a useful skill for any sailor. Such knowledge enabled a sailor to patch sails and create practical items. A knowledge of sewing was also critical to a sailor’s wardrobe. Without the ability to pop in to the tailor’s shop, sailors on board ships both repaired and made their own clothing.
The canvas items sailors’ made for themselves served very practical purposes and nevertheless also displayed dazzling craftsmanship. The most iconic of these items were the canvas sea bag and the canvas ditty bag. A sea bag could hold all of one’s possessions. Meanwhile, the ditty bag could contain all one’s smaller items. Sailor’s could also take their ditty bag aloft with all the tools they needed inside it. Making canvas items required many of the same skills of sail making, employing the same stitches and requiring the making of grommets and the sewing of bolt ropes.
While rope work and canvas work were more prevalent skills for the sailor, leatherwork was a great skill to have as well. With a sailor’s great need to be resourceful, knowing leatherworking was another way to do so. There were also parts of the ship where leather was used, frequently for chafe protection. A common expression of leather working for a modern day “traditional” sailor is the construction of sheaths for a rig knife and a marlin spike, the two most essential tools of a sailor. Historical sailors probably did this as well. The marlinspike was a pointed object which was important for untying jammed knots and in cases where leverage was needed. Having these two items on one’s person at all times was an important thing at sea. And having a handsome, self-made sheath reflected well on a sailor.
Carving and Woodwork
While a basic understanding of woodwork could greatly benefit a sailor, it wasn’t necessarily a skill used extensively. But when stranded and in need of repairs to masts and spars, it could be indispensable. Many sailors did make sea chests. Though they were typically of a rough finish. And sailors reportedly would also carve unadorned posts around the ship in their time at sea: while a ship might leave with a plain wooden stanchion, it might return with an eagle headed one.
Scrimshaw is a well known sailor art, most identified with whalers. It is comprised of etchings usually done on whalebone. Some of these etchings are incredibly intricate. They are similar to the carvings on powder horns from around the time of the American Revolutionary War. Yet rather than being done by professional engraving artists, as most of those etchings were, they were done by sailors with long stretches of idle time at sea. The result is some of the most beautiful and artistic sailor art. Scrimshaw certainly journeys the furthest away from the solid practicality of many of the other sailor art forms.
Well, this is by no means an exhaustive source, but hopefully it is a good introduction to the sailor arts. As you can see, a lot of the mediums and methods of sailor art were the practical skills of their day. Yet so much skill and expression are put into the sailors’ execution of these “practical” skills that they are undoubtedly art.
In closing, we just wanted to say “welcome to the Sailor Arts Society blog”. Through our shop, we promote the sailor arts by producing items using traditional craft techniques of historical sailors. Here on the blog, we hope to promote the sailor arts by sharing history, know-how, and inspiration that is free for all. We are glad you stopped by to be a part of the tradition of the sailor arts and hope to see you here again!
Our appreciation is unending, but our knowledge knows its limits. So if you as a reader have any knowledge you would like to share or factual correction or disputes, please do share in the comments…