Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Reconstructed 18th Century Sailor's Ditty Bag

American 18th century Ditty Bag
linen with hemp lanyard
I wanted to inhabit my 1760-1780 American merchant seaman's impression more fully than just wearing the period-appropriate clothing I had researched and documented for it.   Lacking a berth on an appropriate vessel, and without the time, resources and youthful audacity to devote to months at sea,  I decided to concentrate on certain elements of marlinespike seamanship that I could practice at home.  I elected to begin with construction of an 18th century sailor's ditty bag, complete with fancy work lanyard knotted in hemp marline, and started collecting suitable items as its contents for use during historical interpretation.

The ditty bag was the nautical equivalent of the long hunter's "possibles bag": a container for keeping near to hand the small gear and personal items that were needed on a daily basis.  The artifact pictured at left that sold at auction in 2010 was identified as an American 18th century ditty bag.  Its construction is typical of ditty bags made before the mid-19th century, after which cotton canvas replaced linen, and metal grommets were used instead of those made by hand from strands of hemp line.  Some ditty bags today  -  more likely to be employed as wine caddies than for seamanship - feature roped bottoms that are flat instead of rounded, but these are modern innovations.   

Analysis of surviving, early ditty bags in museum collections, along with images contained in records of private sales, indicates some variation in the smaller details of construction, such as bag diameter, lanyard length and number of strands, but they are closely related in most other respects.  The main components of such ditty bags are:

- an open, cylindrical linen canvas bag, between 5" and 7" in diameter and 16" - 20" deep,  with hand
early ditty bag without its lanyard
stitched, flat seams and a round bottom;

-  small grommets made from spliced, small diameter hemp cord marline, hand stitched in linen thread or hemp sail twine;

- a lanyard also made from hemp marline, usually tarred, comprising anything between four and twelve strands, with a loop at the end so that the bag could hang from a hammock hook when not in use.  The lanyard is usually attached to the bag by splicing loops through the grommets.  It could be quite rudimentary, or feature a number of fancywork knots that showcased the sailor's skills.  I am by no means an expert at knot identification, but the 8 strand example, above, seems to employ a double chain sennet and two stopper knots for the handle with a running Turk's Head for the closure. Only the knotted portions have been tarred or varnished in this particular lanyard.

For my 18th century reconstruction, I opted for a linen canvas ditty bag 7" in diameter and 18" deep, following the diagram, provided by Master Sailmaker Louis Bartos of MARINER SAILS in Ketchikan, Alaska.

Ditty Bag Construction Diagram courtesy Louis Bartos of Mariner Sails
4mm tarred hemp marline formed the grommets, which I hand worked with the same waxed linen twine I  used to sew the bag. The next one I make will be sewn with a thicker hemp sail twine, but otherwise I am quite pleased with the results.

I used a #13 sail maker's needle from Wm. Smith & Sons and found it pierced my line canvas easily. It was, as they say in Southeastern New England, "wickid shahp".

I followed the instructions provided by Hervey Smith in his estimable book The Marlinspike Sailor and used three 7' doubled strands to form a six strand lanyard.

Based on Smith's instructions, and a number of helpful YouTube tutorials geared primarily at the para-cord knotting set, I  taught myself how to tie the various lanyard knots.  I began with a simple sennet or braid in the middle of the three strands, then "clapped a seizing" around it with twine to form a loop from the bight.  Below that I tied the first stopper knot, of a sort known since the early 19th century as Matthew Walker's Knot.  It is described as such in Darcy Lever's (1808) The Young Sea Officer's Sheet Anchor: Or a Key to the Leading of Rigging and to Practical Seamanship; and I'd lay you long odds that the stopper knots in the 18th century ditty bag lanyard, above, are evidence that it was in use during the previous century.  It can be made with various numbers of strands, and my lanyard has two of them made with six strands on either end of the handle.  Finishing these knots required a small fid to take in the slack (more on these tools, below).

In between the Matthew Walker's knots I placed an alternating series of round crown sennets: first laid clockwise and then counter. I found it was easier at this stage to stick a large fid through the lanyard loop and then lay the strands out in wide bights before drawing them tight. The result is a very satisfying handle with 14 alternating round crown sennet knots.

The lanyard in progress, with alternating round crown sennets
formed below a Matthew Walker's knot

The finished lanyard handle

A 3 strand running Turks Head knot closes the bag

I went with a running Turks Head to draw the strands of the bag closed once these had been spliced through the grommets.  The first one I made was a double strand Turk's Head which I varnished as the various manuals recommend, but tarred marline really doesn't need varnish and I replaced it with a three Strand Turks Head which I like much better.   This is a fun knot to tie, and a large fid proved to be an excellent form for reducing the size of the knot by pushing it closer to the tip each time I took in the slack.  The key to this knot is retracing, and it took more than 4' of marline to make a three stand knot the size I was looking for.  I just tucked in the ends and pressed it to finish and it has not slipped or unraveled yet.  I think I could have taken the slack in just a bit more in places but knotting my first ever lanyard gave me a great deal of satisfaction.

The finished ditty bag has served me well.  It is a popular ditty bag pattern that, except for the materials used,  has remained little changed during the last 2 centuries.  I'll discuss the tools and personal items I researched and acquired to carry in it in a subsequent post.

Reconstructed 18th Century Sailor's Ditty Bag
made by Tim Abbott from linen canvas and tarred hemp marline


  1. Nicely done. I'm looking forward to future posts!

  2. Thank you! Ditty Bag contents soon to come.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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