Monday, August 17, 2015

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part V: Scutching/Swingling

In my ongoing experiment in making linen from seed to thread (about which you can read here), I've progressed through growing, harvesting, retting, and breaking. After breaking flax, early Americans moved on to "scutching" or "swingling" the plants to remove broken pieces of the woody cores from the fibrous bark of each stalk. 

John Wily explained that there were two methods for what he called swingling flax: "one is performed by a Wheel, the other with a wooden Knife, which is the common Method." (41)

You can watch a video about scutching wheels here (skip to about 3:00 to see the wheel in operation). Wily believed a wheel only made sense for larger producers, and for the rest of us he offered a very simple description of making a scutching board, the base upon which you rest the flax when striking it with a scutching knife:

     Get a Piece of Plank about 5 or 6 Inches wide, 1 Inch thick, and 3 Feet long; plane one Side of it a  
     little overlong, tenant one End of it in a Block about 14 Inches long and 10 wide, so that the said
     Plan may stand upright; then within 3 Inches of the Top saw it within one Inch of being through,
     then split off the sawed Part for the Flax to lodge on, and leave the other Part as a Guard to keep
     you from striking your Hand with the Knife. (42)

It takes a while to make sense of these directions, especially because most swinging boards I've seen have a piece cut out from the middle of the top of the board, as in Diderot's plate (Figs. 12-14; the objects around the lower right corner).

Diderot's flax tools, from "Sifting the Past".

But eventually I figured out that Wily meant to leave a higher portion one one side of the board. I later learned by experience that this portion should be on the side of your dominant hand. That's how it protects your other hand, holding a bunch of flax, from accidental strikes.

My scutching board with its extending protective piece on the upper left.

The scutching knife, Wily wrote, should be "almost in the Shape of a Dagger, the Blade to be about 16 or 17 Inches long, 2 and a Half broad, and 3 Quarters of an Inch thick at the Back" (42), but I varied a bit from his instructions. There are indeed scutching knives that look exactly like daggers. But I made one that resembled something more like a cricket bat or a fraternity paddle, based on Diderot's example in the plate above.


Rather than tenoning my board into a block, I simply seated it in the the ground and got to work. The idea behind scutching is simple: you're using the knife to strike and scrape what you don't want (chaff from the plant cores) from what you do (flax fibers). As artist Linton Park's 1885 painting illustrates, this was often a community event.


I was skeptical that such a simple process (scraping it with a piece of wood?) would have much effect on the flax, but it was in fact remarkably effective. Almost immediately, the roots and upper portions flew off the fibers.

Flax fibers (top) and chaff removed from stalks (bottom).

Although there are videos of more capable scutchers out there, here's my attempt.

video

I was, however, rather frustrated with how much fiber I was inadvertently scraping off along with the chaff, so after I had scutched all of the flax, I went back over what was left for another go. My final result was thus one bunch of quality flax and another with more tangled and chaffy fibers, the sort of coarse, short-fiber flax known, after further processing, as "tow."


Fine flax fibers (left) and tow flax (right).

With these fibers in hand, the next step in processing flax into linen is "heckling." That involves a rather sinister-looking tool, the heckle, that I'll discuss in my next post.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part IV: Breaking

You might remember that when we last left off with my rather quixotic project to turn a handful of flax seeds into linen fabric, I had finished "retting" the flax, breaking down the gummy substances in each stalk. Since then, I've passed my Ph.D. exams, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, and failed to recreate historical waterproofing, among other things. My neglected flax sat in the pantry patiently through all of this.


Writing in 1765, John Wily offered two options for "breaking" flax, separating the woody core of each stalk from the fibrous, thread-destined bark. The first, and by my understanding the most common, was with a "brake," a simple machine that mashed a handful of stalks between its jaws. You can see a French brake as well as a variety of the other flax tools I'll mention in future posts in this plate from Denis Diderot's mid-eighteenth-century Encyclopédie.


Diderot's flax tools, from "Sifting the Past".

And if you're really interested in flax processing, check out this video on different types of flax brakes. Wily gave detailed instructions about building a brake, but I decided to try the other method he mentioned. It was less effective on a large scale, but its simplicity and an absence of historical study made it more appealing to me. 

Wily described breaking flax using "a Hand-Mall called Beatles," but he presumed that his reader was already familiar with the basic tools. Eventually, I figured out that by "mall" he almost certainly meant "maul," a large wooden hammer. But I have yet to find any surviving examples or images of flax beatles (though, apparently, beatle sometimes also referred to the scutching knife used in the step following breaking). The quest is complicated by the ubiquity of a certain British rock band in any internet keyword search.

Google: "Showing results instead for Lennon Beatle" 

Tyler: "NO! Linen beatle. LINEN BEATLE!"

Anyway, I finally went to town on my flax using a wooden mallet I had on hand. As Wily instructed, "lay it on some smooth solid Timber or Stone, and then take the Mall or Beatle in the right Hand, and begin at one End of the Handful and beat and turn it over until it is well mashed or broken..." (41, Colonial Williamsburg reprint of Wily's Treatise).

My makeshift beatle.

Half-broken flax, beatled on the right.

The woody core separating from the fibers.

I was rather nervous about this process, because it would be the real test as to whether I had retted my flax for the right amount of time last summer. Too few days, and the fibers would still be stuck to the cores. Too many, and the fibers would have begun to rot and would break short along with the rest of the stalks. But everything worked out quite nicely. As I was breaking the flax, you could hear the sounds change as I hammered each bunch and the stalks broke down. And the flax itself went from a depressing gray hue to a more (get ready for it) flaxen color.


Breaking is only the first step in refining the flax, but with a broken bunch in hand, I'm now ready to move on to the step called swingling or scutching. And I promise it won't take nine months to get there. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Whalemen and Waterproofing VI: On Graceful Failure

If I learned nothing else aboard the Corwith Cramer in 2014, it was how to fail gracefully. In everyday life, most of us have the luxury of stewing over our mistakes. You screw up at work, and it weighs on you for days. You get short-tempered with a friend, and you can't think about anything else.

On a ship, or at least the ships on which I've sailed, it's easy to make mistakes. And, boy, did I make a lot of them. I mistook halyards for downhauls, clove hitches for cow hitches, euphausiids for mysids, and, in one particularly embarrassing incident, the bunk of someone who had just fallen asleep for the bunk of someone I was supposed to wake up for a 3 AM watch change.

But at sea, things move very fast, and you have to account for your mistakes and move on quickly. A single day aboard the Cramer included five watch periods, so before you knew it, you had gone off watch, gotten a bite to eat and a nap, and come back on deck as if it was a whole new day and your mistakes long in the past. You learn, in short, to let your mistakes go, hoping that you can do better next time.

And so I thought it would be fitting to end this series on nineteenth-century maritime waterproofing techniques by discussing failure.

When I started this project, I had ambitions to recreate entire waterproof garments. But as I discussed in a previous post, many of the most intriguing period waterproofing recipes include toxic or unavailable ingredients. For a while, I considered attempting to recreate period paint- or oil-based waterproofings, but the more research I did, the more I realized that any such effort would include levels of compromise - regarding chemical ingredients, application techniques, and, not least of all, personal safety - that surpassed the payoff potential of such work. In a presentation at the New England regional conference of the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums this past March, I discussed the potential of using the inaccurate processes behind creating things like waterproof garments as interpretive tools alongside traditional living history interpretation. I really believe that historic sites should be more transparent about the choices they make, even if these sometimes involve inaccurate reproduction techniques like machine sewing or synthetic paints.

But for now, this project involved just me and my home kitchen, and I realized I couldn't answer a lot of my research questions (how waterproof was white lead?) with experimental archaeology.

But I didn't want to complete this project having only produced blog posts, not physical things. I had, after all, found at least one recipe that seemed straightforward and safe. I discussed it in my previous post on tarpaulin hats, and if you'll recall, I left off just as I was about to combine various compounds into sealing wax, one of two key ingredients in the hat-waterproofing recipe.

Here's where things got a little hairy. And, I apologize, I didn't take the time to stop for photographs. In his Ten Thousand Recipes, Mackenzie never explains how to combine turpentine, shellac, colophony, and lampblack to create sealing wax, but I think it's a safe bet that it involved melting them together to form a homogenous block.

What I realized, after repeated experiments on the stove top and even in a small toaster oven, was that  rosin (or at least the rosin I was using) has a strikingly peculiar tendency to burn before it melts. This discovery led to a kitchen filled with acrid smoke and some frantic internet searches about the toxicity of colophony fumes. The best I could do, in the end, was produce a flaky wad of roughly combined "wax."



But I still hoped that this would be good enough for the waterproofing recipe. After all, it said to powderize the sealing wax, and figuring this would mix the ingredients even more, I dutifully ground up half an ounce (a pitiful fraction of the massive amount of "wax" I had produced). I placed it in two ounces of ethyl alcohol in a glass jar "near a fire" just as Mackenzie said. I waited. The liquid warmed up. But the wax refused to dissolve as he said it should. With no sand for the "sand heat" he mentioned, I put the jar in a small pot of hot water on the stove, a double boiler arrangement I figured was not unlike a sand heat. 


And I waited. 

But no matter how hot I got the jar, even up to the point when the alcohol began evaporating and then boiling (173.1° F, apparently), the "wax" refused to dissolve. At best, it seemed to get rather soft and give the concoction the general appearance of a jar of watered-down coffee grounds.


I tried giving the result a whirl, just in case I was missing something. But the result was not even close to the "beautiful gloss equal to new" Mackenzie promised. I was right. It still looked like watered-down coffee grounds.


Frustration crept over me. And that's not something you want creeping around a kitchen full of boiling water and semi-molten pine rosin.

But then I realized something. It's called experimental archaeology. And experiments fail. 

I don't know where the problem was - with one of my ingredients (the unmeltable rosin, perhaps?), with my technique (does a sand heat work alchemical miracles?), or with the recipe itself (didn't any of the many publishers test this recipe before they plagiarized it?) - but there was certainly a wrench in the works somewhere. This was a failure.

But I usually learn more from failures than successes. In this project, I learned all sorts of things. 

I read sources I'd never heard of before, handled rare examples of waterproof garments in museum collections, and corresponded with curators, chemists, and collectors who contributed pieces to this puzzle. 

I discovered that the world of nineteenth-century waterproofing was both simpler and more complex than our own. By all accounts, you could make a pretty decent raincoat in the fo'c's'le of a ship if you had some canvas and a bucket of paint. The modern raincoat I took on my ocean voyage in 2014 may be more waterproof than older ones, but creating it, much less understanding its chemical components, is well beyond my abilities. Not to mention that it's become nigh on impossible to locate once commonplace ingredients such as spermaceti, natural rubber, and spirits of wine.

In the course of working on this project, I had rare chances to find out exactly what it was like to get wet at sea, and I have a newfound understanding for why nineteenth-century sailors would have risked a bit of lead poisoning for that evasive element of human comfort, staying warm and dry. 

At sea, I learned that failure is inevitable. The men and women I sailed with whom I most admire owned up to their mistakes and did better the next time. I haven't quite figured out how to fail gracefully. I certainly would have preferred to conclude this project wearing a shiny, waterproof straw hat. But I'm learning. And I know that there will be lots of opportunities to practice.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Whalemen and Waterproofing V: Waterproof Hats

When I started thinking about historical waterproofing techniques as part of my participation in the Charles W. Morgan's "38th Voyage" last year (and writing blog posts under this label), I was keen to reproduce one of the ubiquitous "tarpaulin" hats worn by nineteenth-century sailors. I examined the waterproofed straw hat of sailor-author Richard Henry Dana at Mystic Seaport in 2014, and as I read through historic recipe books, I noticed that many mentioned hats as a common subject of waterproof treatments.

Detail of a sketch by Edward Haskell in his journal of the 1862 voyage of the merchant ship Tarquin, from Margaret S. Creighton, Dogwatch & Liberty Days: Seafaring Life in the Nineteenth Century (Salem, MA: The Peabody Museum of Salem, 1982), 3.

At last year's Fort Frederick Market Fair, a gathering of craftsmen and vendors who make and sell reproductions of historical material culture, I found just the thing I was looking for on the back shelf in a tent crammed with bric a brac.


Here was an old straw hat, the sort of thing people described as "half worn" in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, perfect for experimenting with a waterproofing recipe that I first encountered in Mackenzie's Ten Thousand Recipes (1867; pg. 347). This particular recipe appears verbatim in a number of nineteenth-century recipe books, and I've been able to trace it back at least as far as 1814 (pg. 41):

"A Black Varnish for Old Straw or Chip Hats.
Take the best black sealing-wax, half an ounce; rectified spirit of wine, 2 oz.; powder the sealing-wax, and put it with the spirit of wine in a four ounce phial; digest them in a sand heat, or near a fire, till the wax is dissolved; lay it on warm with a fine soft hair-brush, before a fire, or in the sun. It gives a good stiffness to old straw hats, and a beautiful gloss equal to new, and resists wet."

This seems like a straightforward recipe until you begin to take it apart.

Let's start with "spirit of wine." That's pretty simple. Spirits are beverages that have been distilled, and spirit(s) of wine was the result of repeatedly distilling wine. Today, we call the same substance aqua vitae or, in its more pharmaceutical form, ethyl alcohol. Chemically, alcohol acts as a drying agent in this recipe, speeding and stabilizing the drying process. For this experiment, the closest I could get to true spirits of wine at an affordable price was store-bought ethyl alcohol, which has some other chemical additives.


And "the best black sealing-wax"? Well, that gets trickier, given that sealing wax is not as universal a descriptor as ethyl alcohol. Luckily, Mackenzie comes through for us again, on page 357, with a recipe for black sealing wax. I suspect this was also an older recipe, but I've been unable to find it in an earlier source.

"Venice turpentine, 4 1/2 oz.; shellac 9 oz.; colophony 1/2 oz.; lampblack mixed to a paste with oil of turpentine, q.s. [quantum satis/sufficit: a sufficient amount]"

What's all this mysterious stuff, then, and where can we find it today?

Venice turpentine is a solvent made, like all turpentines, by distilling tree resin, in this case that of the western larch. It's still used today by some painters and, more commonly, in the care of horses' hooves. My supply came from Hawthorne Products, who make actual resin-derived (versus synthetic) Venice turpentine.

Shellac is easy. The female lac bug, native to southern and southeastern Asia, excretes this substance as it forms protective tubes on the branches of trees. Once processed, shellac has a variety of uses, especially as a varnish and wood finish. Of course, Mackenzie doesn't specify whether he means dried, pure shellac or the liquified, alcohol-based product sold in most hardware stores. I decided to go with shellac flakes, a wide variety of which are offered on eBay for use in various crafts, because I suspect that's what Mackenzie meant, given that he included turpentine as a solvent.

And colophony? According to the OED, it's "The dark or amber-coloured resin obtained by distilling turpentine with water." Technically, resin/turpentine is what comes out of trees. Venice turpentine and other "spirits of turpentine" are the fluids that evaporate in the distillation process, leaving colophony/rosin. Rosin is used for a variety of purposes today, including in the treatment of string-instrument bows, and there are many varieties available on eBay. It's hard to say if the one I acquired was actually distilled, but I went for it.


Venice turpentine, shellac, colophony, and candles for making lampblack.

Lampblack, used as the pigment in this recipe for black sealing wax, is a fine soot, unburned material left over from some fires (as, in an eponymous example, the soot that forms inside an oil-burning lamp globe). It's quite easy to make, as this primitive skills page testifies. In essence, you capture the smoke and soot emitted from a burning flame on a smooth surface such as a metal or ceramic plate, and then carefully scrape off the black residue. Mackenzie himself described a method (pg. 328) for gathering lampblack from a tin funnel suspended over a lamp, and as we might expect by now his instructions are identical to a set that appeared in numerous recipe books as early as 1804.


Lampblack from a beeswax candle accreting on a spoon.

The more industrial setup I came up with to harvest lots of lampblack from the bottom of a pot over a candle.

Finally oil of turpentine is, according to the OED, "a volatile oil, contained in the wood, bark, leaves, and other parts of coniferous trees, and usually prepared by distilling crude turpentine." It sounds to me like this was a crude turpentine, filled with impurities. I wasn't able to find a source for definite oil of turpentine online (though various vendors online offer suspicious "turpentine oil" and "pine oil" products). So I decided to mix the lampblack paste using regular turpentine.

With all the ingredients prepared, I was ready to mix up my sealing wax, dissolve it in ethyl alcohol as Mackenzie instructed, and paint up my hat. Sounds simple, right?

Well, about that...

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Appomattox at 150

I spent three days last week at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park as part of a group of volunteers demonstrating Civil War drill and discussing army life with visitors. Since getting back to the twenty-first-century, I've been thinking a lot about what drew so many people to an out-of-the-way corner of Virginia for the anniversary of the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee.

Entertaining some young visitors to Appomattox, April 2015.

The anniversary of the surrender, April 9th, was a rainy Thursday, but the park still received thousands of visitors. For some, the attraction was genetic. They had an ancestor "in the war," as they inevitably put it, maybe even one who was there at Appomattox 150 years ago. There were descendants of Ulysses S. Grant and of A.P. Hill, a Confederate general killed only a few days before the surrender. Many more visitors traced their lineage to common soldiers, North and South.

One older visitor stopped me in the street in front of the McLean house, where the surrender took place. "Are you a federal officer?" he asked. "Yes," I said, "I'm portraying a second lieutenant." "Well," he paused, "I'd like you to fill out my parole." With shaking hands, he held out a slip of paper, one of the reproduction parole sheets the Park Service had been printing and distributing all day. I asked him to spell his name and wrote it in the blank space. The form also asked for a company and regiment affiliation. He didn't hesitate when I asked him, so deeply did he feel a connection with a particular historical unit. "Company K," he said, "47th Virginia Infantry."

Many people came not because of any particular ancestor, but because the war has exerted some longstanding hold on their psyches. One middle-aged man remembered growing up around the 100th anniversary of the war. "I've been waiting fifty years for this!" he said. I met people from Connecticut and Tennessee who had spent countless hours on the road to be at Appomattox on April 9th. I spoke with one man from Maine, where he is a docent at a museum built by Civil War veterans. For all their different reasons, people came to stand on this particular, unremarkable patch of ground on an unremarkable Thursday in 2015. And they came in far greater numbers than I expected. Thousands watched as the actor portraying Lee exited the McLean house in midafternoon.

Lee. Win McNamee/Getty Images from here.

As the Lee actor mounted his horse and rode slowly down the lane, between rows of visitors, an older woman behind me leaned forward to stare. She grabbed her husband's arm and spoke with hushed reverence. "Isn't he magnificent?"

And, as humorous as this seemed at the time, I have to admit that it was true. He was magnificent. He was everything we imagine of Lee, stately and serene, even in defeat.

It is my experience that there are two types of Civil War enthusiasts: Lee people and Grant people. Which man we find more compelling says at least as much about us as about them. The two heroes are so different, and perhaps that's what makes their meeting at Appomattox so compelling. The Southern patrician, poised and inscrutable, meets the Northern victor, mud-spattered and casual. Here we have the two great American heroic archetypes: the honorable knight and the self-made cowboy.

Grant and Lee. Autumn Parry, from here.

The reality is more complicated and wonderfully ambiguous. Was Lee such a marble man, or a base hypocrite? Was Grant a salt-of-the-earth military genius, or merely a lucky drunk?

That is, I think, why so many people find the Civil War so fascinating. Nostalgic minds can find all the honor, nobility, and grace they want. They can find stories of good and evil, the triumph of righteousness and the tragedy of the Lost Cause. And those of us more inclined to skepticism can find equally compelling complexities and contradictions at the heart of the story. The real Lee and Grant, after all, are at least as interesting as their mythological versions.

The day after the surrender anniversary, a ceremony recreated the final act of the Army of Northern Virginia, the stacking of arms. As the Confederate reenactors slowly arranged their muskets in pyramidal stacks and piled up their cartridge boxes and bayonets in heaps below, their color-bearers passed ragged banners over the ranks so that each man could grasp the flags one last time before the final surrender. As they marched away, I noticed that many had real tears streaming down their faces.

A Confederate color-bearer passes a flag over a line of troops at Appomattox. Autumn Parry, from here.

This was not melodramatic acting. I've worked with reenactors for years. Deep down and despite the name, most are terrible actors. No, these were genuine emotions, felt by men of 2015 reliving the bittersweet final moments of the war.

The Civil War is at the core of our national creation myth. But we can each make our own myth. When Americans imagine the stately Lee meeting the disheveled Grant in the McLean house, they can see it as a moment of loss or of victory. It was both, after all. And either way, it was a fork in our national road. We struggled mightily over the basic ideas of our society. Appomattox was where we finally settled, or at least began to answer, questions about democracy and slavery, merit and aristocracy, and the shape of our society and nation.

That's why this place matters to so many people.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Sailing and Sewing aboard the Corwith Cramer

After spending six weeks aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, 23 days of which comprised our Atlantic crossing between Gran Canaria and Dominica, I've been finding it difficult to quantify all that I experienced and learned. I was aboard the Cramer as a guest "voyager," a position that combined the roles of deckhand and visiting scholar. The Cramer is one of two ships operated by the Sea Education Association, an organization that runs semester-long programs for undergraduate students. Their voyages emphasize marine science, maritime skills, and cultural studies that vary based on changing cruise tracks.

I expected to learn about sail handling, knots, celestial navigation, the physical world of shipboard life, and how it feels to be out of sight of land for weeks at a time. And I did. But I also learned about meteorology, pelagic birds, and the "plastisphere" that develops around discarded plastics in the ocean. I worked on diesel engines, cooked for a crew of thirty, and examined the many tiny creatures that appeared in our net samples (including such bizarre animals as mesopelagic nudibranchs, phronima amphipods, and megalope). It was easy to get excited about such things because everyone on board was passionate about their field of study, be it engineering, history, sailing, or science. Conversations around the dinner table and on deck moved easily from tall ships to Caribbean politics to the physics of rainbows to the Lego movie. I shared a bit of my own passion in such informal conversations and in a presentation about material culture during one of our daily all-hands meetings.

Talking material culture at sea aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer. Photo by Jeff Schell.

I'm working on several reflective essays about my experience. In the mean time, I wanted to discuss what I worked on in spare moments between standing watch on the voyage: sewing and thinking about how and what sailors sewed at different points in history. During my time aboard the Cramer, I completed a reproduction of a sailor's jacket recovered from the wreck site of the General Carleton, a British vessel that sank in 1785. Historians Lawrence Babits and Matthew Brenckle documented the jacket in a chapter of the archaeological report available here. You'll forgive the anachronistic beard and glasses in the images below.



My reproduction of the General Carleton jacket, showing the general fit and wearing options of the garment.

I wanted to sew on board the Cramer as a way of thinking about what it must have been like for sailors aboard earlier ships to make and repair their clothing amidst their many other duties. Shipboard life and labor meant sailors often wore peculiar styles of clothes, garments that distinguished them from other workers. Clothing still matters to sailors. Today's professional tall ship sailors joke about looking like "schooner bums" when in port, and they can still recognize other sailors by the sorts of things they wear.

Ships, historically and today, are cramped places, and people are amazingly creative when they are looking for a place to work. On the Cramer, people played music, wrote in journals, read books, and crafted in their bunks, at the dinner tables in the main salon, on deck, on the "elephant table" (a seven-foot-high platform behind the foremast), and wedged into impossibly small places in the metal and wooden confines of our environment.

Sewing in the fo'c's'le. Photo by Farley Miller.

Today's sailors, much like those of the past, sew out of necessity. I was surprised how often I saw people sewing on board, given that most people I meet on land are unable to sew at all. There are several explanations for why sailors sew. First, every crewmember has only a limited wardrobe and no recourse to a clothing store, so they have to repair damaged garments if they wanted to wear them again.

Sewing in a bunk aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer.

Clothing gets dirty and wears out quickly on board a ship. My own canvas pants, for example, looked like this after only a week's wear:

A week's impact on a pair of pants.

We had no washing machines aboard the Cramer, and so crewmembers laundered clothing in the open air of the deck. On any given morning, a handful of people enjoying their time off watch could be found sitting on the foredeck around small piles of dirty clothes or pinning clean ones up to dry on a line. It's amazing what you can do with two buckets, some soap, and your hands.

A shipboard washing machine aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer.

Drying laundry aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer.

Laundry hanging on the forward rail of the SSV Corwith Cramer.

But there are other explanations for why people sew so much onboard ship besides functional ones. One afternoon, I watched as a sailor patched a pair of Hawaiian-print shorts on the quarterdeck. The cotton was hopelessly torn in multiple places, and several generations of stitches, sewn cloth patches, and adhesive sail patches covered portions of the seat and leg. But these were a favorite garment, and she had worn them through several voyages. Sailors often live and travel with far fewer belongings that most people on land, so some things take on substantial sentimental value.

Sewing on the quarterdeck aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer.

Many of the crew and students on our voyage studied how plastics entered and impacted the world's oceans, and they were especially conscious about the wasteful nature of American consumer culture. All contemporary ships have to be careful with how much waste they generate, because they must transport inorganic trash such as plastics until they find a suitable land depository. We were very careful on the Cramer about what we used and threw away. Crewmembers carefully repaired clothing at sea when such garments might have ended up at Goodwill or the dumpster on land.

Sewing in a bunk aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer.

Depictions of earlier sailors at work and descriptions of their personal effects often include small boxes containing sewing tools. Almost as soon as I began sewing aboard the Cramer, I wished I had brought more small containers. Sewing doesn't take many tools, but even a pair of scissors, some thread, and few needles seems like a lot to keep track of when you don't have much space your whole world is rolling back and forth. I was constantly losing pins, though thankfully all were found by eagle-eyed and patient shipmates, rather than in the soles of some poor sailor's foot late at night.

Sewing a new cover for the bench vise aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer. Photo by Ger Tysk.

The only sewing tool lacked aboard the Cramer was an iron. Historically, irons were just that - bars of iron heated in the coals of a fire or on a stove. I suspect most early sailing ships had one, and my inability to press sewn seams made my Carleton jacket visibly different from the original and other eighteenth-century garments I've examined. A talented shipmate was kind enough to make me a wooden seam rubber, a tool that presses linen seams using pressure rather than heat and steam, but it was ineffective in pressing woolen seamst. The most successful effort occurred when the steward, Nina, and I conspired to heat one of her cast-iron pans in our shipboard oven long enough to get it piping hot and use it as a make-do iron.

Ironing with a skillet aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer. Photo by Nina Murray.

I had a file of research on the Carleton jacket and brought along all the supplies I would need to recreate it. Other sewing projects on board had less planning behind them. A few hours out of Dominica, we realized that our shipboard stores lacked the flag of that country. Typically, foreign ships visiting a port fly a "courtesy flag" as a gesture of respect to their host. With a small flag identification sheet as our guide, several of us went to work cutting up spare bed sheets and old t-shirts, assembling them into a one-sided rendition of the Dominican flag.

A sewing party at work on our rendition of the flag of Dominica.

Sailing, I learned, is about teamwork. Moving a ship across an ocean requires you to work with the people who happen to be your shipmates. That was true in 1492, and it's true today. The Sea Education Association's motto reminds crewmembers how they should arrange their priorities while on board: "Ship, Shipmate, Self." You arrive on a ship as strangers, and suddenly you are surrounded by the same small group of people without interruption for weeks at a time. You learn about your shipmates' idiosyncrasies, and you put up with their flaws in part because you have no other choice. But more importantly, these people, your shipmates, put up with your own failings. You pick up each others' slack. "Every time you feel like you're pulling more than your own weight," our chief mate told us early in the voyage, "That's good. Because whenever you don't feel that way, someone else does."  

Teamwork is hard work. Working and living together aboard a ship or otherwise can leave people embittered and unfriendly. But sometimes, the unpredictable chemistry of a crew produces a splendid result. The most valuable thing I learned while sailing aboard the Corwith Cramer had less to do with history, biology, metereology, or navigation. I learned that when you surround yourself with good people, anything seems possible. I did much less sewing on personal projects than I expected. But I'm most proud of a project I hadn't planned, that Dominica flag. Where else could you find half a dozen people, most of whom had never sewn a stitch in their lives, ready to drop what they were doing, chop up old rags, and assemble a flag at a moment's notice, all the time smiling? The result, like a good crew, sometimes looks ragged up-close, but when you step back and let the wind do its work, it is something quite beautiful.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Off to Sea (Again)

I think all maritime historians have a more or less secret desire to run off to sea. Maritime history is only one of my research interests, but I'm not immune to the lure of the ocean. I've thought a lot about what it must have been like to work and live aboard a sailing ship. Now, I have the chance to put some of my ideas to the test in a voyage sponsored by the Sea Education Associaton.

Beginning on November 12, I'll be aboard the SSV (Sailing School Vessel) Corwith Cramer as a guest "voyager" during the Cramer's sail from the Canary Islands across the Atlantic to Dominica and the U.S. Virgin Islands. I'll be participating in shipboard activities, working with the eight undergraduate students who are studying science and the humanities aboard the ship this semester, and conducting my own research.

SSV Corwith Cramer, a steel-hulled brigantine constructed in 1987. From SEA, here.

It's rather hard to do traditional historical research aboard a ship, with no archives and no internet. But so what? Historians are more versatile than you might think. While I'm aboard the Cramer, I'll be editing a couple of papers, massaging them towards their final, article forms. But I'll also be doing a lot of watching and learning, about the way a sailing ship works, about how sailors move and work aboard ships, and about what it feels like to be out of sight of land for weeks at a time. This is the sort of experiential learning that makes for good historical writing, because it helps us get closer to the lifestyles and feelings of people in the past.

And I'll be sewing, working to cut and construct replicas of the undergarments Richard Henry Dana Jr. made during his two years before the mast in the 1830s. I mentioned these unique garments before in connection with my ongoing "Whalemen and Waterproofing" project, and I'll also be thinking a lot about waterproof clothing while aboard the Cramer.

I expect I'll be quite busy. I'm sure you will be, too. But if you have some spare time and you're interested in following along, tune in for regular posts on the Cramer's blog, which will soon shift to documenting our voyage, here. Check back here for a series of posts about my experience coming in early 2015.