Arwen's meanderings

Hi everyone and welcome to my dinghy cruising blog about my John Welsford designed 'navigator' named Arwen. Built over three years, Arwen was launched in August 2007. She is a standing lug yawl 14' 6" in length. This blog records our dinghy cruising voyages together around the coastal waters of SW England.
Arwen has an associated YouTube channel so visit to find our most recent cruises and click subscribe.
On this blog you will find posts about dinghy cruising locations, accounts of our voyages, maintenance tips and 'How to's' ranging from rigging standing lug sails and building galley boxes to using 'anchor buddies' and creating 'pilotage notes'. I hope you find something that inspires you to get out on the water in your boat. Drop us a comment and happy sailing.
Steve and Arwen

Saturday 10 August 2019

How to make a sailors traditional canvas ditty bag

What I was aiming for was something like a cross between  this…….

and this......

But what I got was this…………

Not a straight stitch line in sight – despite careful measurement and pencil lines.

Despite taking my time and checking everything at least three times.

Despite un-stitching and starting again……..

HOW, I ask myself?
I mean, really, HOW?
It just doesn’t make sense! How can I get everything I make so wrong?

Our brains are amazing, wonderful things. 100 billion neurons gathering and transmitting electro-chemical signals along myelin sheathed axons to synapse nodal points where neuron dendrites intertwine so that these signals can be shared with muscles and nerves in hands and eyes. Individual neurons firing signals across a vast network.

So, HOW?
I mean seriously, HOW?
How can I not co-ordinate the simplest of measurements or construction tasks? How does every straight line I ever draw in life, turn out sinuously curved?

For reference, here are the plans I worked from. 
I am, sadly, unable to locate a source for the diagram I found on the internet

I have no evidence to support this, but I have always like to think that heredity, biological inheritance, call it what you will, has passed down through family DNA from one generation to the next, a series of familial traits. That my siblings and I have this overwhelming need to either live near the sea, (minutes away from it by foot or car) or to escape to the coast whenever they can, is one such trait. The sea calls us constantly, the sense of wilderness adventure and exploration strong in all of us. After all, great Grandfathers and great, great grandfathers were seafarers, dockside watermen and boat pilots, chief stewards and sailing masters for wealthy sailing Victorian entrepreneurs’, dockside importers and exporters and of course, engineers and hill farmers. All practical, highly skilled and knowledgeable men.

In the twisted tangle of neuron networks within the deepest recesses of my brain, all is clearly not well. The electrochemical messages flitting between neurons that should carry these heredity genetic codes of marlinspike work, seamanship, simple design, precision measurement and proud craftsmanship are failing.

And failing badly.

Despite their best electrically charged efforts, my little neurons regularly heave a collective sigh and give metaphorical shrugs and eye rolls of their dendritic shoulders.
Craftsmanship just isn’t going to happen. Ever!

Perfection, even mere satisfactory ‘slight imperfection’, in measurement, construction and seamanship is clearly beyond the capability of this latest descendent. Synapses across my cortex resignedly conclude that it will be another long generational wait before someone picks up and displays the ability to use the skills of design, form, function and coordination of hands and eyes to produce something of beautiful, ornate perfection. Heredity has not passed on these skills from father to son. Only time will tell whether there had been a generational gap and hope will reignite in the only grandson. It doesn’t look good though, his enduring reply to any question about making something, ‘Dad, do these hands look suitable for manual labour?” Academic researchers - eh?

In the meantime, digressive thoughts aside - back to producing an old-fashioned ditty bag.

I have always wanted to make a sail riggers little ditty tool bag. This desire comes from several factors but two in particular drive it.

Firstly, I have never been one for toolboxes. I have no idea why, given my father has a very impressive collection of them dating back through his career as an engineer, to when he started out as an Apprentice Fitter.  I have always selected what I tools need, carrying them in my hands and the pockets of my work apron to the job being done on Arwen and then returning them to their respective wall rack back in the garage. No toolbox desire for me.

But, as I have grown older, the number of trips between garage and boat 10’ away on the drive have increased.

 Annoying at first, it elicited mild cursing under the breath – but now it has morphed in to an inevitable ‘regular’ forgetfulness that permeates all aspects of my domestic and former working life.
Pushed to self-honest reflection, I would have to admit that one of the reasons for early retirement was the inability to retain so much new syllabus knowledge in my head. So many curricula content changes, so many variations to working practices. Always one to embrace change and development across my career, age is finally catching up with me. A teacher with extensive ‘memory’ notes in hand because he cannot remember, recall or just plain forgets the core ideas he wishes to share and explore - is never inspiring for teenagers is it?

And so, retreating from this digression, a ditty bag seems a perfect solution to this problem of tool forgetfulness. The tools I use regularly on Arwen, stored in one bag, ready to go. A perfect solution.

Oh yes, and the second reason?

Well if you have ever worked on a boat that resides on a steeply sloping driveway, you will feel empathy for this problem. That fearsome clunk, clink, clickety click, as a tiny nut or shackle pin rolls off the sloping thwart down into the deepest bilge board recess. That screwdriver you reach for, no longer there because it has slide beneath your feet into that space below where mast and sails lie across the cockpit.
Ah, the joys of maintaining a wooden boat on a steep driveway, the pain of ‘avoidable expended energy’, as you contort body into confined spaces to retrieve a tool or fitting – dear reader you cannot understand that pain and frustration, unless of course, you’ve been there!

In researching a little about ditty bags I came across Hervey Garrett Smith. In his excellent little book ‘The marlinspike sailor’, he notes that

“Knowledge of marlinspike seamanship is what distinguishes a true sea man from the man who merely ventures out on the water at infrequent intervals

Since I merely venture out in Arwen at infrequent intervals, it is clear that I need to develop my marlinspike seamanship to become a true seaman!

“No one should become a skipper, or should aspire to that distinction, who has not mastered knots, palm and needle work………and the few required knots, hitches and bends should be so well known that they can be tied blindfolded or in the dark. The rank of able seaman must be earned”.

Well clearly, I have some work to do!

Ditty bags were possibly the most distinctive, idiosyncratic item that any sailor owned. From storing pipe and tobacco to clothing or tools for sail making or even scrimshaw, ditty bags became examples of a sailor’s ability to sew, decorate canvas and produce fine marlinspike rope work. Canvas and wood, the odd copper tack or two, they had carefully crafted grommets and spliced hemp handles. Soft bottomed so that they wouldn’t scar deck or hull sides, they were a companion to the sailors’ sea chest, the ditty bag hanging on a hook by his hammock.

Most ditty bags had similar dimensions.  15 – 20 cm in diameter, 30 – 38 cm deep, generally with a round bottom wood insert and four to eight eye holes around the top – marked by hand stitched grommets, into which were worked the legs of the spliced lanyards. Often these lanyards were elaborate works of art in their own right, dependent on the skill and fancy of the sailor concerned, an opportunity to display knot making – a Matthew Walker’s knot, a plaited or crowned sennit or two. The sailors initial stitched in coloured twine to show ownership.

A brief summary of one of the kinds of stitching method I used on my ditty bag 

The other stitching tool used, other than needle and sailors palm was the speedy stitcher sewing awl 

Knowing my inability to replicate anything well from a plan, I was aiming for a simple bag, as my first attempt!

My ditty bag will contain various tools on the outside in deep pockets – pliers, sharp knife, screw drivers, a small hacksaw, fid’s, pencils, a small clamp and cutters. Inside, sail needles, sail twine spools, a sailmakers leather palm, a ball of waxed cotton thread, speedy stitcher, awl, a spare shackle or two, some thimbles and a reel of electrical tape.  Spare bolts and screws of assorted sizes, some wooden bungs, a few plywood patches and a tube of underwater epoxy putty may be added. The tools and bits and pieces to cover most minor maintenance eventualities on Arwen.  

It is fair to say, my first effort would gain a ‘good effort but further practice needed’ on any report card and so I feel once again, the metaphorical shrugging of my heredity neurons within my deepest cortex recesses….’maybe next time’.

But, on the bright side, skills have been trialled – sewing flat diagonal stitching, creating a nesting ring grommet, tying my first running turk’s head knot.

Baby steps, baby steps! Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day and I have every intention of making a second ditty bag, the same as this one, only better, with some modifications – ideas learned through this first experience!!

Below, I have laid out the basics of how I constructed this first effort, along with some suggested modifications. If I have failed to explain in sufficient detail how to do something, internet searching will reveal an explanation, and please forgive my omissions.

So here goes……………

The materials
·        Old duck cotton material salvaged from an old 1950’s scout bell tent – a whitish cream colour and in good condition.  The diagram further up  gives size dimensions and was the nearest thing I had to a plan
·        Not on the plan and therefore self-worked out (hear those neurons sighing?) – blue thinner canvas for the pockets – I’ll give measurements further down – although there was a little trial and error
·        Half inch three strand hemp rope – I used around a metre and a half of it for handles, opening outside grommet and, when untwisted, for making small grommets for handle holes in the canvas
·        Around a metre and a half of 6mm three strand hemp rope for making running turk’s head knots
·        A 6.5 inch diameter piece of 9mm thick plywood, for the base
·        Several metres of waxed sail twine
·        Around 50 cm of 1 cm wide, 4mm thick, leather strip for the base
·        20 or so 10 mm long copper tacks
·        Some evo-stick contact cement  - I cheated!! Just a tiny, tiny bit

The tools
·        Sharp utility knife
·        Tape measure
·        Steel one metre ruler
·        Steel set square (40 cm long sides)
·        Small hammer
·        Pointed nose pliers
·        Sail stitching needles – various sizes
·        Speedy stitcher
·        Swiss army penknife
·        Awl
·        Pencil
·        Small Fid
·        Electrical tape
·        Bandsaw and sander
·        Heavy duty scissors

The steps
1.       Layout your canvas on a clean flat surface. If it has creases, go iron them out – no seriously – go iron them out. Learn from my mistakes!!  A crease will affect your precise cutting – trust me! Come back and add the measurement pencil lines, marking the positions of grommet holes, folds and seams in pencil or dressmakers white chalk. Tripe check the accuracy of your measurements off the plan below. Cut the cloth accordingly, ONLY after you have checked your measurements for a fourth time!

2.       Now pre-crease along all the fold lines – I used a rounded wooden piece of dowel to help put in firm creases. And this is where I did the only cheat, something no traditional sailor would have done – after checking the fold lines were correct – I stuck down some of the folds with dabs of evo-stick – to retain them for easier stitching along later. Sorry! (Of course, I tested the glue on an off-cut beforehand to ensure it didn’t stain or affect the cloth in any way – never forget people - do your stain test!)

3.       Now looking at each of the folds that would need stitching – I visualised where the stitch seams would go and drew in pencil guidelines to stitch along – hopefully thereby ensuring straight stitch lines in the final outcome. If you are a perfectionist, you can even mark on the needle hole positions at fixed intervals. I wish I had done that – I did the stitch line positions but not the stitch hole intervals. Learn from my mistakes!!

4.       I started by turning down the top of bag entrance folds and hand stitching them in place using the stitching pattern in the illustration below. I then did the same to the bottom fold and side fold seams. (In retrospect, next time - I think I would leave the side seams unstitched – i.e. not folded back on themselves and stitched. The reason for this is that when it came to the stage of stitching the cloth into a tube – at the joining seam I was trying to put a needle through what amounted to four layers of canvas – and it was hard going).

5. There were no instructions with this plan I found and so it has been trial and error. Having done the above I put the canvas aside and decided what size handles I wanted. Having made this decision, I then made four simple thin rope grommets – I went for the ‘wound style’ in which I wound twine around the grommets and secured it with a hitch or two – thus hiding the hemp rope inside an outer covering of waxed twine and basically making a ‘waxed twine ring’. (Later I stitched these in place using the same method – so that the little rope grommet essentially had two outer coverings of wound wax twine – see stage 7 below). (In retrospect – I wish I had gone for a far better handle design – see step 11 below for further details)

6.       Before marking on the position of the holes for the rope handles, I decided to stitch in place first the outer hemp rope grommet that strengthens the neck of the ditty bag. Here I was lazy and rushed things. I didn’t make a proper rope grommet. Instead I cut the length of rope to the length of the cloth when laid flat and then stitched it in place so that the two ends would meet and butt against each other when the sides were finally joined together. On the positive side – I did ensure that the stitching was hidden within the rope. (In retrospect, next time – I’ll be far more professional and actually make a proper rope grommet where the ends are correctly spliced together. Then I will add it after the canvas has been stitched into a tube).

7.       After stitching in place the outer rope strengthener above, I made the holes where the handles would go in the top folded lip of the bag. Measuring out equal spacing for their location, I used awl to make initial hole, penknife scissors to cut the holes and a fid to help widen them to the correct diameter. I’m sure there must be an easier way of doing it – but I couldn’t find one on-line. I suspect a dress maker will have a pretty good idea on how to do it better. Each grommet was placed over its hole and stitched in place. I used the simple wound stitching – so that the grommet was covered and attached. (In retrospect – next time I will go for a neater, more seaman like alternative – the hitched grommet, as shown in the picture below. Instead of winding the twine around the grommet, it is put around the rope with a series of individual little hitches. A tip – when you have cut the holes where the handles will go, mark an outer circle in pencil a few millimetres away from the hole edge. This will form the stitch insertion line guide – leading to a better finished product than my feeble first attempts – remember – learn from my mistakes!).

8.       Preparation of the main bag area is now completed. Thus, attention turned to the outer pockets and here I made it up as I went along. Using some blue lighter weight canvas I had left over from a halyard bag making project a couple of years ago, I marked it up in a similar fashion to the main bag. Fold and stitch lines were marked on in correct positions. I made sure that the top entrance lip would have a double fold thickness for stiffened strength, the bottom of the bag, a similar strengthening fold. These were glued and stitched in place along guide lines (not that you could tell from the disastrous wonky stitch lines on the finished article – there goes that metaphorical neuron shrug again). I then decided what width I wanted each pocket to be and marked on pencil lines as a guide for the vertical stitching that would be required. Happy with the measurements I then stitched by hand or with the speedy stitcher the blue canvas pockets to the main bag whilst it still lay flat on the workbench top. (In retrospect – next time I will stitch the bottom of the pockets to the bottom of the actual main body of the ditty bag – not like I did in the picture – where I left a 1.5” gap between the pocket bottom and bag base – I have no idea what possessed me to do that – it meant that the bottom part of the bag collapses slightly when tools are put in the pockets – doing it the alternative way mentioned above – will lead to stronger pockets and less bag collapse).

9.       Now it was time to take the canvas and turn it into a cylinder. I made sure that one side overlapped the other edge by around an inch and then I marked on an outer stitch guide line around 3mm from each of the seam edges. I stitched down both edges to ensure the bag was secure using that diagonal stitch shown in a diagram above. I couldn’t find an easy way of doing this stitching. I tried turning the bag inside out – it didn’t make any difference – I still ended up with one hand inside the bag pulling the needle through and pushing it back out again. It was fiddly!

10.       With the finished cylindrical tube now finished, I test fitted the sanded plywood base. It was a snug fit.

11.       Next came the attachment of the bag base and I turned the cylinder bag inside out to make it easier. Having pre-folded the outer rim of the canvas base, making sure it was firmly creased, I proceeded to stitch the base fold and the bag fold together using both speedy stitcher and hand sewing stitches. Then it was just a matter of turning the bag back on itself so the outer side was indeed on the out side and then re-inserting the wooden base. Hey presto – the base fitted neatly into the area where the two folds had been stitched together.

12.       The bag base was secured to the plywood with small copper tacks at 1” intervals into the side of the plywood edge, making sure that I kept the bag base really tight against the plywood base at all times. Once secured with the tacks, the leather strips were added, their bottom edge lining up with the bottom edge of the bag. Again, copper tacks at 1” intervals were used to secure these in place. 

13.       To all intents and purposes the canvas work on the bag was now complete – leaving only the rope handles to work on. And hear, another personality trait emerged – Keen to finish the bag I took short cuts and rushed the finishing touches – and on completion – immediately regretted it. I cut two pieces of three-ply hemp rope – half inch diameter – each around 18 inches in length. I whipped all four ends – pretty professionally – whipping rope ends is something I have finally mastered. I then threaded each end through its respective grommet hole and secured it on the inside with a overhand knot. When the loop handles were installed – I seized the tops of the handles together to form a small loop through which a stainless-steel carabiner could pass. Having tied a running turk’s head knot over my fingers, I transferred this onto the rope handles. This knot slides up and down thus helping close or open the neck of the ditty bag. (In retrospect – what I should have done – was displayed more pride and craftsmanship – I should have actually spliced each handle around its individual grommet hole and then whipped the splice with waxed twine – a far more professional finish – lesson learnt! And, whilst I think about it – I think I would go for just a single handle, not the double. I envisage the handle being two parts which can be secured by a toggle and loop affair at the top – perhaps I need to think this bit through further though)

And so, there is the story of my first ditty bag and attempt at learning some marlinspike seamanship. Call it a work in progress!

I have every intention of doing this again, making the modifications I have outlined. Hopefully within the next few months. I will post the results of the second attempt here as a postscript to this post. Maybe next time! After all practice makes perfect!

Anyway, I feel the need to try and sooth the restless synaptic shrugs from my heredity ancestral DNA!!


stu said...

My ditty bag is the most endearing artifact that has emerged from my 10 years as curator of s/v Ripple. Not many straight stitches on mine, either, but lots of good things have come out of that bag. Thanks for sharing your experience with yours!


Steve-the-Wargamer said...

Good job... oh, and for your diagram.. found this..??

Alastair said...

Have you any evidence that your ancestors were any better than you at this sort of thing. My experience of people who actually work with the sea is that if it works it is good enough. If you really want to emulate the works of art you drool over then do what the old salts did, lock yourself away in a wooden box for months at a time with absolutely nothing to do for half the day.

steve said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. Version 2 is in the pipeline 😀

steve said...

Thanks Steve...a really helpful link

steve said...

Most welcome stu

steve said...

Yup, various artefacts in boxes and cases Dad has. The bag will do the job but actually I'd like to try and make some improvements just for my own satisfaction. Hope your Salcombe sail was successful

Alastair said...

Salcombe was not so successful. We overnighted in Cawsand then set off in light winds for Hope Cove. After many hours and much rowing we got as far as the River Erme. As the tide was against us now we went in. A beautiful, tranquil, river. I was glad we didn't have engines or we would have missed this.
We went on to Hope next day and then back to Plymouth via the Yealm.
So not successful by the original plan but an extremely enjoyable week.

steve said...

hi alastair
The erme is a lovely estuary - I used to know it well many years ago when I was tagging bass fishing stocks but I've rarely been there now. The yealm is one of my regular day sails and picnic stops off Cellars beach.
Glad you had a good time.

Anonymous said...

As you may know by now, the pattern is from "The Sailmaker's Apprentice" by Emiliano Marino.

steve said...

Hey Anonymous, how you doing....yeah thanks for letting me know. Take care now