Knotwork Handbag of Dyed and Knotted Sail Twine

Made by Joseph Avellette

Original content by: Christina O'Brien

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

Sailors are usually known as hard workers on the sea, but one might be surprised to learn that many are are also known for their ability to make artistic objects of a practical nature for their loved ones at home. One of those practical objects can be seen in this knotwork handbag created by Joseph Avellette. Perhaps this purse was made for a loved one or sweetheart at home, considering that there is a valentine heart embroidered on one side of the bag and the initials “L.D.” on the other side.

The bag itself is made out of sailing twine, which was dyed an aqua blue. Twine is an item that would have been readily available for sailors because this strong thread would have been used in creating and repairing sails. Twine itself is made up of at least two other smaller strands of any natural (jute, cotton, or hemp) or synthetic fiber and the twisting (or pyling) of these materials together provides a stronger piece of cord that does not unravel easily.

As a sailor, Avellette would have learned a variety of skills to make sure that his bag would not fall apart. One of those particular skill sets revolves around marlinspike seamanship, which focuses on the the creation and care of the ropes on a ship. This intricate work would allow a sailor to make repairs, create splices, and tie small knots on both larger ropes and smaller, more personalized items. The same skills that allowed sailors to repair and maintain a ship and sails also also enabled them to create decorative and elaborate works of art, known as tiddly work. The purpose of tiddly work was solely to impress a person with detailed macrame work and patterns like those found in the handbag above. One of the major draws to tiddly work is that this precision and concentration allowed sailors who were on board for months at a time to hone in on a skill that did not directly involve work on the boat. Macrame and other knotwork creations allowed sailors to utilize their skills in creating items that could give either themselves or someone they know personal joy.

Another aspect of this piece which would have been familiar to Avelette is the flat turk’s head pattern found at the bottom of the bag. The knot gets its name for its resemblance to a turban, but this design style is also known as a sailor’s knot. Turk’s head style knots are typically used to cover up a seam so there would not be a noticeable irregularity in the item. This single strand fancy knot is not only easy to create, but it also is a beautiful addition to any nautical item and associated with sailors in general.

The two tortoise shell handles are an accent that would have been at the height of their popularity when this bag was created. The pattern of the light to dark tortoise shell used is found on the carapacial (dorsal) shell and the plastron (underside) of the hawksbill sea turtle. The shell itself is made of the firm but flexible protein, keratin B. The material is easily malleable when introduced to heat and an artisan can form and mold the shell into any desired shape rather easily. Tortoise shell was popular for thousands of years but peaked in popularity during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. This hunt for turtles, both for their shells and for their meat, almost led to the extinction of the sea animal.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. How do sailors utilize the materials around them to create an item for a loved one?
  2. What ways can people and businesses help prevent the overhunting and extinction of animals?
  3. How does a census help historians learn about the past?