As a folk art tradition, knot boards, rope work such as braided macramé, and woolwork embroideries originated in the era of great ships and whalers during the 19th century. Sailors adopted such crafts (as well as whale bone scrimshaw and sailors’ shell valentines among others) to pass the time on board ship or as a hobby after retirement. The items they crafted were often made as gifts for their wives or sweethearts back home, and also were sold or bartered by the sailors aboard ship or at port.
Sewing was a necessary skill for making and repairing canvas sails aboard sailing vessels. According to the National Maritime Museum in London, many sailors also applied these skills to artistic production: “During the latter part of the 19th century there was also a popular fashion … for producing woolwork embroideries of nautical subjects (usually national flag displays or naval ships) [which continued] well into the 20th century.”
The ability to tie various knots and braid rope (macramé) for different purposes aboard ship was also an essential skill. Knot boards, some incorporating braided rope, were hand-made by sailors, not only as decorative works but also to showcase the sailor’s skills and provide examples for others to identify sophisticated sailing knots and to learn how to tie them. There are dozens of macramé knots, including the square knot, hitches, chain stitches, and Turk’s head. Sailors made functional nautical objects of macramé such as bell pulls, lanyards, rope ladders, and rope handles; cases for objects such as knifes and bottles; as well as footwear, belts, bracelets, and hats. The craft of knot tying and knot boards continues today; the National Maritime Museum in London has a fairly recent example of a knot board on loan from the collection of Queen Elizabeth II, produced in her honor in 1977.
DuMont, Katie. The New Macramé. New York: Lark Books, 2002. p. 8. Online at Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=P59UBlzKloIC (7 February 2011).
“Sailors’ Craftwork.” National Maritime Museum. http://www.nmm.ac.uk/collections/explore/index.cfm/category/90366 (31 January 2011).