Knot fancywork tradition still alive on CG vessels

By Petty Officer 3rd Class Jasmine Mieszala

U.S. Coast Guard

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Imagine being underway in a military vessel. Not seeing land in weeks, and probably not seeing it again for a few more. The maintenance is done. All the cleaning is done, and one would go insane having to watch the same movie for the 11th time over. What’s a sailor to do in this situation?

Sailors used to turn to fancywork.

Fancywork, often called “boat jewelry,” is a centuries-old form of decorative knot tying. Traditionally, sailors would pass time underway by making fancywork. They would decorate the ship, make gifts for significant others out of it or sell it when pulling into different ports. Sailors would even tie fancywork around the glass jugs they hung from their racks to reduce the clanking sound as the jugs knocked around in rough seas.

“Adding fancywork gives ships more personality and gives the crewmembers more pride and ownership,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Warren Wilson, executive petty officer of Coast Guard Cutter Chock.

Fancywork can be displayed on ships or as a decorative touch to personal belongings. Though some if it is purely ornamental, much of it also has practical use.

On ships, fancywork is commonly found on poles, handrails and ladders, but can be almost anywhere there’s room to attach a line. When attached to handrails and ladders, fancywork acts as a grip or something extra to hold onto, to prevent slipping.

“I started tying fancywork when I joined the Coast Guard almost 14 years ago,” said Wilson. “The continuous turn of the half hitch knot was the easiest. I would tie that on everything -- my rack, knife handle, the small boat and anything else I could get my hands on.”

Wilson said he learned most of his knot tying and fancywork skill from his old, “salty” chief who had prior service in the Navy.

For Petty Officer 3rd Class Elizabeth Murray, a boatswains mate at Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Baltimore, fancywork is an extension of her creativity.

“Most of my fancywork has a practical use,” said Murray. “I put decorative wraps and zipper toggles on the weather curtains on the 26-foot trailerable aids to navigation boat.”

Murray said she’s self-taught and started learning fancywork in the second grade when she made friendship bracelets and macrame jewelry for fun. She said she enjoyed wearing the jewelry she made.

Aside from ornamental decorations, fancywork can also be used for functional purposes, such as splicing lines.

“You can’t always order something premade,” said Murray. “You could be hundreds of miles from shore and need a line replaced on the spot to keep operations going, and all you have is a spool of line. It’s important to know how to do this kind of thing.”

In a world of technology and automated everything, it’s easy to forget the skill and artistry that goes along with fancywork.

Wilson said it’s important for him to teach an old tradition to a new crew.

“Like my old supervisor, I want to show people what I know,” said Wilson. “My next project will be to tie some fancywork on the Chock. I’ll show the junior members, and we will work together in taking pride and ownership of the Chock.”

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