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Splice of life

Words by Hannah Tapping | Images by Peter Chesworth

The tale of the ditty; where playful design meets historic significance.

You might be excused for thinking that a ditty was a little song – and you wouldn’t be wrong – but, as I recently discovered, it’s also the name for a traditional bucket bag used by sailors from the 16th century in which to keep their tools and personal items. For apprentice sailmakers and young seamen, a ditty would be their first foray into stitching, splicing and sewing eyelets and the resultant bag would be an essential part of their seafaring kit. Taken aboard, alongside the ever-important sea chest, the ditty would be traditionally hung from the sailor’s bunk so that he always had the tools of his trade to hand.

Jane Miners, of the Mariners Supply Company, is very much keeping this tradition alive, as I found out during an opportune meeting on a Cornish harbourside. A lunchtime stroll took me past a row of brightly coloured stalls, behind which was someone I recognised from my formative media years – Cornwall’s certainly a small world! Jane and I had met some 25 years ago when we were both working for the traditional boat magazine, The Boatman. Unfortunately, the magazine folded and we all went our separate ways, so I was keen to find out where life had taken Jane.

Sadly, the demise of the magazine was to coincide with Jane losing her parents, after which she spent time travelling across America. Returning to Cornwall, Jane’s plethora of talents have seen her work for leading national media companies as well as more local design agencies here in the Duchy, prior to setting up her own agency for maritime clients. Jane has always been a part of the sailing community in Falmouth and when a sailing friend and former colleague said she was going to live in Australia and sell her business, Jane’s career took a very different path; at the helm of the Mariner’s Supply Company.

“I had sold advertising space to the owner, Tina Rangecroft, all those years ago at Classic Boat magazine and had also sailed with her for many years. I knew the business really well – and absolutely loved the brand – so I bought it from her,” explains Jane. “Tina had been taught to splice by an old guy named Don Hill, whose converted lifeboat, the Ella Speed, was well known amongst Falmouth’s traditional sailing fraternity. She, in turn, taught me and so I like to think we have kept a little bit of Falmouth tradition alive.”

Although Jane had no formal sewing training, like many of us, she had been taught to sew by her mother. “Mum used to say that I used ‘a red-hot needle and a burning thread’ as I was always so keen to finish things quickly,” says Jane, “and as a punky teenager I made a lot of my own clothes so there was a familiarity there already. Although, working with canvas is a very different way of sewing because everything’s so thick. On top of the splicing, Tina also had to teach me how to insert the eyelets correctly. It was a steep learning curve and is actually quite a physical process. I use an industrial sewing machine with a very large gauge needle that would sew through rhinoceros hide! I make the bags using 14oz cotton canvas and in some places have to sew through five or six layers at once.”

In days gone by, sailors would have made these bags from whatever offcuts or odds of sailcloth they could get their hands on, as Jane explains: “many of the originals were embroidered and embellished by the sailors in their spare time – an early form of personalisation – and some would have eyelets around the top so that they could be drawn together with a cord like a duffel bag. Mine are a paired-down design, creating a very useful carrier and making the best use of the canvas size to produce as little waste fabric as possible.” The design of the bags is ingenious in that they don’t need additional reinforcing materials; the circular base and weight of the canvas provides the structural integrity, making them ideal for tools, crafting kit, picnic lunches and more.

A dip in the canvas supply chain, caused by a combination of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, has recently caused a bit of a headache for Jane: “But with the help of the South West Manufacturers Association, a government-funded body who help manufacturers large and small, we were able to find a supplier who was actually better than my original one. Consequently, I have had a more consistent supply chain and been able to add more colours to the range.” Eyelets and rope are both UK-made, keeping supply miles low, and Jane chooses to use a synthetic hemp rope as it creates a cleaner finish: “When I come to finish the splicing, I basically burn the ends, which creates a seal and helps to maintain the integrity of splice.”

They say that the compass was one of the inventions that changed the world, enabling mariners to navigate safely far from land, opening up the world for exploration and the subsequent development of global trade, and now we know that each of those mariners would have had a ditty bag. With the advent of so much modern technology it’s comforting to know that there are still makers out there honouring traditional methods. Without them, we would lose our connection with the past and sometimes things work so well, they just don’t need to be reinvented.

You can buy your ditty bag from the Mariners Supply Company online or from a number of craft markets, details of which are listed on the website.

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