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Captain’s Log: Introduction to Sailmaking – Ditty Bags

One of the best first projects for any beginner sailmaker is a ditty bag.  What is a ditty bag and why would one want to make one, you ask?

Well, a ditty bag is a canvas bag, typically shaped like a cylinder, that’s used to hold a sailor’s tools.  We have no idea why it’s called a ditty bag, it just always has been.  On Picton Castle, we typically make the bottom of the bag out of wood cut into a circle to help give the bag some structure and durability, but the bottom could just as easily be canvas or leather.

By making a ditty bag, a sailor not only get a practical bag in which to keep their tools, they also get an introduction to a variety of concepts and skills required for making sails.

The first step is to measure and cut the canvas.  What eventually becomes a cylinder starts as a rectangle, with extra width and height added for amount of canvas that will be folded over for the seam and the tabling.  Next, the short edges are folded under and rubbed to make a crease.  The canvas is then made into a cylinder and the two ends are seamed together.

This is, for many sailors, the first time they use a needle and a palm.  A palm is like a thimble for the palm of your hand, worn around your hand, with a metal surface that can push the end of the needle through the canvas.  Palms come in right- and left-handed versions and varying grades of sturdiness.

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On a sail, the tabling, which is an extra layer of canvas around the perimeter of the sail, is a separate piece of canvas sewn on.  When making a ditty bag, the tabling is made by simply folding over the top of the bag and sewing it down.

The next step is to add two small grommets where the becket (the handle) will be attached.  We make the grommets ourselves out of waxed marline, wrapping strands of it together in a circle then using a fid (a cone-shaped tool) to shape them into a circle.  The grommets are then stitched into the tabling on opposite sides.

Then it’s time to make a big grommet for the top of the bag.  This grommet is usually made of manila rope and must be made to fit exactly.  Canvas sails typically have roping around the outside of the sail to help give the sail strength and structure.  The large grommet around the opening of the top of the cylindrical bag does the same.  Once the grommet fits exactly, it gets sewn on.

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The last step before attaching the bottom is to make the becket, or the handle of the bag.  It’s typically made of manila rope as well, and the length is chosen by the individual depending on how they want to use their bag.  Some choose a long becket so they can wear their bag across their body and take it aloft into the rigging, others prefer a shorter becket so their bag can be carried by hand or possibly looped over one shoulder.  The becket needs to go through both grommets, then has an eye spliced in each end.  We like to use the sailmaker’s splice, a splice that goes with the lay, on beckets so that sailors can learn another splice that’s useful in sailmaking.  The splices are then served to strengthen and protect them, and to make the bag look more finished.

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As I mentioned earlier, we typically make the bottom out of wood cut into a circle.  There’s more measuring and cutting involved, a bit of sanding and applying something to protect the wood, then the canvas is turned under at the bottom, the wood circle is placed into the bag and the canvas is nailed to the wood.

Bosun School students started their ditty bags on Saturday morning and finished them on Monday as part of their current focus on sailmaking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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