Back in the golden age of sailing ships every sailor worth his salt had a canvas ditty bag. This was a small thing typically 7″ in diameter and 14″ tall. In it the sailor kept a few personal treasures, bits of cloth, buttons, twine and tools. With the contents he was able to keep his personal clothing in good repair and was able to make repairs to the ships sails as well. This last bit was of paramount importance to a
ship powered solely by sail.
Much like the joinery apprentice would build a tool chest as a right of passage, the new sailor would make a ditty bag. This gave him training in the tools and seams that were required for maintaining the ships canvas.
The flat (tabling) seam is king when it comes to sewing canvas sails. The other common seam is the round seam. Both of these are traditionally used in making a single ditty bag. Another important skill covered by the ditty bag is hand sewn grommets. Before the advent of the pressed metal two-piece grommet, if you needed a whole through canvas you had to install a hand sewn grommet. Not as quick as the modern metal version but very strong when done correctly. Another skill that was sometimes employed in the ditty bag was the roping of an edge. This is basically sewing a length of rope to the edge of canvas. In sails it used as a reinforcement or control line. In ditty bags, as well as canvas buckets, roping is added to the top rim as a reinforcement. The other skills covered by the ditty bag relate to line work and knot tying. Splicing was almost always covered as well as seizing. The line and knot work of the ditty bag is where the sailor could show off his skills and make the bag his own. More often though the handles were simple and functional.
A while back I wrote about using lengths of twill tape to “clamp” small projects. It worked great for me. Consequently I have, and will be adding, several lengths of this twill tape to my shop. So what I need is a storage container. My first thought was to make a small box out of wood. That would work fine but I’m running out of horizontal surfaces on which to store things. So I decided that I needed something that I could hang on the wall when not needed and then transfer to the bench when in use. Since I haven’t done any canvas work lately this would be the perfect project to get my hands back into it.
This project is not a traditional ditty bag but employs many of the skills required plus a little woodworking. There is far too much information for this post to be a “how-to”. Instead I thought it would be a good way to introduce you to the possibilities when working with canvas. If I’ve peaked you interest all the skills are covered in the book “The Sailmaker’s Apprentice” by Emiliano Marino.
After a little sketching I decided that my storage bag should be 6″ in diameter and 9″ tall. That should be plenty big for what I need it to do. I’ll be making this from heavy #8(18oz) cotton canvas. This will result in a stiff sided bag that will remain open on its own. The twill tape weighs almost nothing. I decided that a wooden bottom, in lieu of the traditional canvas, would anchor and stabilize the storage bag when it was sitting on my bench. I’m also going to add a roping to the top edge to further ensure that the bag will stand open.
Here are the tools and most of the materials that I will be using.
Canvas marked and cut to size.
After seaming the canvas into a tube, I folded the top portion down and seamed it into place. A seaming palm is a must for this type of work.
Seaming is completed. I’m a little rusty but it will easily last the rest of my life.
Grommets laid up from three strand rope and twine and they are ready for installation.
I think that’s a pretty good start. In the next post I’ll have the grommets, handle and wood bottom installed. At least I should.
Greg Merritt Part 2
Working with canvas is nice to do for a change.
As far as I remember, we were taught that there should be 8 stitches for the length of a No 8 needle. I haven’t done any sewing in years, so it would take me some time to get into the rhythm again – not that I was ever really good at it.
It looks like it is going to be a great project.
Yep, I enjoy working with canvas. I find the repetitive nature of sewing the seams to be relaxing. Almost like meditation. 🙂 I’ve never had a class or any training, but all my reference books give the rule thumb for stitches to be 8-10 stitches per the needle length. So the length of the stitching varies with the gauge of the needle. I’m pretty rusty myself. This is something you need to do fairly often to keep the “feel” and rhythm going.
I recognize most of the stuff in the “what I’ll use pic”, but I don’t know what the hook with the line is for. What would it be used for in making this bag?
The sailmakers hook is for anchoring one end of the canvas to a bench/chair while sewing. It keeps the pieces aligned and allows tension to be applied to the canvas. I was alone for most of day so action photos were tricky. Part Two will have a video link that will answer your question much better.
You could fit a chocoablock of rations in there. Very sea worthy mate! I am a landluber but a bag like this could be used for tools. Much nicer than the ugly 5 gal bucket!
Thank you. There are numerous uses for a well made canvas bag/bucket. This is a skill well worth learning.
Aaaaaannnnd i can breathe again….. Lol. Very nice start. Ive also done some canvas work in the past, very therapeutic as you stated.( Have made a backpack that lasted through 5 days in algonquin canoe camping.) Im a bit of a backpack-aholic in my mind anyway. I think i will add the sewing kit items from lee valley to my wish list. Your sewing palm is of interest.. Will need to look into those more.
Thanks Brian. The Speedystitcher works pretty well. I own one but almost never use it. Once I got a sewing palm and some decent needles, that is my go-to for any sewing. There is a point on this bag that is 8 layers thick. Almost a 1/4″ thickness of material. With the seeming palm I can easily push the needle through. In part two I’ll add some links were you can find all of the tools that I used.
saw a site where it was suggested a modified leather glove as a base to add the metal, rawhide, leather. Hmmmm…. More time on the google machine is in order me thinks.
Save your pennies and buy a proper one. Trust me on this.
I remember those “bags”…
I used it when a boyscout for… everything. Some were even good for caring water.
And of course I knew some sailor mans that used it in very sizes!
(In Portugal there was a tradition – and a big fleet of sail ships- in the XX century for fishing “cod fish” (bacalhau) in North Atlantic very near to Canada and US).
“…You can see the sailor quality by his pocket knife…” I hear this lots and lots of times.
Thanks for the book’s link.
Your welcome for the link.
I would have loved to have seen those ships. Yes, the knife is the most important thing for a sailor. More often than not, his life depends on that knife and its condition.