Des Pawson knows a good yarn. As you’d expect of the man who founded the Museum of Knots and Sailors’ Ropes
Originally featured in Issue 03
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What’s interesting about rope? Spend any time at all in the company of Des Pawson and his collections and that question becomes as coherent as asking, in the abstract, after the precise length of a piece of string. If you tied all the fascinating yarns he can spin about rope, ropemaking, ropework and knots together and unfurled them, they’d almost certainly reach to the moon.
The ropes and tools Pawson has gathered over 60 years reside
in three small wooden buildings: the workshop where he makes and repairs ropes; the Museum of Knots and Sailors’ Ropes (which Pawson opened in 1996, the year before he was awarded an MBE for services to ropes and knots); and the stockroom, which was originally dedicated solely to the supply of hard-to-find equipment for fellow enthusiasts, but has more recently become a kind of impromptu additional wing of the museum. Today, it hosts such marvels as a slice of the tree trunk-like, 25-inch circumference anchor cable of the HMS Victory.
Des has a lot of stuff.
Pawson first became interested in ropes when he was seven years old, and an uncle gave him a book for boy scouts about knots. He wasn’t in the scouts, but he was into the knots, and he didn’t look back. ‘For some reason,’ he recalls one afternoon in his study, ‘they just talked to me. For some people it’s the insides of cars, for other people, it’s animals or plants. For me it was knots and ropes.’
Des and his wife Liz used to own a boat – and their house and garden are still soaked in maritime culture. As well as all the books on knots and ropes, there’s plenty of Melville and Thor Heyerdahl on his shelves.
Buckminster Fuller called sailors the first scientists – the people who learned about weather patterns, the roundness of the earth, pulleys and rigging before anyone else. But rope was also an outlet for their creativity, in the form of the decorative mats they’d weave and – woven into hammock form – the nets in which they dreamed. (Des is a fan of The Mat-Maker, the 47th chapter of Moby-Dick, in which Ishmael suggests that making mats is a kind of answer to the mysteries of metaphysics, the one human pastime in which ‘chance, free will, and necessity’ are ‘all interweavingly working together.’
Des and Liz moved to their house in Ipswich 37 years ago.
It’s on the site of the old Halifax Shipyard, and on the parameter of the modern Ipswich docks that have since been filled in and built up on. Des was working in the retail business at the time and fulfilling small orders for ropes and rope work in the evenings, while Liz (who was already adept at other forms of handiwork when Des introduced her to his obsession)
started making ropework items, such as pulls for dinner bells and intricate little mats, while at home with the couple’s young children.
Des gave up full-time work to concentrate on the rope business in 1989. Things have changed since back then: a pretty, ropework pony halter he bought in 1986 was a practical product at the time. ‘Now,’ he says, ‘it’s a relic.’ When the RNLI asked him to create a woven fender for one of their boats, he had to ask them to send him the old one they’d chucked in a skip – the lifeboat organisation had just closed its museum, so unpicking the secrets of making a replacement meant going back to the discarded old example. But although Pawson’s time is increasingly dedicated to the glorious history of ropes, the
best thing about it is that he’s never set out to create some
kind of heritage site. When there’s no off-the-shelf alternative, Des and Liz still make and repair specialist ropes for real, functional purposes.
In the 1960s, synthetic ropes – those big orange and blue things you see slung over working trawlers – began to dominate in the shipping world, and the amazing specimens made of horsehair, cotton, hemp, esparto (the same Pyrenees grass that espadrilles are made of) and everything else began to be endangered. If Des hadn’t preserved these woven vernacular wonders, you wonder who would have.
Today, with daily commerce on the back burner, Des Pawson is still making new discoveries about old innovations and the old censorship of salty old maritime ropemaking terms, and still on the lookout for examples of sailors’ ropework that haven’t rotted, or been thrown away. It’s not about the money.
Old rope’s a lot more important than that
The Museum of Knots and Sailors’ Ropework is open by appointment; despawson.com
Photographs Luke Stephenson, Words Pete Lyle