Trudi Lloyd Williams: Ripping Yarns and Ghost Gear

Environmental artist Trudi Lloyd Williams tries her hand at rope making and considers the changing impact of this material on our marine life.

Recently I have been delving into our maritime past and getting hands-on experience in an ancient craft that has powered our vessels around the globe. Our ancestors used what was to hand when creating tools, and the plants, trees and vegetation around them yielded an interesting commodity: fibres from sources like the flax plant and the husks of coconuts. Was it in an idle moment spent twiddling such fibres that man first noted their ability to lock together?

The natural length of these fibres, known as the staple, can be elongated by continuously twisting multiple lengths together - the problem is that the resulting yarn is not very strong or resilient. I wonder how long it took people to work out that lengths of yarn could also be strengthened by twisting them together, but this time in the opposite direction to the twist of the yarn itself? Doing so ‘locks’ the strand of yarn together in a twisted cord; a rope. This amazing tool can be made from 6mm to a hefty 110mm in diameter.

Rigging on a square rigger at Portsmouth © Trudi Lloyd Williams

Rigging on a square rigger at Portsmouth © Trudi Lloyd Williams

Initially ‘sheet’ ropes were connected to the sails on a boat and tied off on a cleat at the desired length, in order to maximise wind power and set the sail. But over time rope making skills grew to encompass all of the rigging: halyards, guy lines, down haul, up haul, and reefing lines. Nets were also made to act as a kind of rope ladder that facilitated sailors scaling the masts and tending the sails on square riggers.

As the navigation of the world's oceans expanded, so did the boat building and rope making taking place in our country. Every port or harbour would have had a rope walk; a long stretch of land where rope makers would repeatedly walk up and down to lay out lengths of material. The Royal Navy's demand was so great that it was deemed necessary to create purpose-made buildings that would allow rope to be produced continuously. Today the Master Ropery at Chatham Historic Dockyard is the only remaining working ropery in the UK, as I found out on a recent visit.

The Master Ropery was built almost 400 years ago, but still has all its original buildings and tools. Of these numerous buildings, the one that dominates is the quarter-mile indoor rope walk, which still has its machinery from the Victorian era. Once the rope has been spun, the nearby Testing House then assesses how much weight it can take. Rope can be created out of the original natural fibres - coir, flax, cotton, hemp and manila - or synthetic fibres. These ropes are spliced and knotted to make nets, mooring ropes, and many other bespoke products.

While the Master Ropery may be a historic gem, the skills it preserves remain as relevant today as ever. Stan Seaman, born at Bucklers Hard in 1919, was a rope maker and rigger whose skills were much in demand. After starting work on the Beaulieu River at the tender age of seven, Stan joined the Merchant Navy and worked in local boat yards after the war - he would go on to rig the yacht in which Sir Francis Chichester became the first solo world circumnavigator in 1966-7.

The Master Ropery itself remains functional not only for heritage purposes, but for modern business and leisure clientele. HMS Victory, now the pride of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, was build at Chatham and still gets its rope from there today. There are also many non-maritime uses for the Master Ropery's products, including the rigging for curtains in the theatre industry - apparently synthetic materials would melt with the heat and friction!

Outside of theatre settings, most rigging, lines, and nets used on boats have been replaced with synthetic ones that boast greater strength and resilience to rotting. Unfortunately these very qualities make such items a nightmare for the marine environment and its inhabitants. When natural ropes and lines reach the end of their serviceable life they sink to the sea bed and naturally rot away, potentially even providing a home or protection for smaller marine species; the same cannot be said of their synthetic counterparts.

One phrase you may hear a lot is 'ghost gear', meaning the tangled equipment disgorged into our seas by working and leisure fishing vessels. It is a very evocative name and true to character: ghost gear floats around our oceans on the currents and gyres, pushed by the weather systems, and in its travels entraps, chokes and suffocates marine species from whales to waders. Wild animals mistake it for food, use it in nest building, and become entangled captives. Death can be instantaneous, but can also take years; we have all seen the videos of brave divers trying to cut cetaceans free from metres of matted and knotted rope.

One of the hardest things to decipher is who has responsibility for ghost gear - is it the trawler who cuts free his snared nets, or the council on whose beach it washes up? There are some positive initiatives where local communities have come up with their own solutions to this problem. In Greece, for example, a young fisherman encourages his colleagues to 'fish' for nets; they are paid 200 euros a month to collect and return ghost gear to shore, thereby removing it from the marine environment.

Back in Chatham on a chilly February morning I furthered my own efforts on this front: I arrived at the Master Ropery with large reels of plarn, or plastic yarn. Mine was created from recycled single use plastic bottles - one large bottle yields 15m of material! The incredibly skilled rope makers with some 20 years' experience scratched their chins about this new fibre, but after a few tests we were on our way creating our very own mixture of plarn and traditional flax.

Making rope with flax and plastic yarn in the Master Ropery at Chatham Historic Dockyard © Trudi Lloyd Williams

Rope making is a very physical and hands-on process, and has to be done methodically. We were making rope with three strands, so loaded two hooks with flax and one with plarn, and set to twisting. The two materials had very different characteristics, so the natural fibre had been pre-tensioned beforehand.

The three strands are twisted in one direction, and then placed on a single hook and twisted together in the opposite direction; a fascinating process that has not changed in thousands of years. Although made with historic methods, I think that the rope we made that day may be the first of its kind. It is now ready to be rigged into the sculpture for Spiny Seahorses and Ripping Yarns - I can't wait!

Spiny Seahorses and Ripping Yarns

Trudi is collaborating with us on an element of our marine project Secrets of the Solent. Together, we're working with local communities to collect plastic marine litter marine and transform it into an inspirational sculpture.

Learn more about our collaboration