MAY 10, 2023


In a previous blog, I mentioned that I was soon going to visit Chatham Historic Dockyard to see if I could buy a large quantity of flax yarn for a major piece of work I want to make about the oak tree in the alpaca field.Well, I went! And what an amazing day it was.

I had been told it was a place worth visiting and we didn’t see half of it in the six hours we were there. There is a fascinating museum about the docks, an art installation supported by the Arts Council, a submarine to go into, ships to board, incredibly beautiful pieces of architecture full of machinery, vehicles and more, all left from when it was a working shipbuilding dockyard…

New architecture for the entrance goes well with the surrounding old buildings.
Commissioner’s garden.
Art Installation TAPE by Numen/For Use.
One of the many interesting facts in the museum.
One of the many interesting facts in the museum

AND The Ropery

Here the tradition of producing the finest ropes for the Royal Navy Ships including the most legendary, HMS Victory (built here at Chatham), was how it all began.

It’s the only working Ropery left in the country, with rope being made in the same way as it has for many generations. Sadly, they don’t make the rope from scratch anymore; the material is now bought in from abroad, with much of the rope now made from synthetic hemp – you can tell the difference easily because only the natural material smells. All the material arrives as yarn, it’s then twisted into strands which is then twisted into rope using the same skills, processes and machines as in the Victorian era. The building in which the rope is made is over a ¼ mile long to facilitate the production of the long lengths of rope.

Lengths of ‘Strands’ ready to be twisted into rope in the ¼ mile long building.
Some of the equipment that used to be used to make yarn.
Coils of yarn ready to be made into rope.
The Traveller, one of the pieces of equipment still used to make rope.
I loved this floor!

We watched rope being made – fascinated by one man who travelled up and down on a bicycle to quickly reach the far end where they had a bell (on a rope the whole length of the building!) to ring and communicate from one end to the other!I just loved the original machinery, the history and the impressive building itself!

In another part of the Ropery building we were lucky enough to have a go at twisting strands into rope ourselves. David and I had to wind our handles at opposite ends of the process at exactly the same speed to make sure the rope was evenly twisted – pretty hard work because you had to go at a reasonable speed, and the guy in the middle held a top — a piece of wood carved into a shape that brought the three strands together to make the final rope. SEE THE VIDEO!

Rope being made.
Us having a go at making ‘strands’ into rope on a small scale!.

Then I asked if it was possible to buy some yarn/twine and I was directed to the office where I met the charming and ever so helpful Alex. The answer was YES! However, I didn’t just buy Chatham Hemp (which actually is made from flax now in a big coil) but I bought a small amount of manila, made from banana leaves which is now becoming very difficult to obtain in this country because the raw material is so expensive to import, a large coil of coir, a small amount of sisal and some cotton twine (which I have used within my work already).

Things I bought at Chatham Docks.

I’m not sure if I’m allowed to tell you, but Alex also kindly showed us behind the scenes where more fantastic machinery sat (sadly now redundant) and masses of different coils of various ropes in different shapes and colours. Interestingly, they also have artists in residence/studios in the building.

We will have to return sometime soon, to go inside the submarine and see even more of this wonderful, inspirational place. I could tell you lots more, but I think the pictures here tell you enough for now!

Please do keep an eye on my website for further information, and I’ll let you know when I have used the Chatham Hemp with my alpaca yarn!

You can visit the Dockyard and Ropemakers yourself, you won’t be disappointed. Further information can be found here: