'a' conversation with Des Pawson

A boat was deemed shipshape based on the quality of the its knots and the precision of its crew. Techniques had to be perfected and skills had to be refined. It’s this attention to detail, along with the expert craftsmanship of rope worker Des Pawson, that inspired Alice Made This’ Marine collection of cord cufflinks and lapel pins. Today I talk to Pawson about his knotting career and why there’s more to old rope than money.

Rope cufflinks | Alice Made This

“I was given a book with some knots in it when I was seven years old” Pawson tells me. “For some reason they spoke to me.” It’s hard to believe that anyone can know what they actually want to do with their lives at seven years old, but for Pawson that initial interest in knots led to a lifelong career and an MBE in rope tying.

Pawson has gathered over 60 years’ worth of tools and rope work at his home in Ipswich, sitting on the site of the old Halifax Shipyard and housing the ‘Museum of Knots and Sailors’ Ropes’ which Pawson opened in 1996 to display and conserve his treasure trove.

“It was founded as we realised that most, if not all, of Maritime Museums ignored the world of knots and rope,” Pawson tells me of his museum. “We wanted to raise peoples’ appreciation of this world and the skills and tools that go with it. 

This is a sentiment shared and echoed by Alice Made This. While researching for the Marine collection, Alice was inspired by Pawson’s skill, his library of materials and his dedication to process. Having visited him at his home and at his museum, Alice wanted to showcase the history and naval innovation behind the knots through a contemporary collection of accessories. 

Pawson tells me that our William cufflinks and lapel pins, forming the foundations of our Marine collection, are the smallest knots he has ever tied. A drastic contrast to the 24inch diameter Monkeys Fist that takes the title of the largest.

Rope cufflinks | Alice Made This

Rope cufflinks | Alice Made This

Each pair of William cufflinks is tightly hand knotted from 2.7m of kite surf cord and is inspired by the traditional star knot. Available in blue, black, yellow, taupe and rust, our Marine collection celebrates British naval tradition.

With the ability to create hundreds and hundreds of knots, and a bias towards natural materials, I wonder what it is about knotting and Maritime culture that still appeals to Pawson. 

“It’s without borders and goes right back to man’s earliest venture onto water” he tells me. “I like the fact that knots have a sculptural element while remaining functional at their core. Some of my favourite pieces are those that connect right back to a lost work. A sailors’ ditty bag. A piece of wax used almost 100 years ago to wax sail twine. Tools that in one’s imagination you may feel the warmth of the previous owners’ hands.”

“One of the most memorable projects I’ve worked on,” he continues, “was the ties for Sir Walter Raleigh’s cloak for the film ‘Elizabeth Golden Age.’ It was a very intense 3 days of work for a flash on the screen. I also enjoyed making a taper rope for a steam launch on Lake Windermere which meant working out a technique that has never been written about.” 

Pawson will publish a book of knot craft and rope mat projects in autumn 2016, just one of the ways that he is ensuring that his skills will not be forgotten. (“My books are hopefully going to be around for long after I can no longer make ropework!”

There is something idyllic about always knowing what you were going to do. To have honed a skill and become the best at it. Pawson tells me how he once worked in retail furniture at Harrods, but that his heart was never in it. With his knots however, Pawson can continue to make new discoveries about old innovations and examples of sailors’ ropework that has yet to rot away. His heart and his hands can remain fully entwined in the work.