By Frances Walsh | 12 May 2023

Like scrimshaw, fancy knotwork was the handiwork of men whose ships were propelled by the wind. One practitioner who knew his magnus hitches from his halyard bends was Olaf Jordan. As a teenager in 1911-1912 he crewed in the iron barque Hazel Craig which carried cargo across the Tasman Sea, including timber from Kororāreka in the Bay of Plenty to Warrnambool in Victoria.

On the page Olaf Jordan was an attractive character: polite, particular, but not too pushy. He was in Auckland in 1960, on his way home to New York, when he presented gifts to Gilbert Archey, the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s director. One was this ropework frame that he had made using sennit and various decorative knots, and which encircled a picture of himself alongside a scale model of the barque Hazel Craig, which he had also made.

The 67-year-old Jordan supplied Archey with a letter, writing: ‘Should you wish to type some information to hang up with the exhibit you are welcome to do so. You may select all or part of the contents thereof, that is entirely up to you.’ Page four of Jordan’s letter reads:

‘Ornamental knotted rope-work Picture Frame’ the correct name. Also known as a ‘Sennit rope-work Picture Frame’. Data on construction: The rope-work consists of ‘Portuguese Sennit’, ‘English Sennit’, ‘Star Mats’, ‘Turk’s Head Mats’ and ‘Turk’s Heads’. White cotton cordage was used, and the center piece is of nylon cordage. The circular ‘box frame’ or ‘shadow box’ consists of a wood core, covered with canvas, with two rope grommets, carefully attached to serve as mouldings to hold the glass front in place. The enclosed photo shows the ‘Model Maker putting the final touches on the Hazel Craig’, before placing her in her glass-enclosed home. The entire job is hand made. This life-buoy type frame was made in New York by a former Aucklander Mr Olaf Jordan and presented as a gift to the Auckland Museum.’

Elsewhere Jordan explained that he had crewed in Hazel Craig in 1911–12, when the Aberdeen-built ship carried timber and coal across the Tasman. He was smitten. The ship, he wrote:

‘was one of the most perfect iron clipper ships ever built, and ton for ton she was considered the speediest square rigger that ever sailed the seas. I sailed two complete voyages in her . . . On one occasion we overhauled and passed a mail steamer, which was going at 13 knots, which greatly surprised her crew and passengers. In port she was always conspicuous and admired for her smart yacht-like appearance. A splendid sea-boat, she would stand any amount of driving and was easy on the helm. In her long and varied life trading all the seven seas, she never lost a spar nor received great damage from the elements. On one leg of a trip we loaded timber at Russel [sic], Bay of Islands, for Warrambool [sic], Victoria, and encountered dirty weather in the Tasman Sea, and after losing our deck cargo of timber, the little ship carried us through to our destination without any other serious damage’.

The museum has several Jordans in its collection on long-term loan from the Auckland War Memorial Museum. One is a board of knots, which suggests that although its maker was capable of fealty to a ship, commitment to a human may have been problematic. Jordan called the board ‘Simple Knotting’, displaying examples of the magnus hitch, the capsized half-hitch, and the topsail halyard bend, among others. At the bottom of the board he attached a plaque inscribed: ‘Soon I will try to make the true Lovers knot. To try it in marriage was never my lot.’

*With thanks to Martin Collett, Collection Manager, Manuscripts, Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Excerpted from Endless Sea, Stories told through the taonga of the New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui te Ananui a Tangaroa. Written by Frances Walsh. Photographed by Jane Ussher. Massey University Press, 2020

To view more fancy knotwork in the museum’s collection, including the creations of contemporary artist Finn Ferrier head to:
Like Olaf Jordan, Ferrier sees decorative possibilities in prosaic old rope.

You may also like