Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/November 1891/Reef-Knot Nets

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AT the bottom of textile industries net-meshing appears to precede even such simple weaving as the making of mats of grass and bark. Not only is it the earliest of the textile arts, but it is even more prominently an unchanged art through all the stages of development which have culminated in the Jacquard loom. Ancient or modern, laboriously made by hand or the product of intricate machinery, the mesh knot is practically unmodified in the nets of the steam trawler and the naked savage. It seems, indeed, one of the few contrivances of human ingenuity which came early to perfection and have not proved susceptible of any improvement in all the succeeding ages.

It may, then, be not without interest to present a radical variant of the common mesh knot as noticed in general use among a considerable people in the western Pacific, together with such notes as are available to show a wider distribution of this knot.

In western New Britain, on the coast of Dampier Strait, facing New Guinea, where the Papuan characteristics are most strongly impressed upon the Melanesian type, the writer noticed the netting of a large seine and was attracted by the unfamiliar motions of the old women engaged in the work. Closer examination disclosed the fact that every knot in the mesh was of the sort known as the reef or square knot, in which the four ends come out in pairs, each pair on one side of the bight or loop of the other pair. As nothing could be more widely dissimilar from the ordinary mesh knot, an effort—and a successful one—was made to induce the netters to communicate their art, which is here presented with figures which may aid to a clear comprehension of the method of manufacture employed. These figures give a view of a net in process of construction, with detailed drawings of the foundation knot and of the successive stages in forming the mesh knot.

Besides the netting-cord (commonly coir, the fiber of the cocoa-nut husk, which is very durable in the water), the only tool used is the mesh-block (E, Fig. 4). This is a thin block of hard wood rasped into shape, and, since these tools are treasured as heirlooms, together with interminably long rhythmical recitals of the wonderful takes of fish made by nets fabricated on each block, the wood most commonly employed is the very dense and hard iron-wood (Casuarina equisetifolia). It is highly polished and usually ornamented upon the ends with property marks, showing the exogamous marriage class and gens of the owner, which here take the place occupied by tribal distinctions among the endogamous races. The blocks are commonly of uniform size. Their length, which is practically a constant quantity, is determined by the length (about five inches) which may be held between the extreme tips of the fingers and the ball of the thumb, for that is its position when in use and to secure it against slipping the edges are carefully brought to a true right angle. The height of the block is, of course, determined by the width of mesh desired, but a height about equal to the breadth of the hand across the palm is most frequent, since the mesh made upon that gauge is found most satisfactory in taking the fish usually seined for. In width the blocks seldom exceed a half-inch, and have an oval section. Smaller hand-nets, in which accurate meshing is not desired, are commonly knotted over the finger with much nicety.

The net is started on pegs driven into a beam, corresponding in number with the number of meshes in a tier which it is desired to put into the net, and these netting-beams are a prominent feature on every village green. At a distance from the end of the cord somewhat greater than the proposed width of the net, a bowline knot (A, Fig. 4) is turned in and cast upon the first peg toward the right. The two unequal parts of cord issuing from this knot may, for the sake of distinction, be denominated the ball part and the free part. The latter is carried taut to the second peg, and there stopped close to the beam by a light lashing, and at the top of the peg is passed into an eye or narrow cleft. The mesh-block is now laid against the row of pegs; the ball part is passed first below and then above it from the bowline knot to the second peg, forming the first half-mesh (B, Fig. 4); it is then cast over the second peg, and the free part of the cord attached thereto with a pair of half-hitches (C and D, Fig. 1). The free part is then withdrawn from the eye in the peg, drawn taut through the two half-hitches, and half-hitched back upon itself (E, Fig 1). It is now carried from the knot just formed (C, Fig. 4) to the next peg and there made ready for further use; the ball part is again carried around the mesh-block and hitched and bound as before. Upon the last peg in the row this knot is made, and in the remainder of the free part close to the peg there is turned in a second bowline knot (D, Fig. 4). These two bowline knots serve as clews to the net. This selvage and first tier of half-meshes are invariably made from right to left, on the ground that it is the custom of the country, and any variation therefrom would be attended by consequences as unpleasant as they are ill-defined.

The second tier of meshes is made from left to right, and here the peculiar mesh knot makes its first appearance.

Holding the mesh-block in her left hand, so that its upper edge just touches the bottom of the meshes already formed, the operator passes the ball of cord from the last knot down in front and up behind the mesh-block (F, Fig. 4), making due allowance for the difference in size of this exterior mesh necessary to keep the tier uniform. The ball is held in the right hand, gripped between the ball of the thumb, the palm, and the third and fourth fingers, thus leaving the thumb and two fingers free to work

Fig. 1.—Selvage Knot. Fig. 2.—Mesh Knot. Fig. 3.—Mesh Knot, second turn. first turn.

with. A loop (C, Fig. 2) of any convenient size is made in the netting-cord, between the block and the ball, passed up through the bight of the mesh (A) from below, and drawn through the bight sufficiently far to draw taut the part which passes about the mesh-block, in which position it is stopped by the left thumb on the block. The ball (E) is passed through the loop (C), also from below upward (as shown at D), returned to its place in the palm of the right hand, and the part drawn taut and stopped by the left thumb. This completes a single turn of the knot as shown in Fig. 2, where the relation of the several parts is exhibited before they have been pulled taut and stopped, which in practice will be found essential to the success of the operation.

The second and final part of the knot is illustrated in Fig. 3. A second loop (F) is made in the cord between the ball and the part stoppered by the left thumb. This loop is passed from above downward through the bight of the mesh (A), drawn taut, and stopped at the mesh-block by the left thumb as before. Through this loop (F) the ball (E) is passed also from above downward (as shown at G), and pulled taut to the left thumb, where the knot is felt to turn part way around, and is found to be a perfectly formed square knot as shown in Fig. 4, at G.

This second tier of meshes completed, the operator shifts the ball to the left hand and the mesh-block to the right, and makes the third tier from right to left. The final tier with its clews and selvage are made by reversing the process described for beginning the net.

Fig. 4.

This method of meshing, though unfamiliar, has several distinct advantages over the more usual method; of which one inheres in the knot itself, two in the line of greater simplicity in the mode of manufacture, and one in the possibility of easily producing irregular designs for particular purposes—that is to say, of netting pockets and pounds without interruption of the thread.

The advantage in the knot is one which will immediately be apparent to those who have given attention to the study of knots for the reef knot is incontestably the simplest and most secure means of joining two parts of cord. The advantages in the mode of manufacture are that one implement, the netting-needle, is dispensed with, and that the net may be made of a single cord continuous throughout, and thus is of equal strength in every part. It would be tedious to go into the details of making pounds and pockets in a net; it is more simple than appears, and the thread continues without a break through the net and insert-piece as well. It is possible that some one skilled m mechanical arts may find in this device the suggestion of a mode of simplifying the machinery at present used in the manufacture of nets for commercial purposes.

In connection with the several obscure but remarkable instances of correspondences between the American shores of the Pacific and the remoter islands of Melanesia, it is interesting to note that the only other well-defined discovery of this mesh was made in British America upon the Pacific shore. Prof. George Davidson, of San Francisco, a most accurate student of the life of the native races with whom he had to deal, in prosecuting the survey of that coast, found nets of this peculiar mesh manufactured by the Tchin-cha-au Indians of British Columbia in the vicinity of Port Simpson, and described it in the proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, of which body he was for many years the president. The writer has been informed that a similar mesh has been noticed in the textile remains of the lacustrine period of Switzerland, but he has been unable to identify the reference in any of the figures contained in the usual authorities upon that prehistoric society.