A Stonington artist is recapturing that fine work today at his shop, Marlinespike Chandlery.
“I describe myself as a fiber artist whose work is inspired by sailors and fishermen,” said Tim Whitten. “I do fancy and decorative rope work.”
Whitten is self-taught. His craft harkens back to the whaling era in America, in the early 1800s, when all the rigging on ships was made of natural fibers.
He creates traditional forms of rope work, such as bell ropes, sea chest beckets, ditty bags and fids as well as sculptural and architectural pieces.
Whitten is a native of Connecticut. His parents were Maine natives who left in the 1960s for teaching work in Connecticut. The family spent summers in Washington County.
Whitten possesses undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees in engineering, but his longtime fascination working with rope drew him away from the path to a career in academia.
“I’ve been interested in this sort of thing since I was very young,” he said.
Several years ago, Whitten started working with rope as a hobby.
“I started accumulating more and more pieces,” he said.
He started his website, www.Marlinespike.com, about 12 years ago.
“I was getting busier and busier with that,” he said. Whitten would travel to boat shows, including the Maine Boat Builder show, to showcase his work.
“Before I knew it, I was sending out more of my rope work pieces than resumes,” Whitten said.
In 2007, Whitten and his wife, Mickie Flores, who teaches science at Deer Isle-Stonington Middle School, moved to Stonington from New York.
A year later, he opened Marlinespike Chandlery on Main Street.
The waterfront shop is a perfect canvas for Whitten’s collection of all things nautical and old.
Marlinespike Chandlery has shelves full of skeins of antique twine, mostly linen and hemp. Some of his rope findings don’t have any modern equivalent in terms of quality.
Then there are boat fittings, bowls of seashells, balls and chips of leica wood, favored for its tendency not to rot, bells and a handful of books.
A couple of framed receipts from a chandlery shop in Massachusetts during the 1800s can be found on the walls as can a portrait of Whitten’s great-grandfather, Ethelred Smythe, who was a tailor in St. Stephen, New Brunswick.
“The shop has kind of evolved into a museum of sorts of all these other objects I’ve collected,” he said. “I collect items that appeal to me and keeps the shop interesting.”
The shop’s name lends itself to puzzling over.
“Both Marlinespike and chandlery are obscure terms,” Whitten said.
A Marlinespike is a splicing tool. Marlin refers not to the fish but to the hemp or twine used to do binding and rigging on ships, Whitten said.
Chandlery has its origins in the candle shop.
“The candle shop became a point of trade for whale oil but also things to supply ships and vessels going out,” Whitten said. “It became kind of a general store.”
The antique fibers that line the shelves of Whitten’s shop are saved for a special project or forever.
“Nobody’s making anything like this today, so I’m not in a hurry to use it up,” Whitten said. “There’s just not the demand for things like this.”
Growing plants for fiber is labor-intensive, Whitten said. So, what’s readily available is synthetic. However, Whitten tries to just use natural fibers for his work.
To that end, the search for quality materials is ongoing. He says he would describe himself as a “picker,” but he does forage yard sales and antique shops for fiber.
Rope is more universal than people realize.
“People think, ‘Well, I don’t have any interest in rope,’ but fiber is a pretty ubiquitous material,” Whitten said.
Mariners learned textile work from cultures around the world, Whitten said.
Fancy braiding in western wear with rawhide is “very closely related to what I do in rope and twine,” he said.
With the opening of the shop, Whitten’s work has evolved from traditional form of the craft to sculptural and architectural pieces. He wrapped a large beach stone with an intricate rope pattern.
“I never would have thought of that if I was just working at home making bell ropes,” he said.
That large rope-wrapped beach stone became a prototype for a stone necklace, which Levi’s jeans has purchased.
“They’ve used the necklaces in little boutique type shops in Malibu and New York,” Whitten said.
That connection came about through a Marlinespike customer who had a friend who worked at Levi’s. You can also see Whitten talking about his work in a video at Levi. Go to http://explore.levi.com/news/made-here-1/made-here-tim-whitten—Marlinespike-chandlery/.
Whitten is currently looking for an apprentice. The ideal candidate would be someone nearby to work alongside him and learn the fundamentals of rope work and contribute to finished pieces, he said. This person would also ideally be able to man the shop when Whitten is away.
What: Marlinespike Chandlery
Where: West Main Street, Stonington
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday
Contact: 460-6034, [email protected]
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