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Sailmaker, naval historian Louie Bartos leads workshop
Sailmaker Louie Bartos, right, demonstrates how to make a three-strand rope for Victoria McDonald and Bill Cool on Tuesday during a ditty bag workshop at Tongass Historical Museum. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

Students in the Tongass Historical Museum's “Ditty Bag Workshop” tucked, folded and stitched their sailor's canvas ditty bags Tuesday evening, while teacher and sailmaker Louie Bartos lent his advice and seamanship tales.

The four-week workshop focused on learning traditional sail making techniques through sewing the cylindrical bags. Bartos, who is a longtime Ketchikan local, owns Mariner Sails and is a naval historian who has published internationally. He also has created historically accurate replica sails for the Alaska State Museum and other institutions around the world, according to museum information.

Bartos supplied traditional tools and materials to the workshop participants, such as wooden fids — which are conical spikes used in ropework, long, heavy-duty needles, waxed twine and sailmaker's sewing palms. He also gave each student a printed excerpt from his book, “Making a Traditional Ditty Bag and Sea Bag.”

Third-generation upholsterer Chet Hugo said he took the class because he is friends with Bartos, and they even had previously talked about setting up an “International Guild of Knot Tyers” chapter together.

“I've thoroughly enjoyed the class,” Hugo said. “My grandpa did this stuff, my dad did this stuff, I do this stuff.”

He offered his nearly finished ditty bag for inspection and explained how Bartos taught them to tuck in every raw edge of fabric while sewing seams, to prevent fraying. The side of the bag featured a broad flat seam sewn with heavy waxed twine, in two rows of small stitches.

Hugo said that although he's had extensive experience with sewing, he'd never used a tool Bartos introduced called a bench hook. Hugo demonstrated how he could snag the bottom of a seam to pull it tight with the hook so he could more easily stitch the fabric.

“It's a third hand,” he said.

He also demonstrated the sailor's sewing palm, which is a heavy leather strap worn on the artisan's hand. It features a hard, round, flat-topped knob at the base of the thumb for pushing the heavy needle through tough material, as well as a ridge to guide the sewing thread.

Hugo said that he's enjoyed learning from Bartos, whom he described as a natural teacher.

“His level of knowledge is so amazing to learn from,” Hugo said. “My grandfather wasn't a great teacher — you had to watch.”

Of Bartos, Hugo said, “He loves to teach. He has a passion for the teaching.”

Bartos explained that his own teachers were cut of a different cloth.

“I was taught under brutal conditions,” Bartos said.

He said he began learning traditional sailor's crafts when he was a teen, and learned from an “old Swede” who would cuff him on the head when he made mistakes.

“Wake up, you'll do as I say,” Bartos recalled being told by that teacher, often.

He grinned and said that, while teaching the class at the museum, “I have not yelled at one person.”

He laughed when he recalled telling his daughter about his good behavior over the phone, and her response was, “Dad, tomorrow you go to the doctor. Something is really wrong.”

Bartos said he decided to teach the Ditty Bag Workshop because the skills are essential, but also fading.

“Why do they teach you to write?” he asked, and explained it's the same reason he is motivated to teach the traditional sailmaker's skills. Those skills are the foundation for everything else.

He said that when he first was learning those skills as a Navy cadet, he remembers spending all day perfecting his sewing and rope splicing skills.

By the end of those days, “even my ear lobes were tired,” Bartos said, chuckling.

He said it was worth it, however.

“Once you have that skill, look what you can do,” Bartos said, gesturing to a larger tote bag he'd created with complex seaming and a sisal rope handle.

The museum also displays Bartos' works in its permanent display. One is a ditty bag similar to the students' projects, but with a handle boasting complex knot work. The other is a wood-bottomed traditional sailor's tool bag.

Bartos demonstrated the start of an essential component of a hand-sewn traditional bag: the waxed twine grommet. A length of waxed twine is curled around a fid, marked to ensure each grommet is of equal size. It is tripled, then wrapped around itself to make a sturdy circle to strengthen the holes punched through the canvas bag near its mouth.

Bartos said it's essential that when the artist then stitches around the grommet, attaching it to the inside of the punched hole, that the tension is very even so that one spot doesn't take more load than another.

Hand-stitched grommets also were used on traditional sails, where they had to endure immense strains.

Bartos related what he believes is essential to honing one's skills in the sailmaker's crafts.

“After the first thousand, it's a lot easier,” he said of making projects. “It's repetition. I just keep saying 'practice, practice, practice. That's all it is. It doesn't come overnight. You do enough of them, you get good.”

Student Victoria McDonald said she was inspired to take the class because she'd heard of the excellent reputation Bartos had around town.

“He's really very good,” she said.

She said she also has long had interest in maritime arts.

“I have been a commercial fisherman,” she said, adding that she also has long enjoyed hand sewing and has been interested in maritime tradition.

She showed the stitching on her bag and agreed with Bartos that a lot of practice is needed.

“My stitching is not good, if you look at this stuff,” she said.

She had to work to learn the technique of piercing the canvas in a more vertical manner, she said, rather than at an angle, as she'd been used to in other methods.

She said Bartos has the experience that has encouraged her to work hard to get the methods right.

“It's a whole thing to do with making sails,” she said. “I just think that's cool.”

McDonald said she plans to make more ditty bags for friends after the class, and possibly a woman's jumper, made of the same canvas and techniques that comprise the bags.

Student Elizabeth Rado said she became intrigued by the idea of taking a class from Bartos after she attended a museum talk he gave a while back.

She said she thought, “Gee, it would be nice if we could learn some of this stuff.”

Rado said, “I've known of Louie for a long time. My parents used to hang out at the same bike shop as his son.”

Her interest in the class also was piqued because, “I just think the whole sail making thing is neat,” she said.

For her, the most enjoyable part of taking the class with Bartos was “visiting and hearing his stories.”

Student Brock Hecla said his interest in the class also was multi-faceted.

“I own a sailboat that has a lot of the traditional stuff on it,” he said, “so I wanted to start learning to repair techniques so I could fix it myself.”

Hecla owns a wooden 21-foot carvel-planked Nelson Zimmer gaff-rigged sloop, he said. It is a 1946 design that was built more recently. Hecla also built a wood-framed Aleut design kayak that he paddles frequently.

“I've been sailing since I was a teenager,” Hecla said, adding, “I crewed on an old gaff-rigged schooner.”

The Ditty Bag class touched on both his love of sailing and also of hand crafting items.

“I just enjoy doing stuff like this,” he said. “I enjoy making things.”

Hecla said the most difficult aspect of taking the class actually was putting in the time after work. Another challenge has been the fine dexterity required for some of the bag-making skills.

He gestured to the handle he was finishing on his ditty bag, made of a narrow-gauge twisted line. He'd meticulously spliced and whipped the ends that were looped through his hand-stitched grommets.

“This is a quarter of the size of one strand of the stuff I'm used to,” he said.

He has had much sewing experience he said, and has stitched some of his own clothing and mittens.

Hecla also enjoyed interacting with Bartos in the class, as did Rado.

“You don't get opportunity to speak with people who have been around longer than you all the time, and, you know — who are experienced — especially in the sailmaking area. It was hard to find people to work on my sails for my last boat down South,” he said.

Student Kim Kirby emphasized that her motivation to take the class was to dip into Bartos' deep well of knowledge while he still was available to teach.

“It's really fun,” she said. “Just can-do skills, old-time skills.”

She said she really isn't experienced with sewing, but has done some knitting. She does, however, have much experience on the water, as she lives on Pennock Island, and she said she does enjoy splicing and doing line work on boats.

Of creating the ditty bags, Kirby said, “I'm surprised by how enjoyable it is. It's easy.”

She did add that, “there's more to it than meets the eye. Making these grommets was interesting — you just gotta make them yourself.”

Kirby said she strongly encourages people to take any classes taught by Bartos.

“He's got good stories; you have to harass him to teach you. He's earned his status. It's really fun, because he's got a lot of knowledge.”

Student Pam Leask called Bartos “a legend.”

She said she was excited to take the class “just to learn from him. Just to get the knowledge of it — plus, I like hand sewing and stuff.”

Leask said she is a long-time creator of embroidery, quilting, beadwork and weaving. She started sewing her own clothes with she was in high school as well.

“Fortunately,” she said, “I have raven's syndrome: if it entertains me, I will look at something.”

Leask said that crafting the bag's grommets was her favorite part of the class project.

The most difficult skill she said she has been working on is making perfectly even stitches — prompting her to tear her work out “over and over.”

The importance of keeping hand crafts alive motivates Leask to work hard on her art.

“The hand work is dying out,” she said. “That's what people need, is to learn to occupy themselves, not just be looking at TV.”

She said she'd like to see young people spending more time honing crafting skills, as well.

“We need to have hand work, to keep the mind and the hands busy, because it teaches you to focus, it teaches you to coordinate your hands and stuff — so to me, it's a dying art.”

Of what she's accomplished in the class under Bartos' mentorship, Leask said, “I hope to do him justice. I still have a long way to go.”