Custom House exhibit ties together two generations of knotters

Matt Beaudoin describes the detail in one of his grandfather's custom-knotted frames at the Custom House museum in New London.
Matt Beaudoin describes the detail in one of his grandfather's custom-knotted frames at the Custom House museum in New London.

Editor's note: This version updates the date of Matt Beaudoin's talk at the Custom House Maritime Museum. The talk, originally set for March 22, has been postponed to March 29.

You'll never see Matt and Jill Beaudoin without a length of string in their hands, tying knots, even when they're not making rope products for Mystic Knotwork, their family business.

That's how connected the couple is to the tradition of marine knotting started by Matt's grandfather, Alton Beaudoin, who lived from 1913 to 2003.

"I'm uncomfortable without something in my hands. I get fidgety," Matt says.

"Wherever we go, we bring a bucket of string," Jill adds.

An exhibit of the ropework of two generations of Beaudoins is on view at New London's Custom House Maritime Museum. The exhibit includes work by both Alton Beaudoin and Mystic Knotwork. On permanent display are sample boards containing examples of hundreds of sailor's knots. On Sunday, March 29, Matt Beaudoin will give an artist talk at the museum about maritime knots and his grandfather's passion for knotting.

Alton Beaudoin is renowned worldwide for bringing marine knotting to a new level as an art form. He learned his elaborate ropework as a seaman in the 1930s and '40s, which included eight years aboard the Joseph Conrad. He was inspired by generations of marine knotters that preceded him.

"In the 1800s, ships were large and they were slow, so there was a lot of downtime on boats to make marlinspikes, fancy knotwork," Matt explains. "At the same time, the seamen and laborers would take worn out sail material and do macramé … the macramé craze ended in the late 1970s and the fancy knotwork side of things saw a rebirth. That's when my grandfather came on the scene, in that Silver Age of knot tying. He was learning from the Golden Age guys (along with studying the thousands of knots) in the Ashley Book of Knots and the Encyclopedia Book of Knots."

After retiring from a long career as an inside machinist at Electric Boat, Alton immersed himself in knotting. He could tie 400 knots from memory and created such works of art as an elegant sennit (custom knotted) frame out of about 100 miles of white twine - one of two elaborate frames on view at the Custom House. Matt estimates that the frame, made up of 40 to 50 different knots, took his grandfather between three and five years to complete.

"Over the course of the 30-odd years that he was active, he made a name for himself. People started traveling the world to visit him because of his reputation," Matt says.

Matt, who grew up in Pawcatuck and now lives with Jill aboard a boat docked at the Mystic drawbridge, learned the art of knotting from his grandmother and grandfather.

"When I was about 8 years old, I saved up money from tying bracelets for my grandfather to buy a bicycle," he says.

"Ropework was very much a part of the fabric of the family," Matt explains. "I remember going to Little League games and my brother and sister would play softball and I would tie knots, and when I was playing ball, my sister was tying knots in the bleachers. At family gatherings we'd have about 12 to 15 of us all tying knots. At Thanksgiving while the football games were on, we'd all be diddling with our handwork around the TV in my grandfather's house."

Matt was 33 when his grandfather died and says he wished he was around another five to 10 years so that he could have learned more of his skills.

Matt got his first taste of just how well known his grandfather was in knotting circles when he went to his first International Guild of Knot Tyers meeting in 2009.

"I walked into the room and I (was treated like) a superstar. It blew my mind," he says.

"When he passed away, I was very much thinking corporate was the way I wanted to go," Matt says. "But I decided I'd rather have a less money-oriented life and (carry on) a family tradition. It was more important for me to keep my grandfather's memory alive, to keep those skills going, than it was to chase the mighty buck."

Mystic Knotwork has its retail and wholesale business in the Velvet Mill in Stonington.

"We ended up taking my grandfather's very highly detailed pieces and simplified them down to be more approachable from the point of cost and (use) by people," Matt says. "(For example), he would do a rose knot and build this nest and encase it a few different ways and it ends up looking just like a rose. We use this construct and market it as a coaster."

The business is growing and today the Beaudoins sell their handcrafted ropework on every continent but Antarctica and have several dozen wholesale customers in the U.S., Australia, and Japan.

"The (materials) we use are all American-made," Jill says. "The cotton is grown here, too."

Mystic Knotwork has been invited into Martha Stewart's American Marketplace for three years running and was recognized this year as Heritage Artisans, Matt says, "for carrying on the traditions (of knotwork) and being sticklers for material and technique and not letting it diminish in style."

 

Matt Beaudoin, owner of Mystic Knotwork, makes a napkin ring on March 12.
Matt Beaudoin, owner of Mystic Knotwork, makes a napkin ring on March 12.

IF YOU GO

What: Free artist talk by Matt Beaudoin titled "The Life of a Knotter"; the talk is in conjunction with "Alton Beaudoin & Mystic Knotwork: A Family of Knotters," an exhibition of the rope work of two generations of local maritime knotters.

When: March 29 at 2 p.m. (rescheduled from original date of March 22)

Where: Custom House Maritime Museum, 150 Bank St., New London.

Information: www.nlmaritimesociety.org or (860) 447-2501.

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