World War II US Navy Hammock and Clew Tutorial

In doing research for my book, I became intrigued by the hammocks used aboard sailing ships. From what I could discover, the basic design of the “navy hammock” hadn’t changed for hundreds of years, since the time Columbus brought the hammock from the new world until the Korean War (to see some naval hammocks in action, I highly recommend the Horatio Hornblower series by A&E). I wondered if that was a testament to its utility and convenience and maybe even its comfort. My grandpa, who served in the US Navy during World War II, said that he loved his navy hammock and said that many sailors brought them home because they thought they were so comfortable.

I’ve slept in a lot of hammocks, and while I’ll take any hammock over the ground, there are some I prefer more than others given a choice. In looking at reference photos and design parameters, I presumed that the navy hammock couldn’t be very comfortable—at least compared to Brazilian-style hammocks I enjoy—since the navy version is much narrower and shorter and is hung with a shallow sag. So when the opportunity came to buy a vintage World War II US Navy hammock from eBay, I didn’t hesitate to do some first-person research.

As far as I could determine, the hammock I purchased still had it’s original clews, or hammock suspension, with natural fiber rope nettles and a steel O-ring. The hammock itself was made from a thick piece of canvas and was very stiff (likely due to its age). There are 12 steel grommets on each short end. The fabric was stained in a few places and had a variety of unpleasant smells (I can only imagine the stories behind each one!). After a few hand washings, the canvas became more flexible and the stains and smell were minimized (although my kids still say it stinks). Each clew has 12 nettles and each nettle has a bight at the end that attaches to the hammock through a grommet. A piece of 5/8″ (1.6 cm) thick hemp rope, approximately 41″ (104 cm) long threads through each bight as the nettle was fed through a grommet. It is an ingenious design, allowing the hammock to be quickly and easily disconnected from the clew for washing or repair work. In addition, the thick hemp rope prevents the short hammock from gathering up too much, thus retaining the lay of a bigger hammock with the size of a smaller one.

Although the nettles were looking worm, I decided to give the hammock a test run indoors. I hung the hammock with a shallow sag, mimicking the photos I had seen. To my surprise and delight, this hammock blew me away with its comfort. I was able to get a diagonal lay and I was surprised with out “flat” I felt. I believe the stiff fabric contributed to the flat lay by preventing my heavier torso to sink lower than my legs. I should note, however, that I believe sailors did not typically sleep on a diagonal in their hammocks while at sea. The sides were meant to wrap around the occupant, which helped prevent spill-outs, and allowed the occupant to rock back and forth safely while the ship was battered by the sea. Some photos indicate that sailors affixed a spreader bar, likely to limit shoulder squeeze. With the shallow sag and the way the fabric is “gathered” at the ends, sleeping in-line is also not horrible, but not my first choice. When sleeping diagonal, I had no shoulder squeeze issues.

I enjoyed a few nights in this hammock before some of the nettles finally wore through. I knew I was risking a failure with how old and worn the nettles were, so I decided to reconstruct the clew.

I found several variations for tying the shouldered sword mat knot that is used to gather the nettles together at the steel ring, but none of these duplicated the US Navy design.

I finally found a photo series showing a tutorial, that was close to the US Navy design, but it offered no other details or step-by-step instructions. I hated to take apart the original clew from my vintage hammock, but it was the best source I had to replicate the design. In the end, I had to do a lot of experimentation until I got something that worked.

navy-hammock-lashings

I also decided to make a replica hammock and preserve the original. The folks who maintain the HMS Richmond have some great documentation on the Royal Navy Hammock, but the dimensions and design are slightly different for the US Navy hammock. My instructions are based on measurements I took from the vintage US Navy hammock.

The video is roughly 9 minutes long, but I wanted to make sure I walked through the process clearly enough. Please let me know if you have any questions!

UPDATE 3/22: My first replica was made from #12 Duck canvas, but that proved to be too thin and eventually ripped through at the grommets. I took the #12 from the pattern on the HMS Richmond site. I’ve found that the #4 (24-oz) Duck canvas is more in line with what my vintage hammock was made from. I’ve updated the illustration to match these findings.

wwii-hammock-and-clew-tutorial

wwii-hammock-and-clew-tutorial2 wwii-hammock-and-clew-tutorial3

  36 comments for “World War II US Navy Hammock and Clew Tutorial

  1. Jeremy
    January 25, 2013 at 7:42 am

    Nice!

  2. January 25, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    Now that’s cool. Thanks for sharing!

  3. John
    March 25, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    Sweet, always wondered about sailors and hammocks. Supposedly there was a hammock designed for the M1 Abrams, but I never saw one.

    • Philip
      April 12, 2013 at 10:43 pm

      Howdy

      We had one in our tank but if you were over 3 feet you would not fit in it.
      My crew and I used net hammocks one end tyed to tanl and other to cammo netting poles that
      we held up our tarp with.

  4. Philip
    April 12, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    Howdy

    My dad also was in WWII and slept in one. The U.S. Navy hammock had a 2 inch cotton batting mattres on them,
    the ilistration above were it is lashed cosed is with mattres in it with wool/cotton blanket and a mattres sleave.
    This is from his Blue Jacket Manual

    How to Stow a Hammock
    Distribute the bedding evenly over the length of the hammock leaving about six inches clear at each end to prevent bunches of bedding and blankets oozing out of the ends when it is lashed.
    Lower the hammock until it is breast high, and stand on the left side facing the head. Pass the lashing over the hammock and reeve the end through the eye and draw taut; this is the first turn. There are to be a total of seven turns as shown in the diagram below. Traditionally, one turn for each of the seven seas.
    Coil the lashing up and pass it up and over the hammock with the right hand and bring it under the hammock into the left hand, then over its own standing part and haul taut by swinging back on it. This hitch is called a marline hitch.
    The final turn is taken around the neck of the hammock at the foot and is secured on its own part by a half-hitch. The end is then passed neatly along the hammock under each turn.
    The clews are stowed by twisting the nettles round right-handed and tucking under the turns of lashing along the hammock.

  5. May 31, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Great tutorial. I’ve thought about trying this style since it would be easier to launder than my current mayan hammock…although I do have all the gear to do it. This gives me the measurements I needed and the hardest part, which is the clew. I’ve been researching this for a while and just came across your video.

  6. John Rochelle
    June 5, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    Former merchant seaman with SOCONY-Mobil Oil Co. Over 50 years ago.Made mine by following Graumont-Hensel’s Encyclopedia of Knots, p.624. Canvas from sailmaker’s shop near the U.S.S. Constitution. Learned my fancy knots and rope work and applied it to the hammock. Found Chief Mate in it one day after the 8-12 watch!! Hammock retired just like me except its in my sea chest. What a life it was!

    • Derek
      June 5, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      Awesome! Thanks for sharing. I’d love to visit the USS Constitution one day.

  7. Linda Simmons
    July 12, 2013 at 2:55 am

    Do you know where I can purchase one online? I have one like you describe too – a heavy duty canvas one that we grandkids sat on it at “the lake” over 50 years ago. Needless to say, ours finally broke and is really in gross shape. I’ve ordered another of similar size online, but the material is flimsy and it fell apart after only one year. It is hard to find really thick, sturdy ones with metal grommets and hanging rings. Aside from having one custom made (because I’m not sewing-savvy), is there a website where I can get our old “army hammock” replaced?? Thanks.

    • Derek
      July 12, 2013 at 7:00 am

      There may be some specialty shops, like those that support the USS Constitution, but its hard to find them online. One canvas hammock available is from The Ship in a Bottle, but it has spreader bars. You might ask the owner for some custom modifications if you want an authentic Navy hammock.

      http://www.theshipinabottle.com/products/Hammocks.htm

      If I find anything else, I post it here.

      • ian
        August 7, 2014 at 3:10 pm

        My focs’l Accomodation deck head is only 6 ft and length is only 14 ft and I want to accomodate 4 sailors on each side..so upper and lower hammocks. I had in mind using a box type hammock with spreaders at each end to reduce length requirement and reduce sag..any ideas where I can find instructions for this type of hammock?

        • Derek
          August 7, 2014 at 5:08 pm

          Could you send me a diagram of your deck? I’d like to see what portions we can play with. The box hammocks are pretty specific. I think we can better fit the navy hammock with the traditional shallow sag. Send me an email.

  8. Larry
    August 30, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    Nice article you posted on Navy Weaving. I have been trying to locate info on the canvas material artwork also done by ole sailors or Boatsinmates. They unweave a piece of canvas then re-weave the threads into marinter designs. Anyway pls fwd me any links to such crafts if you see anything on this.

    • Derek
      August 31, 2013 at 12:01 pm

      Thank you. I’m not as familiar with the technique you describe. If I come across anything, I’ll post it here.

    • A.J.Firmin
      September 9, 2013 at 12:04 pm

      We did a lot of canvas work on the Quarterdeck of the heavy cruiser Los Angeles,CA 135, and it was called “Macnamara Lace “. It was made by unthreading canvas, then tying designs into it. A lot of work, but well worth it when finished.

      • Larry
        November 2, 2013 at 1:45 pm

        A.J. Thank you for your reply. I also remember there was a lot of this done on the Captains Gig on USS Ranger as I had the chance to ride on it back to Ranger one day. I hope to try doing some of this kind of work
        and use it on some of my nautical style woodworks etc.

  9. September 12, 2013 at 10:16 am

    Thank you for sharing.
    I am making a great hammock for myself at local beach at Monkey Moutain, Da Nang.

    Hai Son Tra,

  10. Ricardo Rodríguez
    September 29, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    I have your book, It was a very good read and helped me a lot.

    I started getting interested in naval hammocks some years ago, and ended with one Royal Navy from the 50’s, two WWII USN, one with sewn grommets and the other with brass grommets, one WWII jungle hammock and one Vietnam era jungle hammock, one thing led to another and now have also two travel hammocks (one DIY) and two Mexican Mayan hammocks. This also led me to restart my interest in knots and rope craft, and now I even sell paracord bracelets and other stuff.
    By the way, if anybody has info on where to find or how to make the hardware to transform a 50’s Royal Navy hammock into a cot, woul appreciate it.

    I have a doubt though, about the lenght of the nettles. After you weave them, are they the same lenght?. The Royal Navy clew has the side nettles 2 inches shorter than the two in the center, so it keeps you from falling to the side. My WWII hammocks seem to have nettles all the same lenght, and they work well enough, but I prefer to give the side nettles an extra turn around the rope toggle to shorthen it. Maybe when you hang the hammock taunt like the sailors it didn´t matter. But if the nettles are longer at the sides as they appear to be in the jig, it can cause the sides to fall bellow the center of the hammock, as would a garden hammock without the spreader bar. Have you had any troubles with that?

    A good source of info on different hammock making techniques for each of its parts is the book Hammock Making Techniques, by Penelope Drooker (1981), specially if you like knotting and weaving.

    • Derek
      October 1, 2013 at 8:31 am

      Ricardo, thanks for the great input! I enjoy doing the knot work as well, and it has been fun to make some of these “early edition” hammocks. You are correct on the nettles. There is a difference between the Royal Navy and US Navy hammocks with the nettles, although both do shorten the last end nettles to tighten up the sides. My jig does make the end nettles shorter. If you look closely, the hooks are set a little higher than the rest, but the for the US Navy hammock, the nettles can be all the same length. This is different, vastly different, than a hammock with a spreader bar. With a spreader bar, the nettles get progressivly longer as they move out from the center point. The jig I have is intentionally narrow and this is mostly to make the weaving process easier. In the end the nettles are roughly all the same length in the end. This mimics how a gathered end hammock works.

      Yes, I have a copy of Drooker’s book. I reference it in my instructions on weaving a mayan hammock. That book was hard to find as it is out of print. For better or worse, I figured out the Mayan triple weave shortly before the book arrived, but it was reassuring to find that I was doing it right :)

      • Ricardo Rodríguez
        October 6, 2013 at 6:27 pm

        Thanks for the answer!
        Great to know that the nettles end up having the same lenght.
        The Drooker´s book is indeed hard to find. I found it in amazon just by luck, looking around for books on hammocks, and got a used copy for 17 dollars. Right now the two offered are 100 and 200 dlls. Another book on hammocks is a coffe table book with potos that I got for one cent. The book by Denison Andrews I got it for 3dlls. on eBay, when they ask up to 60 dlls for it.

        Drooker´s book covers the fabric gathered end hammock with the sewed tunnel at the end. I just wonder how come that design just got popular in recent years, when it is so simple and efective. The navies of the world began the use of nettles with complicated knotwork when it would be much easier just to make a simple sailcloth rectangle. Don´t know if it was because sailcloth was too expensive or because of the sailor´s taste for decorative ropecraft.

        • Derek
          October 7, 2013 at 7:29 am

          I can only guess as to why the Navy built the hammock the way they did. Being a veteran of the military, I can come up with a few ideas, some of which are plausible. :)

          Space aboard ship was at a premium. I know that hammocks were a sensible solution for a number of reasons, one of them being space. Hammocks were hung tight shoulder-to-shoulder, although with two different watches, this gave the sailors more room to sleep as they would sleep in every-other hammock. Designing the hammocks with a very minimal size is no doubt part of those space requirements.

          Availability of resources, nature of sail cloth, and multi-use all factored in to the design. Aboard ship, resources were not wasted, so making large hammocks completely out of sail cloth was probably a waste when a smaller size did the job. Making a gathered-end design without the nettles is also difficult due to the thick sail cloth (it just doesn’t gather or bunch up very well). The nettles performed this job much better while eliminating the “wasted” fabric on the ends that isn’t used as the bed. As you know, the hammocks also doubled as shrapnel protection — sailors would hitch up their hammocks and bring them topside where they were hung on the bulwarks to keep bits of splintering wood from impaling sailors when hit on the broadside.

          For the US Navy hammocks, I know the nettles were designed to come off easily so the hammocks could be periodically washed. Rings and nettles could be removed if worn, or if the hammock was worn, so it was a useful design. I think the other navy hammocks could do the same thing, but I don’t have clear documentation on that.

          • Ricardo Rodríguez
            October 8, 2013 at 5:59 pm

            I never thought about the different watches, that makes a lot of sense, and explains how they could sleep with the hammocks so slose to each other.

  11. Ruaidhri
    January 15, 2014 at 5:50 am

    could a lighter material be used? like ripstop nylon in place of canvas

    • Ruaidhri
      January 15, 2014 at 6:04 am

      also what size dyneema was it for the light weight clew?

      • Derek
        January 15, 2014 at 10:14 am

        1.75mm dyneema.

        • Ruaidhri
          January 15, 2014 at 10:13 pm

          also was it a full 50 feet for one clew?

          • Derek
            January 15, 2014 at 10:57 pm

            It will depend on the size of your jig (how long you want the clew) and the rope diameter. I didn’t measure the dyneema version. The rope was about 50 ft each side.

    • Derek
      January 15, 2014 at 10:14 am

      Yes. I’ve made one out of polyester tablecloth from tableclothfactory.com. You’ll need to reinforce the edging where the grommets are placed. I’m currently working on making one out if an army poncho liner.

  12. danieldonda
    February 23, 2014 at 6:43 pm

    Thank you for sharing. Cheers from Brazil.

  13. Bill
    March 22, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    Great Hammock, we had one back when I was a kid from my Dad. He was A WW2 Navy vet.
    We are having fun making a new one.

  14. KellyAnn
    April 17, 2014 at 10:49 am

    I inherited a hammock that my grandfather made many, many, many years ago. We have used it every year we’ve been camping for as long as i can remember (and long before then as well, lol). Thank you for the tutorial, because now, not only can i see how he made it, we have instructions incase we ever need to make repairs.

  15. Randy
    July 14, 2014 at 10:21 am

    Derek, was that thread 1/4″ braided poly?

    • Derek
      July 20, 2014 at 1:09 pm

      The sewing thread? It shouldn’t be thick at all–just regular sewing thread.

  16. August 17, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    I’m so glad you posted this. My father loved his hammocks, too, in the Naval ships during WWII. He said the beds they replaced them with never compared. FYI: I’m offering a free download of my e-book “Dare To Lean Into The Curves” from August 21-25, 2014. There is a section about my father in the book. Details @ https://www.facebook.com/events/1517052355198207/ — or on Amazon.com @ http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_30?url=search-alias%3Ddigital-text&field-keywords=fall%20in%20love%20with%20the%20life%20you%20create%20by%20sophia%20ann%20montoya&sprefix=fall+in+love+with+the+life+you%2Cdigital-text%2C343

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