Belfast Cord (see this link for some sample pictures) (REVISED 20170425)
Belfast Cord was a term applied to any hard-laid three-stranded cotton line used for doing fancy-work about the ship. It could range from #9 (for very small and fancy presentation lanyards and the like, fine paunch mat or miniature bell-ropes) up to 1/16” (hard trot or seine twine type). The most common was a #8 or #9 line produced in the second and third quarters of the 20th century for a company in New York, P. C. Herwig, of Brooklyn, NY.
What made Belfast different from regular twines or strings was the fact that it was a ‘hard-laid’ product; that is, the lay of the cordage was akin to the tightness one would expect of a good manila line, not the sloppily-laid "mason's twine" you can buy in your local hardware store, as well as the fact that it was ‘sized’ or starched during the manufacturing process. This produced a hard-surfaced, shiny, easily handled line which resisted un-laying (especially when doing square-knot and half- hitch work [a.k.a. macramé] and which also resisted hand-soil to some extent.
ANY good hard-laid twines are suitable as a substitute for true Belfast but the sizing really helped in getting some of the more intricate knotwork to snug up uniformly as well as producing an almost "beaded" appearance in half-hitching. Some of the old half-hitch belts could easily be mistaken for fine beadwork.
The manufacturer of Belfast Cord in the US was Plymouth Rope, which was sold in the (1960’s?) to Columbian Cordage of NY. Columbian is still in business but now makes specialized climbing and safety ropes and some specialized marine products. Plymouth Rope’s old ropewalks and other building have been moved to the Mystic Seaport Museum grounds where they are a non-working exhibit for the punters to marvel upon. However, the more "modern" granite buildings of the Plymouth Rope Co. still exist in Plymouth. It is now called Cordage Park and has been turned into a business park of sorts. There are some small shops and businesses there.
As of this writing (October 2006) I have contacted some two hundred fifty cordage manufacturers and found exactly one who knew what I was talking about. Of course, they don’t make it, nor are they interested in developing such a product line: not enough return on investment, I suppose. To date, most of the others haven't even replied to my queries.
I found that while Plymouth Cordage were the manufacturers of it, the actual sales agent was the P. C. Herwig Co. (successors of F. A Toombs) in Brooklyn NY. They originally were on Sand St. and then on Clinton St (which went right into Gate 9 of the Brooklyn Navy Yard!) in Brooklyn and for some fifty years they stocked and sold Dreadnaught Cord under their own name. Herwig also "jobbed" the same line to GEMSCO, who sold it as "Belfast Cord" in Navy Exchange facilities all over the world.
Those of us who used and remember either Dreadnaught Cord from Herwig or Belfast Cord from GEMSCO (about whom more later) would be delighted to find a manufacturer who still either makes it or would be interested in doing so, so any of you gentle readers who may know of a source for this or of a cordage manufacturer who might produce something similar are encouraged to contact me with the information. I assure you, there is a small but consistent and loyal customer-base out there, and we use a LOT of cordage!
Why is hard laid an important attribute? Simple. Take any garden-variety three-stranded twine and tie four pieces so as to be able to form a wall and crown knot. When pulling the strands tight, the lay will usually disintegrate into component strands, reducing the strength of the knot and also creating a problem with having the knot remain intact over time and use. I used the wall and crown to end off lanyards and (later on) instrument straps and I can tell you that with ordinary medium-laid twines normal handling will cause the crown to come out on these in nothing flat. Due in part to the sizing and in part to the hardness of the lay, Belfast Cord’s crowns always stayed tied unless heavily abraded for some reason.
Another reason for using a hard-laid line is square-knotting work. When doing a square knot, the line coming from your left side is usually working WITH the lay, while the line coming from the right side is working AGAINST the lay. Again, the lay opens into it’s component strands and produces an extremely “lubberly” appearance to the work. This is especially apparent when doing clove-hitching in echelons across the piece where a soft-lay will produce differing sizes depending on which side you are working from. Most annoying.
Harder lays are also much easier to use when forming miniature grommets and cringles, and especially in model shipbuilding.
NOTE: I have run across a couple of descriptions of “Belfast Cord” which reference the waxed “Irish Linen” thread carried by (among others) Royalwood, Ltd. of Ohio: that ain’t it. Despite it’s being made by a company IN Belfast, N. Ireland, waxed linen thread is waxed linen thread, not Belfast Cord. This is a multi-stranded ( 2 thru 12 strand) linen thread which is waxed and twisted into a larger diameter. It is hideously expensive when contrasted to cordage and the waxing of the material really works against it’s use for fancy knot-work. As the main component of a belt or lanyard it would be totally unsuitable. To use it as a material for rail or gripe coverings would equal the cost of the vessel!
Belfast-type Cord was also made by any number of pre-WWII (and more especially pre-depression) European cordage makers who did custom cordage work for sail and pleasure shipping. Eagle, Lord Nelson, Tannheuser... there were many manufacturers in many countries who made a similar product, but Herwig's Dreadnaught (to my mind) was the standard of excellence. (I have a picture of a box of Dreadnaught Cord in the pictures section!) As in today’s world, I suspect that many of the brands were actually made by three or four of the largest cordage firms and then jobbed out under “private-label” agreements.
There was MUCH more demand for this product in those days (and prior to WW-I as well) when there were still commercial sailing ships and things of this sort helped to while away some off-watch sea-time. Also, it was much more common to find sailors who would keep up the fancy knot-work on companionway, quarterdeck and in-port rails as a way of “dressing up” the ship. All that seems to have gone by the boards in this modern day, which saddens me. A handrail in a companionway which had a nice coxcomb with two turks-heads to finish it was always a delight to find, as was a "dressed" ships wheel.
There are enough of us who still do this stuff and who make small bell-ropes and monkey’s-fists as keychains/fobs as gifts for friends (and a few who do so commercially, as well, such as Martin Combs for books, information and cordage supplies and of course, myself... But you knew that already...) to show that the art hasn't completely died out, and there are enough real and ‘wannabe’ sailor-types with Nantucket bracelets to show that there is still some interest in knotting, which gives me hope for the future. Also, (if you managed to miss it on the way in) there's the International Guild Of Knot Tyers which is primarily concerned with practical and decorative knotting in rope (anything larger than 1/4" dia equals rope in my book).
Practical knotwork will always be with us as a matter of necessity - as long as there are craft on the water, we’ll need fenders and people who know how to make ‘em, rigging and riggers and sails and sail-makers, and that’s probably where this knowledge will best reside: with those who make their livings from or whose lives depend on knowledge of rope and it’s intricacies.
For the present, I am concerned only with finding a source for an old and trusted friend: Belfast Cord.
Hey... almost forgot about GEMSCO.
The General Embroidery And Military Supply Co. (GEMSCO) was located in Brooklyn, NY and supplied an incredible selection of decorations, insignia, paraphenalia and "stuff" (lighters, keychain fobs, you-name-its) from the beginning of WWII up through (as far as I can find out) the mid-1970's, when it appears to have gone out of business. They bought their Belfast Cord from Plymouth and then packaged and sold it in Navy Exchanges and elsewhere under their own name. If you have a military ribbon, collar insignia or belt buckle made from WWII to 1975 I'll bet it's stamped "GEMSCO" on the back somewhere.
I assume they succumbed to the 1970's oil crisis and overseas competition: It's for sure they're now deader than Kelsey's "Appendages".