With hands of fluent grace and knowledge of centuries
St. Helena Island, S.C. — HIS old hands supple and sure in their knowledge, Ruben Fripp laces the soft nylon cord around his wrist, pinches the cord between two fingers, and flashes the shuttle over and under. In his agile fingers the fishing net grows, square by painstaking square. The style of net he is weaving forms one of the most direct connections between islanders who live along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia and their African past.
Woven here since the early 1700s, the nets are almost identical to those still made along the west and central coast of Africa. From such skills - passed down intact from fathers to sons - scholars have traced the ancestry of slaves brought to these islands.
Mr. Fripp is one of the few left here who know the ancient art of net weaving.
Like the weavers of the past, he learned from his father, who wove in the evenings after fishing and farming during the day.
``It needs good eyesight,'' he says of his work. It also needs skillful hands, because the weaving motion is a kind of extended crochet.
``You whip it around the little finger,'' he says as he demonstrates, working on the hem of an eight-foot net. It's one of the largest, hung by a center ring from a roof beam of his house.
Fripp slips the shuttle through an intricate web of No. 4 bonded nylon, a fine cord with unexpected strength.
The size of the loops determines how the net will be used. A tight weave is needed to hold shrimp. A wider weave can hold fish.
The netmaker pictures the finished net in his mind from the beginning, following an unwritten pattern for each ring of knots.
Fripp needs two or three days of steady work to make a small net - one measuring four feet from its edge to the center ring. A net twice as large takes him a week or more.
``I can tie pretty fast when I got my hold,'' he comments, pulling out the soft white weave and then letting it swish quietly and quickly back against the wall.
In addition to their usefulness, the handmade nets are considered part of an Afro-American tradition of decorative art. Their intricate pattern, sheen, and thousands of knots have the visual beauty of lace.
``They are works of art that have a functional purpose,'' says Joseph Holloway, a pan-African scholar and professor at California State University, Northridge, who has researched sea island history.
``There's a lot of skill in them.''
But the precise and painstaking handwork is difficult to sustain.
``Ain't too many people can do it,'' notes fisherman Marrion Jenkins, a native of St. Helena.
``That take a lot of time and patience.''
Along with the nets, the island style of net casting, adopted by both blacks and whites, can be traced back to Africa, says Dr. Holloway.
Standing on shore or in a boat, and holding the net by its center ring, the fisherman wraps the top of the net over one hand and takes one edge in his teeth.
Then he swings the net open and out in a flying circle. A draw cord tightens and retrieves the net with its catch.
Casting nets have played a significant role in St. Helena Island's economy for more than 200 years.
Families still cast their nets to catch mullet and shrimp, major sources of protein in the local diet. Nets also pull in loads large enough for fishermen to sell.
As recently as the 1930s, Fripp and his father wove nets from sea island cotton, spun on nearby Lady's Island. Most nets were made by local weavers.
But handmade nets no longer hold a central place in the fishing economy. Now most casting nets are made by machines, which weave faster than even Fripp's flashing fingers. And they are made from monofilament, the material of fishing line.
Cheaper and lighter than nylon, monofilament is preferred by most of the fishermen who work the sounds and creeks of the South Carolina and Georgia coast. At Island Outfitters here on Route 21, a four-foot monofilament net sells for $22.95, compared with a handmade nylon net for $69.95.
The monofilament doesn't last as long. ``They use it, and if it gets a hole in it, throw it away,'' says Mr. Jenkins, who owns both nylon and monofilament nets. ``It don't cost too much to buy another one.''
Island Outfitters stocks nylon cord, weaving shuttles, and weights, but it is rare these days for anyone to buy the materials for net weaving. Only three local weavers are still practicing, and no young people are apprenticing to learn the exacting handwork.
``Every time I go there, there are fewer and fewer people who know how to make them,'' says Holloway, who regularly visits the sea island communities of the South. Those who do still weave are elderly.
An old man living alone in a shack, Fripp is considered an eccentric by his relatives and neighbors, because he lives by choice very close to nature. For 13 years he has stayed in a patched and tilted house with half its roof missing, and he refuses all offers of help. Rain falls directly on his dirt floor.
His house, without running water or electricity, is at the end of an unpaved road that winds back into the trees, among a bed of dancing yellow jonquils, a plowed field, and a creek.
He keeps the finished and half-finished nets in a brown paper bag under his bed.
The work is just a hobby nowadays, he says - orders for nets are slow.
One of Fripp's nets hangs in the museum at St. Helena's Penn School, a center for black history and culture on the sea islands. His art, long used to help man survive, is already regarded as history.
Still he continues weaving - though times have changed, the habits of his life have scarcely changed at all.
His hands still work with fluent grace and the knowledge of the centuries.