Weaving the Story

April 2015
Written By: 
Hastings Hensel
Photographs by: 
Ginny Horton Photography
The timeless Pawleys Island rope hammock and its most loquacious weaver

Of all the old beach house necessities—the creaky screen door, the rickety ceiling fan, the bookshelf of board games and jigsaw puzzles and yellowed paperbacks, the outside faucet with which to rinse off sandy feet—perhaps none is as quintessential as the hammock.

Even the very word hammock, with its consonants all jammed together and its French-Caribbean origins, is a joy to say unto itself. Hammock: “A hanging bed, consisting of a large piece of canvas, netting, etc. suspended by cords at both ends; used esp. by sailors on board ship, also in hot climates or seasons on land.”

Hammocks weren’t always the ultimate symbols of leisure, of afternoons spent with a Hemingway novel and a dangling Corona. They had their practical uses—to sleep above ship cabins that were susceptible to flooding or above jungle grounds riddled with poisonous snakes.

To think of the hammock now, however, is to conjure up images of inactivity and spare time—two things, ironically, that are less and less familiar in today’s connected world.

And of all the different types of hammocks—the naval canvas hammock; the brightly-colored, siesta-inducing hammocks of Central America; the suspended Indian Sari hammock—perhaps none is as well-recognized as the Pawleys Island rope hammock, which also arose out of geographical necessity.

Legend has it that in the late 19th century a local Waccamaw riverboat captain named Joshua John Ward, exhausted by so many sleepless nights in the muggy Carolina Lowcountry, decided to weave himself a wide, knotless, sturdy, airy, steady hammock. After so many attempts, he succeeded in creating a popular design that his family then sold off of the main road, what is now U.S. 17, for years afterward.

Now you can’t really go to Pawleys Island (or “The Hammock Coast,” a new nominal transformation that endorses the area’s most famous product) without visiting the Hammock Shops—an inviting, oak-lined collection of gift shops and cottage industries. It is there you can see the legacy of Ward’s design—a spreader bar that keeps the knots out of the hammock bed and 1300 feet of soft cotton or Duracord ropes that intertwine and support each other like lattice.

And it is also there that you can ask the island’s most loquacious hammock-weaver about the history of the hammock for yourself.

“Yeah, there’s lots of lazy people down here,” hammock-weaver Marvin Grant says with a laugh inside his Pawleys Island shop. He’s standing behind the counter like always, inside the hammock-weaving rack, holding the wooden shuttle and pulling at the strands, all while engaging in the two things he does best: weaving and talking. Oldies music plays on a stereo in the corner, the place is cluttered with postcards and awards plaques and hammock boxes, and he greets each passerby with an appealing mixture: the comfortable friendliness of a bartender, the generous knowledge of a teacher and the theatrics of a showman.

“My job is PR. I’m the talking one around here,” he says, grinning from beneath his Pawleys Island hat and his crooked wireframe glasses, though to understand Marvin you have to look down at his hands—long and thin, moving with a fluid grace, as if cutting through water.

When Marvin was stationed near Charleston while in the Army, he learned from a group of fishermen how to weave fish and crab nets. It took him about six weeks to get it down, he remembers, and then his cousin taught him how to weave hammocks (though he had to find someone to help translate her Gullah accent).

Because to automatically assume that he’s a Pawleys Island-born Gullah hammock-weaving practitioner is a mistake.

“I’m from the boogie-down Bronx,” he says. “I was tired of unloading trucks in 100 degrees. I got smart, and I showed what a military background can do.”

He worked for a year at The Hammock Source manufacturing plant in Greenville, North Carolina, before interviewing for an on-site position to replace Primus Washington, a beloved icon who wove Pawleys Island rope hammocks for 60 years.

“I was in the military, and I was trained for communications. My job was to talk. When I got out of the military, I landed some place where they [were] looking for somebody to talk and do less work. That was right up my alley. I don’t have a problem. Don’t have no problems. They can re-train me, do anything they want, but there’s one problem: they can’t stop me from talking.”

So when he says his job is PR, he’s really not joking. On a good day, he weaves about three hammocks—maybe four or five in the less-touristy wintertime—but he mainly takes questions and entertains a diverse group of beachgoers and window-shoppers.

“Hold on, I got something for you,” he says to a group of New Jerseyites celebrating a 96th birthday. “It’s not gonna take me long. I’m gonna cut you nine pieces of rope right quick. You can have seashells, beads, turn it into a wind-chime.”

What he’s really weaving is the top part of the hammock, the spreader, but he turns it into a kind of magician’s trick or party trick, all while speaking in a quick, cadenced whisper: “Now the ones in the front I’m gonna push to the back, and the ones in the back I’m gonna push to the front.”

His hands, moving quickly, soon enough produce the spreader, and he gives it to the birthday lady.

“You’re a star!” she proclaims.

“Well, around here,” he says, and he grins his sheepish grin and starts in on another story.

But his local stardom is real enough. He’s won awards, including a Folk Heritage Award from The South Carolina Arts Commission, yet one senses that it’s the people-side of the business that Marvin most appreciates. He’s got hammocks and hammock swings at his house, but he says he doesn’t even want to see a hammock when he gets home. He prefers teaching people, like the bathing-suited couple walking in next whom he teaches how to weave a cotton bracelet, dispensing relationship advice as he goes along.

Or like teaching his 11-year-old cousin.

“I teach her how to make bracelets, and I get her involved in it,” he says. “Then she’ll start to do more and more, and I’ll teach her how to weave hammocks.”

In fact, it is as a teacher that you see a gentle, humble side of Marvin Grant, though he’s never far from the showman’s swagger.

“See, I’ve been doing it for so long I can look out the window, I can tell you how many cars go by, talk to you, plus keep doing what I’m doing and not miss a stitch.”

Which leads him to his last challenge and goal.

“I want to be like that guy who’s got that commercial. He’s one of the most important men in the world. Mosquitoes don’t bite him! The beer commercial man!”

He’s talking, of course, about Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World.” But it’s not too shabby to be one of the most interesting men on the Hammock Coast either.