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Just Hook Up and Bed Down : Hammocks, Nice Places to Hang Out, Come in All Shapes and Sizes (They Sleep Up to 12)


No question, Bubba, if it's truly laid back you want, you have to get a hammock.

It's the quintessential device for hanging around the yard, swaying in the breeze, idling away an afternoon or the whole summer.

But it most certainly doesn't have to be confined to the back yard; that's an American idea. Most of the hammocks of the world are used indoors instead of beds.

They are inexpensive, comfortable (easily as therapeutic as water beds), come in a large variety of sizes, fabrics and design and have a fascinating history.

The only real problem in a place like Orange County is availability. While Price Club and some Pier 1 outlets carry one style (machine-made of rope) and better sporting goods stores carry another (for backpackers), serious hammock-seekers must travel to San Diego, Torrance or San Francisco to see and choose from the huge variety that actually exists.

A visit to Swing N Hammocks in Torrance's Old Town or Swings N Things in San Diego's Seaport Village, for example, can take up the better part of an afternoon. Prices range from $9 to $99, although some specialty items (a hammock that will accommodate 12 people) can push the $200 mark.

Almost all of the merchandise at Swings N Things is handmade to the store's specifications by weavers in Latin and Central America, according to co-owner Bob Cotton. "For quality-control reasons, we buy the material and have it delivered to the weavers," he says.

"Some, like the one made to sleep a family of four, is 18 feet wide, uses four miles of cotton and takes a month to weave."

Cotton suggests that after adhering to a few simple rules, selection is basically a matter of personal taste.

"Hand-woven is the best, no question," he says. "Then, you want to make sure the material is going to hold up. For example, in some of our styles, we use the same material that's used to make fishing nets and is known to withstand eight to 10 years of wear in the sea.

"After that, use your own taste for design or weave. And, by all means, get in one, try it out. Over the 11 years we've been in business, we've found our top salespeople are the ones who get the most people to test a hammock."

He says you can sleep crossways on your stomach or side in some models, but most people sleep on their backs lengthwise and "generally find that they wake up in the same position in which they went to sleep. There's so much back and body support that there's no inclination to toss and turn during the night, because there's no stress on your body."

The body of the average hammock--that doesn't count what are called the "arm strands," or cords at the end for fastening on posts--is seven feet long and six feet wide.

And, unless you have two strong trees in the yard exactly 12 feet apart, you will need to sink some 4-by-4 fence posts. "The hammock arm strands should be fastened at about eye level," Cotton says, "which should leave the bottom sway of the hammock at about your knees so that you can easily get in and out of it."

A big mistake many people make, he says, is in maintenance. "You have to treat a hammock the same as you would other patio furniture," he says. "You can't leave it out all the time in all kinds of weather and expect it to hold up."

Of course, as he points out, it's a lot easier to remove and store a hammock than a large redwood chair.

With proper care, a hammock should last up to 10 years, Cotton says, longer if kept and used indoors. And getting them indoors is a marketing goal of Cotton and his partner, Mark Zickel. "In their countries of origin, hammocks are used almost exclusively indoors," he says.

In many of those nations, particularly Brazil, hammocks are fastened with sturdy hooks onto the walls, unfurled only at night for sleeping, then unfastened during the days. The rooms can then be used for other purposes, and the hanging fabric becomes wall decor.

While hammocks are popular around the world, their origins were with the Arawaks of the Caribbean, and they owe their introduction to the rest of the globe to Admiral of the Ocean Seas Christopher Columbus.

Before Columbus' second voyage of discovery, sailors slept any place on (or below) decks they could find space. But after his men began using hammocks in the mid-1500s --enjoying the natural gyroscopic effect that made rough seas tolerable--they chronicled their use. Hammocks soon swept the world's fleets and even were responsible for changes in the very design of ships.

It was the Spanish who brought the hammock to North America and Asia.

"Once hammocks became standard in the Portuguese navy," says Cotton, a hammock historian, "they realized how much extra space they had, and that led to the design of what we know as a gun deck. The folded-up hammocks could even blunt the impact of enemy cannon balls."

And they remained standard equipment for sailors everywhere until World War II. "We still have customers come in talking about their experiences with those old solid canvas hammocks the Navy had aboard the ships," Cotton says.

Their popularity in back-yard America began in the late 1800s, when the rubber industry boomed in Central and Latin America and workers brought them back to the United States.

Today, they still enjoy worldwide popularity, although a lot less in America than most other areas of the world. Cotton points out that the largest manufacturer of hammocks in the United States turns out about 60,000 a year and another 25,000 to 30,000 are imported by such companies as his own.

"The French alone buy more than 100,000 a year," he says.

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