How to make rope from plants – fiber extraction and natural cordage construction
You can make rope or natural cordage (rope and string) from many different fibers including (Bast) Dogbane, Milkweed, Nettles, Hemp, Flax; (Leaves) Cattail, Yucca, Agave, Douglas Iris; (Bark) Willow, Maple, Basswood, Cedar; (Root) Leather Root, Beach Lupine; (Whole stem) Tule, Juncus, and straw. Each type of material has specific requirements for extracting and preparing the fibers (typically involves crushing the leaves and pulling out the stringy strands of fiber), but there are only two basic ways for using the fibers to make rope or cord: braiding (or plaiting) and twining. Braiding was usually done with flat, split materials such as cattail or flattened straw.
Extracting fiber from plants for rope construction
There are many sources for fiber including plants, plastic, or even hair. In the wilderness, dead plants are excellent sources of fiber – the dried wood makes the fiber easier to extract. Fiber can be derived from plant stalks, seeds and seed cases, strands of grass, leaves, or the inner bark or bast from trees.
Extracting fiber from plants (e.g. stinging nettle) using retting
Plant fibers are cemented to adjacent cells inside the stem with a gummy material known as pectin. Pectin and other non-cellulosic material can be detached from the fiber using a process known as retting or degumming.
Begin with a mature stinging nettle plant. Remove all leaves and flowers from the stems. Place the stems in a container of water, completely submerging the stems in water. Allow the stems to soak for 7 days. This soaking process is known as retting. Water causes the plant cells to swell and burst which accelerates the softening of the tissue surrounding the fiber strands.
If stalks are removed before retting is complete, the fiber will be difficult to remove. If stalks are left in the water too long (over-retting), the fiber will be weakened.
After 1 week, the tissue will be sufficiently softened (retted stalks are called “straw”). Wash the stems to remove the outside cuticle and epidermal layer. Allow the remaining fiber bundle to dry. Final separation of the fiber can be accomplished by breaking off the brittle, wood portion of the straw using the fingers and thumb to grind the straw, leaving the fiber material.
Note: in areas with limited water resources, a process known as “dew retting” can be used instead. It is effective in climates with night-time dew and warm daytime temperatures. Spread the harvested plant stalks in a grassy field. Allow the stalks to sit for 2-3 weeks. Dew-retted fiber is typically poorer quality than water-retted fiber.
Extracting fiber from tree branches
Start with the base section of a small branch (newer, leafy sections contain less fiber) about half the diameter of your finger. Smash the branch flat, then break into two halves (the smashing action will cause the branch to split, making it easier to divide).
Remove the inner wood, leaving the fibrous inner-bark ribbon. To remove the inner wood, snap the branch in one-inch pieces. The inner wood will crumble and peel out leaving the outer, more-flexible, inner bark. If the bark ribbon breaks, don’t despair – we’ll discuss spicing below.
Take the two bark ribbons and grind them using your fingers and thumb. This will “tenderize” the ribbon and remove any bits of wood or branch nodes that remain. When complete, you will have two strands of fiber, each thicker on one end and narrower on the other (due to the natural narrowing of the branch).
Rope construction using twining – finger twisting method
After preparing a bundle of fiber half the thickness of the finished cord, place your hands six to twelve inches apart and about one third of the way from one end. Twisting the fibers clockwise with both hands, wind the bundle tight (making single-ply natural cordage).
Bring your hands closer together and keep twisting. The kink should rotate on its own in a counterclockwise direction (Fig. 1a & b). Twist until two or three rotations occur (Fig. 2a & b). This kink is the start of a two-ply cord – where the strand will be folded to begin a section of rope. At this time you can attach the end to something (or someone) which can rotate (free-end) and keep twisting with both hands turning clockwise OR you can attach the end to something solid (fixed-end) and begin twisting and counter-rotating (see below).
Counter-rotating, or “reverse wrap”, one form of finger-twisting, involves each hand applying a clockwise twist into a ply, while passing the right ply over, and the left ply under (counter-clockwise or Z-plying). The clockwise twist of the ply combined with the counter-clockwise turns between the two plies, counter each other and cause the cordage to tighten against itself.
In Figure 3a, your left hand twists ply A clockwise, while your right hand does the same with ply B’. At the same time, you pass ply B over and behind your left thumb and lock it in place with your remaining fingers, as in Figure 3b. You then take A in your right hand and B in your left and repeat, over and over and over again. These two methods are particularly handy to make rope with larger and coarser materials such as cattail and tule.
Finger-twisting finer material to make rope or natural cordage is usually done completely in the hand, with the finished string being wound on a bobbin or netting needle as you go. Your left hand acts to control tension while your right hand does the twisting.
Make the wraps tight. Loose wraps, or cordage made from green fiber, will unravel when dry.
In summary, begin as in Figure 1, then place the Y (the point where the two plys come together) between your left thumb and fore finger. Take the lower of the two ply strands and twist it tightly clockwise until it begins to kink. Lock the twist in by closing your remaining three fingers over the strand (see Fig. 4a.). Then, while holding the twisted ply A securely, twist ply B with your right thumb and forefinger. As you twist, you should feel the completed string begin to twist counter-clockwise (step Fig. 4b.). Follow this motion with your left thumb and forefinger while maintaining even tension and a symmetrical Y. Next move your left thumb up to the fork in the Y as before and repeat steps 1 and 2 until you need to add more fiber.
If you began your cord off-center, then one side will run out of fiber first. As you get to within about 3 inches of the end of this short ply, prepare another bundle of fibers the same size as you began with, but taper the end of the bundle for about 4 inches.
Lay this bundle parallel to the bundle being replaced, and sticking out about an inch beyond the Y (Fig. 5). Continue twisting the cordage as before. After several turns, the splice will be near seamless and the cordage will not slip.
Adding fiber to adjust rope diameter
You should add in more fiber material if one ply becomes thinner than the other, or if both plies become thinner than they started. In these cases add just enough fiber to bring them back to correct size. Ideally, your cord should stay the same size throughout, although aboriginal cordage did vary about fifty percent in nets. Bow strings and fish lines under heavy pull should be very even. It is also possible to add to both sides at the same time by bending a bundle of fiber in half and placing the Y of the bundle into the V of the Y, but it is harder to keep from making a lump at this point. After your string is finished, you can cut or burn (carefully) off the overlap ends to make your string less fuzzy.
Keeping fiber damp, but not too damp
Dry surfaces tend to slip, so you should keep your hands and the fiber damp while you are working. Squeeze out excess water though or your string will be loose when it dries.
Rope construction using twining – thigh rolling method
Finger-twisting methods are best used to make rope when a relatively small amount is being made and/or has to be very tight and even, and when very stiff or coarse materials are being used, such as cattail or tule. When you want to make rope in mass quantities, it is much faster and easier on the hands to use the leg (thigh) rolling method.
The principle is the same, S-twist, Z-ply, but the twist is applied by rolling on the leg, rather than twisting between the thumb and finger. You can continue to work without getting cramps in your hand muscles, and you can (with practice) work faster (about ten feet per hour).
The critical element in making this method work is having the right surface on which to roll. Traditionally the bare left thigh is used. If you do not want to expose your skin, or if your legs are hairy, you can use pants, but these should be tight around your leg, so they won’t bunch up as you roll, and they should have a rough enough surface to give traction.
Keeping them damp is also critical. Keep a bucket of water next to you while working. (This method is illustrated in Figure 6a-c.).
Roll both plies away from you with the palm of your right hand (pre-roll each separately). Your left hand holds the Y and follows the movement.
Bring the two plies together by moving the left hand forward and back. If the two plies did not get tightly rolled the first time, carefully pick up both plies and repeat step one first.
When the plies are tight and touching, bring the right palm back towards you, counter-rotating the two plies into two-ply cordage.
Pre-preparation of fiber
Before you begin, prepare as much fiber as you will be using during that session. Once you get into the rhythm of the work of making rope or cordage, you won’t want to stop and clean material.
Sources for bast fibers
Bast fibers, obtained from the outer layer of bast surrounding the plant stem, have long been used to manufacture ropes, nets, carpets, mats, and paper materials. Common bast fibers include:
- Hemp produces a strong and durable fiber. It grows best in mild, humid environments.
- Jute is found in Bangladesh and India, int hot and humid climates. It’s commonly used to make jeans and other heavy-duty fabrics (often blended with cotton or silk to improve the quality).
- Flax can be grown and harvested within three months and has been a source of linen for thousands of years. One advantage is its ability to absorb up to 12% of its weight in water – and its strength increases by 20% when wet. It also dries quickly. The fibers are twice as strong as cotton and five times stronger than wool.