I’m a twiddler and a fiddler. Give me a meeting, and I yearn to take out some crocheting and sit there doing handwork while I’m listening to people speak. It’s not that I’m trying to be rude: I just concentrate better when my body is moving.
Normally I would crochet when I feel fidgety, but recently I’ve discovered that I love making cordage. What is cordage? Quite simply, it’s the process of making homemade rope.
Finding Plants for Cordage
How do you make cordage? First, you need to find the right plants. Certain plants and animal products work really well as rope, and others don’t work well at all. Plants that work well for cordage may contain thick strings or tough fibers, but you’d be surprised to discover what works well. I’ve used these three plants to create cordage:
- Yucca: Yes, this spiky plant in your garden is a wonderful rope-making material.
- Stinging Nettle: You can use fresh nettles, but the dried ones are best for making a tough rope. Caution: use gloves!
- Tree bark: If you find a branch of cedar, basswood, or a tulip tree or find an entire downed tree, peel off the outer bark and use the thin, pliable inner bark to create rope.
You can also use dogbane, milkweed, fireweed, cattail and bulrush. If you see something that has strong fibers, give it a try and see how it turns out. Of course, you can use non-plant materials to make cordage as well. Animal materials, fabric, and even pieces of plastic can all make rope. If in doubt, try it out and see! If you want to start with something simple, you can even make cordage with existing cotton string to practice.
Processing the Plants
To create your rope, you need to get the useful fibers from the plant. In this article, I’ll describe how to remove the fibers from pithy plants like nettle and fibrous plants like yucca.
If you have a plant with a woody interior that’s tough and breaks easily, you may be able to use the outside of that plant to create cordage. For instance, if you are working with nettles, harvest them when they are tall and dry, some time near the end of the summer or in early fall. Let them dry. Once they have dried, press down on the stalk with a small rock or press it open with your fingers. Your goal is to remove the outer fibers from the woody interior of the plant. When you’re working with nettle, this means that you gently pull down on the outside of the plant stalk, removing the green fibers in long strips and leaving the woody inside. Soon, you will have long lines of very thin plant material waiting to become rope.
If you’re working with yucca, it contains long lines of fiber inside the leaf. You need to remove the outer part of the yucca in order to get to those long lines inside. You can assist this process by soaking the leaves in water for several days, or you can work with the dry leaf. Scrape the leaf with the side of a knife, a sharp rock, or even your fingernail, if you don’t mind green fingernails! Your goal is to see the white lines inside the leaf without puncturing them. Once you get down to the lines, gently move them apart with your fingers. Eventually, you will have a handful of “hairs” from inside the yucca plant.
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Creating the Rope
Once you have the fiber, it’s time to create the rope. Give the fibers a gentle roll to line them up. You should have a long line of fiber. Make this line into a V shape with the point of the V close to the middle of the line. Pick the fibers up near the point of the V, and begin to twist them around and around in the same direction. Eventually, the fibers will start to loop over each other. You will have a loop in the middle of your long string of fiber.
Hold the fiber by the loop. Two lines of fiber will hang down, one on the left and one on the right. Take the top of the right line and twist it to the right, away from the other fiber. Hold that twist tight and move the twisted right fibers over the ones on the left. Move the fibers on the left to the right. Twist those fibers to the right, and wrap them over the left ones. Repeat this process over and over. You’re twisting and wrapping in two different directions, and this helps the wrap stay in place. Keep holding the rope as you create it to maintain good tension.
Remember: twist the right away from you, and wrap it towards you, and you’re making cordage! The following video will show you how:
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Adding to Your Rope
There comes a time when we all get to the end of our rope. Before that, you’ll want to splice in more rope-making materials. If you’re making cordage for something that’s going to be longer than a necklace, you’ll need to splice.
To get a good splice, you want to start out uneven. If you’re braiding, usually you start with several strands that are the same length. If you’re making rope and splicing in, make the initial loop slightly off-center, so that you begin with one strand that is longer than the other. That way, when you come to splice, you won’t be adding all of your new material in the same place on the rope.
To splice, simply add plant material that’s similar in width to the plant material that’s already in the rope, and wind it in the next time around. You can rub it between your fingers a little bit before that if you want to make sure it winds in smoothly.
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What Can You Make Out of Cordage?
Just like pre-made cotton string or thicker ropes, the possibilities for using your homemade ropes are just about endless. Use thin rope in crafts or create jewelry. Use ropes to hold up tents, tarps, or even as a belt. You can make fishing lines, traps and snares, or repair things with your homemade cordage as well. Best of all, it’s a productive activity for those times when you need something to do, and it costs nothing!
Have you ever made cordage? What did you use it for?