The rope is one of the oldest tools known to man. For thousands of years, man has twisted vines and plant fibers to make rope. Primitive man first used rope to bind simple tools to handles.
Ropes were vital elements in the construction of the pyramids and long before the first European explorer arrived in Central and South America. Indian tribes were crossing deep valleys on rope suspension bridges.
Rope enabled our own pioneer fore-fathers to improvise shelters and rig temporary bridges to provide a safe crossing of rain-swollen creeks and streams. Rafts were lashed to carry passengers and gear across larger bodies of water or haul the mountain man’s furs to market, and camp implements were constructed as needed in the absence of nails—a rare commodity on the frontier.
Natural materials for making rope
There are many times in the outdoors that we find ourselves in need of a rope, cord, or even a piece of string.
There are many methods of making cordage from natural materials that have been developed over the centuries and passed down by our pioneer forefathers. Rawhide, sinew, and plant fibers are examples of such materials.
Sinew, which comes from the long tendons in the legs and back of animals, can be made into cordage that is second to no other natural material in strength. The primitive man primarily used it for bow-strings and to haft arrow points and other tools to wooden shafts.
In a survival situation, it can be used as cordage to meet almost any tying needs. Sinew’s greatest disadvantage is its availability. If you are fortunate enough to kill a deer or another big game animal, then a moderate supply will be available.
To prepare, remove the tendons from the animal, clean, and place in the sun until they are hard and dry. The sinew is then pounded between two rocks until soft, fluffy, and white. They will then strip apart into fine threads which can be used for sewing or twisted into cordage. When wrapping or hafting something, apply the sinew wet. It produces enough of its own glue to bind firmly without a need to be tied.
The most readily available materials for rope construction are plant fibers. Milkweed (Ascelepias), Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), and Yucca (Liliaceae) top the list as some of the preferred plants for cordage fibers.
Bark from Hawthorn, willow, elm, cedar, juniper, and sagebrush will work in a pinch, but is not as strong as bullrush, cattails, and other broadleaf plants, although these do have a wide variety of uses in tying and construction. Not to be overlooked are vines and the whip-like roots of some plants.
Fiber may be separated from the dry stalks of some plants by pounding and cleaning by hand to remove the woody parts. Care should be exercised to avoid damaging the fibers through the excessive pounding. Either the outer hairy fibrous layer or the inner white layer of the bark of trees may be twisted into cordage. Bark is usually strongest when wet and has a tendency to become stiff when dry.
The ancient skill of retting
One of the best ways of separating fibers from plants is an ancient process called retting. This is a bacterial process which, in principle, consists of the breaking down of pectic substances between the cell walls of the individual cells of the tissue surrounding the plant.
As a result, the stems become separated from the surrounding tissue and can be easily extracted by hand. There are several methods of retting, all of which are slimy, odorous, and unpleasant when done on a large scale.
Dew retting is most successfully carried on in areas that have heavy dew at night and warm temperatures during the day. The stalks are spread out in rows on the grass and are turned regularly during the day so that all stems and surfaces are equally exposed to moisture and sunshine. Dew retting is slower than other processes and takes at least two or three weeks. Because it is slower, it is less likely to result in “over-retting” and damage to the fibers.
Running and stagnant water retting are carried on in a similar fashion to each other except that stagnant water retting is likely to be faster because the products of bacterial action are not carried off and thus have a cumulative effect. The stalks are placed in crates or tied together in bundles and weighted down with stones to keep the entire length of the stems sub-merged after bacterial action commences.
In running water retting, it is often necessary to construct a fence or barrier to prevent bundles from being carried downstream. Stalks being vetted by either method must be watched closely because removing them from the water (which stops the fermentation) at just the right moment is critical to the quality of the resulting fiber. It is important to note that water from pool retting has had most of the oxygen removed and, until aerated, is unfit for human, animal, or aquatic use. Most countries prohibit the rotting of stalks in streams or rivers.
Tank retting is the method that seems to be replacing other methods today. Commercial operations utilize specially constructed tanks. However, tubs and barrels will serve the same purpose as will a pit or trench. Constant lukewarm water temperature is maintained at all times. Some of the water may be drained off each day, and freshwater added so that fermentation can be more carefully controlled.
Tank retting may take only a few days as compared to running water retting, depending on the temperature of the water and the swiftness of the current. Thorough drying is necessary after any of the retting methods to prevent further fermentation. The fibers may then be stored for long periods of time before use.
Whether plant fibers are obtained by pounding or retting, they may be twisted into cordage as follows:
- Two Strips of fiber are selected and held in the left hand between the thumb and forefinger,
- The fiber farthest from the body is grasped in the fingers of the right hand and twisted clockwise.
- The twisted strand is then laid counterclockwise over the other strand and becomes the one closest to the body.
- The second strand (now the farthest from the body) is twisted and laid over the first strand in the same manner. This is continued until the ends of the strands are reached.
- Other lengths of fiber are spliced on at this point. One does this by twisting the last two inches of the ends onto the new fibers and continuing the process of twisting and folding. It is best to alternate the lengths of the strands so that both splices do not appear at the same place in the finished string.
Completed strands may be twisted or braided together with other strands to make larger ropes.
Short strands for tying or sewing a few stitches may be made quickly by rolling a long strand with the palm of your hand in one direction. When it is rolled tight, hold the middle with one hand and fold the two ends together, keeping both lengths taut. Retain a firm grip on the two ends and let the folded part go.
The tension produced from the twisted roll will automatically twine the two cords together, resulting in a 2-strand cord, which is half the length of the length of the original strand (thus, a 6-foot strand will make a 3-foot cord).
Read next: Making Cordage in the Wilderness
How to make rope
Rope can also be made from the existing cord or twine by means of simple homemade mechanical rope twister. Where binder twine or string are often considered too weak for normal pioneering work, these twisters can turn them into useful lengths of rope.
One of the simplest rope twisters was developed by the Pomo Indians. The Pomo’s lived along the California coast and were noted for their excellent grass and horsehair ropes.
Their rope twister consisted of three basic parts:
- the handle
- the twister
- the anchor hook.
To use, have one person hold the anchor hook while another operates the twister. String two strands of binder twine or cord of equal length tightly from the hook to the round knob on the twister (a third strand may be added for a 3-strand rope). The twine should be more than twice the desired length of the finished rope. Twist the twine together by flipping the twister clockwise. Keep count of the number of twists needed until the two twine strands are solidly together.
Remove the end from the twister knob and fold in half, attaching the knob end to the anchor along with the other end. It is important that during this process, the twisted twine is kept taut and prevented from curling or tangling together. When the strand has been doubled, place the middle half where the strand bends on the knob of the twister.
Twist the two strands together by flipping the twister counterclockwise. When the strands are together solidly, take both ends of the new rope off the hook and knob and allow it to “untwist” itself. You will then have completed a rope.
Another rope machine used by early pioneers consists of 5 parts:
- rope wrench
To make rope with the rope machine, simply tie the end of a strand to a hook with a slip knot and stretch the strands from the hooks around the rope wrench and back to the hooks. Make sure there are the same number of strands on each hook. About three strands to each hook makes a medium-sized rope. The end of the strands behind the rope wrench are secured to an anchor that is held by someone else or to a firm, stationary object.
With the handle, start turning the wire cranks, holding the strands apart with the wrench until they are fairly light. Take hold of the strands behind the wrench and begin twisting them slowly together as the wrench is moved forward. The rope will go into shape itself and remain there, but the wrench should be used to ensure even twisting and to prevent kinks. The cranks should be twisted slowly while the rope is being formed. When completed, the rope is taken off the hooks, and the ends are whipped to prevent fraying.
The image below exemplifies the process of twisting and branding cordage.
1A. Collect the fiber or use string you already have ,separate and tie them as shown; B. Twist the fibers clockwise between thumb and forefinger of each hand; C. At the same time, twist the two cords together counter-clockwise; D. As the fibers grow shorter, add more; 2. Small twisted cords may be braided with other twisted cords to make a larger, stronger rope.
A must-read: Using Natural Fibers For Survival Necessities
Sisal, manila, and hemp are normally used in outdoor rope work. Synthetic fibers like nylon and dacron are excellent general purpose ropes because of their strength and resistance to moisture, but they are too slick to hold tight lashings and, therefore, not preferred for wilderness construction.
There are great variations in the strength of different rope types of the same size. Before you risk life and limb, you should know how much load your rope will take under any condition. As a rule of thumb, the safe working load of a new rope is only one-quarter of the rated breaking strength, and with the average used rope it is best to figure only one-sixth. Any time a rope is jerked or a load is dropped, the strain is doubled.
Few people realize that knots, wraps, and hitches weaken a rope by forcing a bend that distributes an uneven tension on the fibers. A bowline, for example, cuts the efficiency of manila rope by 40 percent while a square knot will reduce the rope’s efficiency by 50 percent. Before using, it is important to thoroughly inspect a rope checking for worn spots and broken fibers. The inner fibers should be inspected by untwisting the rope in several places. The rope is considered sound if the inner strands are unspotted and bright in appearance.
Another test is to unwind a short single-strand and break by hand. If it breaks with little effort, the rope is unsafe. In general, a rope that has become limp or appears dry and brittle should be looked at with suspicion.
To preserve a rope that is not in use, it should be kept as dry as possible. Wet rope will mildew very quickly. The danger of mildew damage is that it is not apparent until the rope breaks. A wet or damp rope should be hung loosely until it is thoroughly dry.
Never step on or drag a rope on the ground. Small particles of dirt will be ground between the strands and will eventually cut them. Avoid placing the rope in contact with sharp corners or edges or rocks that will cut it. By the same token, never allow rope on rope. The friction of two ropes rubbing together will cut and burn the rope strands.
A rope should always be coiled in the direction of its lay. The lay of a rope is the direction in which the strands are twisted. Coiling with the lay prevents kinking or breaking when tension is placed on the rope.
To determine the lay of rope, pick up an end, and note the twist of the strands. Normally the strands are twisted from the bottom left to the top right. The resulting twist is called a right-handed lay. Strands twisted upward to the left give a left-handed lay. When coiling a rope in the direction of its lay, a right-handed rope should be coiled clockwise and a left-handed rope counterclockwise.
To keep the ends of the rope from fraying or unraveling, each rope should be whipped. The end splice and American whip work best on natural rope, while synthetic ropes like nylons may be whipped by simply applying a hot iron or flame to the ends melting the strands. Temporary whipping can be made by using tape, clamps, or tying an overhead knot.
Mountain Climbing Rope
Although it’s a far cry from hand-twisted cordage, no commentary on rope is complete without mentioning mountain climbing rope. A full text could be written on this subject, but the intent here is to provide a general overview of this specialized piece of equipment.
To quote the bible of mountaineering, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (The Mountaineers, Seattle Washington 1967):
“Several features are desirable in a climbing rope. It must be strong enough to hold a falling body yet light enough to be carried; tough enough to resist abrasion and cuts yet flexible enough to handle easily with a minimum of snarling even when frozen or wet; large enough to be gripped easily by the hands yet not so large as to be cumbersome; long enough to provide sufficient working space between climbers yet not so long as to be unnecessarily heavy.”
From experimentation going back to pioneering days, Mountain-climbing Goldline has evolved as an all-purpose synthetic fiber. Standard rope dimensions for climbers are 7/16-inch diameter by 120 feet long. The 7/16-inch diameter provides a greater safety margin for synthetic ropes, and where a climbing rope always seems to be either too short or too long, the 120-foot length has proven the best for all-around use.
One potentially fatal misconception many owners and users of mountain rope have is in thinking that one rope is good for a climbing career. Not so! The life span of any rope is limited, and where the life of the user literally hangs by a rope, frequent inspections must be made to determine whether it is still worthy of trust.
Weathering alone, barring any cuts and abrasions that result from normal use, greatly reduces the strength of any fiber. Once subjected to a severe strain such as a hard fall, the rope will never be reliable again and should be retired. Whether securing the gear to a nick sack, repairing a worn strap, setting a snare, or building a shelter, the needs of rope and its applications in wilderness settings are infinite.
Where possible, an extra supply of strong cord should be included among one’s emergency gear. However, by learning to utilize native material, you should never have to do without. Like any wilderness skill, the making of cordage takes practice. Don’t wait until you need rope to begin. Start now, and the skills will be forever a part of you.