Not all containers are made of metal or plastic. Clothing is not necessarily leather, or cloth, and not every dwelling requires lumber or cement. Many survival necessities, from houses to garments and from fishnets to baskets, can be made from natural fibers—roots, bark, grasses, vines, and stems.
In the absence of all manufactured items, and even all animal products, knowing where to look and what to find could keep you warm, dry, and alive.
Wherever vegetation is found, whether in forests, marshes, deserts, or jungles, there are weavable fibers in abundance. Ideally, they are long and whip-like, sturdy but flexible, and of uniform thickness. Thin roots can be used whole, and thicker roots can be split lengthwise. The inner bark of many tree and brush species can be cut into long weavable strips, or the natural fibers in the bark can be separated and spun into a rough yarn.
Almost all pasture and marsh grasses can be used as bundles or twisted (for pliability and strength) into cords. Vines of all kinds and supple, thin stems make excellent withes (a basket makers’ term for the flexible and easily woven fibers used in their trade). In other stalks, connective strands can be separated to be spun into cords.
After the natural fibers have been located and gathered, they can be combined into useful shapes—rounded containers like baskets and hats or flat rectangles like mats and shawls. That combination (or weaving), the same for almost any purpose, interlaces two different sets of strands, perpendicular to each other. One set, generally the stiffer ones, forms the foundation of the object and is called the warp. The weft are the natural fibers woven into the warp frame. Two simple methods, the twining stitch, and the plain weave are the most commonly used to combine warp and weft.
The twining stitch is done without a loom on any flat surface. The warp is a set of bundles or cords lying side by side. Two weft strands are sewn simultaneously, one over and one under each warp, and crossed between each warp.
Depending on the use of the object, the number of weft strands can be so numerous as to be touching each other along the length, or so loosely woven that the cords are placed at 1 or 2-foot intervals.
The plain weave often requires a loom, which can be as simple as two poles lashed horizontally between tree trunks. The size of the loom will determine the maximum possible size of the finished material. The full length of the warp in the loom cannot be used (the cords in the last foot or two become too tight to be woven, so the distance between the horizontal poles should be lengthened accordingly).
The weft cords are singly laced in and out between the foundation strands. Each weft is interlaced opposite the one below it. The plain weave is also used (without a loom) to make baskets and other rounded objects.
You need not shear a sheep, tan a single hide, or even locate any cotton balls to create simple garments that will keep you dry and warm. Ponchos, sleeveless jackets, skirts, and vests are basically rectangular pieces of material easily made of almost any fiber yarn. A fiber cloth with a head hole is a poncho. Without the hole, but with the addition of a belt tie, it becomes a skirt. With insulated padding (like the cottony tufts found in cattail seed heads) and an inner layer of fur or other natural fibers, a wintertime garment is created.
Because of the range of choices for both garments and yarns, the description of the clothing to follow should be considered only an example. This warm and durable (though itchy like wool) outfit can be duplicated with different materials, and these materials can be made into very different, though equally serviceable, garments. This is a guide only, to be adapted to the climate and available vegetation as needed.
Top covers from natural fibers
A shirt, shawl or vest can be woven of a thick yarn made of the long fluffy fibers found in the middle layer of the bark of the Western Red Cedar tree in combination with cords made of the strands found in flax (a tall annual plant). To separate and fluff the individual filaments found in the cedar bark, the shaggy outer layer must be discarded first. Then the bark is beaten until the natural fibers are louse. In our technological age, this is easily done by laying the bark on a driveway, where the tires will pulverize it.
Animal hooves, hammers, or human feet or hands will also work. Final loosening by hand bending and twisting (the old washer-woman technique) is required. Then the fluffy fibers (feeling remarkably like wool) can be twisted into a rough yarn by rolling on a pant leg or by spinning with a simple drop spindle.
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The cord from the flax plant (known as linen) is made by first separating the strong connective fibers from the useless pith and straw. This separation process (called retting) first requires that the weaker plant material be allowed to rot. Bundles of flax stems (or the stalks of many other tall annuals) can be exposed to weather—lain in a field, kept wet and turned periodically. That is a slow process, however, and can be hastened by placing the bundles in water. Slowly moving warm water is ideal.
With either submersion or above ground retting, timing is crucial. The stalks are done when the straws, but not the strong natural fibers that run the length of the stems, are separated and rotting. Those fibers are made flexible (and the useless vegetable matter discarded) by beating the stalks with a mallet over an edge. Using a rough comb (a board with slots cut into it or nails pounded through it), the strands are cleaned. The last step is to spin (by twisting, rolling, or using a drop spindle) those filaments into a cord. Durable ropes of any length can be made by braiding cords or retted strands.
Bottom covers from natural fibers
A skirt and shawl can both be woven on a simple loom. Alter the dimensions of the finished garments are established by using a pattern or just duplicating another garment, the linen cords (to become the warp) are tied on the loom frame. The warp is as wide, but several feet longer, than the desired end product. The cedar yarn weft Is then woven between the cords.
On one side, the well is left long, hanging beyond the linen cords, to become a fringe in the finished garment. With the weaving complete. it is taken off the loom and the loose cords tied in (except for the end cord which becomes a belt). A vest is made in a similar manner, except that no fringe is left and both end cords are left loose. To soften where rough cedar bark yarn meets tender skin, the fur is sewn on those edges.
Head covers from natural fibers
A hat is made of folded birch bark. In the spring and summer when the sap is moving in the trees and removal is easier, cut strips and patches of bark off the trunks. Exercise care since the trees can be killed easily. If the bark is then wetted and warmed, it will separate with gentle hand pressure into its many constituent layers. (An aside: for fire-starting. thin strips or shavings of birch bark will ignite, even if damp).
Several of the thin layers are the right thickness for hat or basket making, while roofs, canoes, and ponchos are made from thicker bark. After cutting the bark to the proper shape (and keeping it supple by warming and wetting), just fold it and sew it together using a thin cord or a flexible root or vine. The same technique will produce waterproof pails and other containers (which are only upside-down hats).
Footwear from natural fibers
A sandal is formed using four stout cords as the warp frame. Other short sturdy ropes are used for the weft. Side loops (used to lace the sandal onto the foot) are formed in the outer warp cords. Bundles of grass or cattails can also be used for the weft, though the grasses are not as durable as retied fibers.
Clothing made from cedar bark may seem extremely exotic today, but that fiber and many others were commonplace in North America several centuries ago. Indians in the Pacific Northwest, for example, regularly wore cedar bark clothing.
The art of weaving containers for gathering food, drying fruit, catching fish, and storing almost anything is another traditional craft that uses unusual natural fibers. Some native artisans were able to weave grasses so tightly that their baskets held water. But even without that kind of skill and training, simple baskets, like the classic basket woven of willow stems, are actually easy to make.
Willow shoots are the basket makers’ first choice: long, supple, uniform, sturdy, and delightfully scented. Flexible stems (the technical term is withes) of most broad-leafed bushes that grow several feet in length in one season are good candidates for weaving, too. Autumn is the preferred time of harvest because the sap is not flowing (less damage to the plant) and the leaves have fallen (making the stems more visible).
Generally, stems more than one-half inch in diameter are too thick and inflexible and stems less than two feet in length are too short. After cutting, the stems are allowed to air-dry, but just before use are soaked to regain their flexibility, then kept moist until woven.
The foundation (the warp) of the basic basket is the initial crossed pattern of first stems (resembling the spokes of a wheel). Cut slits in six long withes and insert a half-dozen others through the original six. Then begin spiraling outward with other stems, weaving the weft over and under the framework, gradually fanning out the spokes, Use the thinnest shoots first, and remember to keep the weave tight as the basket will loosen as it dries. When one willow branch is almost woven in, insert another beside it to continue the spiral.
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When the basket is large enough to assume its rounded shape, tie all the spokes together at the top. Weakening the stems at the bending point by pressing them with a pliers or jabbing them with an awl will ensure the creation of uniform walls. Add more spokes as the spaces between the original framework stems widen. Continue to weave in additional withes until the wall has reached the desired height. For a handle, additional warp stems must be added and woven in. And for a rim, weave the remaining spokes back into the basket. Then after trimming off loose twigs, it’s done.
Of course, there are endless variations on this theme. Thin strips of wood or bark, as well as roots and vines, can be used for the warp. Grasses and bark and retied yarns can be substituted for the weft. Combinations of different natural fibers can produce pleasing patterns. The shape can be modified to form packsacks, cradles, or hats. Fishing nets and fish traps also can be woven from vines, stems, or grasses to be placed in streams or handheld.
Coiled baskets from natural fibers
Coiled baskets are made differently. The warp is eliminated entirely, and the weft is just wrapped around itself and sewn together. A thin bundle of grasses (kept continuous by the constant addition of new fibers) is usually used, though pine needles, roots and vines can all be used. A separate strand of thin and supple grass (the comparable commercial product is raffia, made from the strings found in African palm leaves) is continuously wound between the two outer layers of the spiral sewing it together.
Drying racks (for preserving meat, fish, and fruit) are most easily begun by making a lashed or nailed wooden frame of the desired size. Next, attach sterns or thin strips of wood or bark to the frame for a warp and then finish by weaving similar materials for a weft. Similarly constructed panels can be used for room dividers or interior siding.
Shelter from natural fibers
The grass hut is not just for the tropics.
Housing from permanent dwellings suitable for northern climates to temporary shelters anywhere can be built with grasses, bark, and roots.
Natural fibers can be used to create excellent roofs and walls, but a support structure of nailed lumber or lashed poles is required. Then the fiber mats or bundles can be tied onto that framework. The process is very similar to roof thatching, a traditional British craft.
Thatching is the use of one-foot diameter bundles of reeds, bull rushes, or straws for rooting. Thatching is still practiced today, not only because the result is beautiful, but also because it is practical since a straw roof lasts about 15 years and a reed roof about 70 years.
The fiber bundles are tied onto battens or purlins on the roof. Attaching thatch to a continuous (as opposed to the widely spaced battens) wood roof is never done because the lack of air circulation would rot the fibers. The bundles of thatch are tied on like shingles, from the eaves upward and well overlapping the bundles below.
The bundles are beaten and shoved tightly together then clamped down with a horizontal board over the entire course. The final roof is about 18 inches thick and so heavy as to require building the supports with 2-inch x 8-inch lumber on 16-inch centers. A roof with a shallow pitch will leak, so a 50-degree slope, or steeper, is required.
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Two different grass shelters, the buffalo grass tipi, and the meadow grass shack reveal two distinct methods of fiber construction. The tipi is transportable with a lashed pole frame and grass mats used for siding. The shack is a permanent dwelling with “shingles” of mixed pasture grasses tied onto a pole framework.
The pole frame of the tipi is identical to the conventional canvas tipi. However, the canvas has been replaced with wide mats (about six feet by three feet) of buffalo grass, which is a long-stemmed marsh grass. The mats are made by sewing (with a twining stitch) many thin (about one inch in diameter) bundles of grass with linen cord. The mats are loosely woven. There are three cords spaced across a three-foot width. As with conventional tipis, the irregular opening at the top allows smoke to exit. The repeated layering of the mats (overlapped to allow for runoff) and the steep pitch of the roof makes the shelter watertight.
The pole frame of the grass shack is circular and 22 feet in diameter. Vertical poles about six feet tall were joined together with other horizontal poles. Then two dozen pole rafters were lashed to the walls to meet at a common center above the mid-point of the floor. The roof looked like a wheel with the rafters its spokes. The roof and walls were made of bundles of meadow grasses that were folded over and then lashed onto cedar branches. The resulting “shingles” were tied onto the frame, overlapping one another.
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The north-facing wall is thicker (18 inches) than the south-facing wall and the roof (both six inches). The dirt from the interior was excavated out to a depth of two feet, and that was carried outside and bermed against the walls. Holes and cracks were stuffed with moss and handfuls of grass. Insulated stovepipe was run through the roof.
The roof was too flat to shed water well (about a 20-degree pitch), so a layer of canvas was needed on the exterior. The grass walls quickly became a haven for rodents and insects, but the shack was a warm and practical no-cost dwelling for winter In the Northern Rockies.
As with the cedar bark garments and the woven willow basket, these two shelters are only examples. Any long grasses or reeds, either bundled or woven into mats, when overlapped thickly on a steep pitch, will repel water and insulate adequately.
Of course, on walls near or touching the ground, the grasses will rot and become infested with all sorts of wild creatures. Also, pieces of bark (cedar or birch, for example) can be tied or nailed onto pole frames for walls or roofs. Mats can also be made of almost any other fibers, like cedar bark yarn or bundles of stems.
Other Items from natural fibers
Other useful household items can be woven, too. Fences and corrals can be made with long stems woven between a vertical warp of fence posts. Mats can be used as room dividers or beds. And hammocks can be woven with retted cords or vines.
Use your Imagination
Because of the incredible variety of plant life in each ecosystem and the numerous potentials for each fiber once it is located, a listing of the possible, or even the best, uses is foolhardy. What is needed for survival is not a list but a few ground rules, some examples, and the most vital ingredient, imagination.
After recognizing what you need (a shelter or a rope or a poncho, for example), look in your immediate environment for the flexible fibers that you can use. Long grasses, reeds, rushes, and cattails are often found in abundance in marshes. In forests, viney plants, bark, and tree roots (which are more flexible generally than the roots of bushes) are likely. In open areas, look for long shoots in bushes and the tall stalks of last year’s annuals (nettle or hollyhock, for example) that contain strong connective fibers.
Gather large amounts of anything that might be weavable and start experimenting with different weaves, patterns, and combinations. Whatever you make with these natural fibers will rot, shred, or separate rather quickly. But the next time it will be easier. And in the meantime, it may be just what you need to save your life.