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Campsite Crafting 01 : How to Make Rope

Posted by on 2011/04/06

The objective of the campsite crafting series is to create a functional understanding of fabrication, beginning with the most primitive of tools and culminating in complex finished goods, such as matches, firearm ammunition, and seaworthy boats.  It’s a long road, and we might not make it there together before the doomsday clock ticks its last tick, but at least we’ll have started off in the right direction.

There are three things which you will need in order to start the ascent from primate to chemist: Fire, Knife, and Rope.  Each can be made absent of the others, but each helps with the manufacture of the others and once you have all three, you’re going to significantly increase your chances of survival.

Why is rope so important:  Really? Alright, fine.  Rope is the most versatile tool you will ever possess. It can be used to aid in fire starting, tool making, hunting, food prep, trapping, fishing, shelter building, boat making, scaling and descending, advanced construction, simple machines, improvisational weaponry, complex machines, security, enough?

There are a lot of ways to make rope, and the more we learn, the better our chances out there.

Bare-handed Rope making: No tools employed –
Plant fiber can be gathered with relative ease in a forest or wilderness scenario. Plant fiber suitable enough for rope making can be found in the stalks of dead reeds, dead weeds, the innermost layer of tree bark, cotton, yucca, sisal (from the agave plant), coconut husk, bamboo, hemp, and shit ton more plants.  When the plant is recently dead, the fiber will be easiest to work with, if its too long dead, the fiber will be weak. When you peel your fiber from the plant you want long strips; the longer the strips of fiber the easier your rope making endeavor will be.  You’ll know plant fiber by the fact that it is composed of tough thin strands.

Alternative sources of fiber suitable for cording are Sheep’s wool, goat fur, angora (long haired) rabbit fur, llamas, alpacas, camel down, ox hair, horse hair, the blue flowers that grow from flax (more on flax in other guides).  Using wool and fur is a little tricky and we’ll get into that in other guides.

You want to separate your fiber by length; the more uniform in length the fiber, the easier and more effective the rope making process becomes. Gathering fiber and stripping it from the rest of the plant is going to take a while.  You can store a lot of the excess plant matter to use as kindling or tinder.  Once you have a few nice bundles of fiber, you can start the cording process.

There are two methods to cording; braiding and twining.

Twining:  It starts with finger twisting.  Grab a thin bundle of fiber from one of your piles, space your hands about 1/6 of the way in from each end, and begin twisting the fibers until they form a tight wind and start to kink in the middle. Allow the kink to twist and grow, bringing your hands together until the kink naturally rotates a few times.

Now you’ve got the start of a two-ply cord.  Where the kink formed is going to be the (closed) end of your cord, and you will grow it from the other (open) end.   Now at this point, you either need a third hand to grip that closed end, or you can hook it to something if you have the means, or you could just grip that shit with your teeth and work in a seriously uncomfortable position for a little bit until you have a good cord going; however you decide to do it, you need to secure that closed end and keep it relatively taut.

This is where it gets difficult to explain.  You want to continue twisting the (a & b) plys individually in the same (clockwise) direction that you were before, while winding the two plys around each other in the opposite (counterclockwise) direction to continue the two ply twist that started with your kink. As your cord is being completed, you can start spooling the closed end around a stick to gather it and give your third hand a break.   Man, I should really learn how to draw.

Just to reiterate that instruction; what you’re going to do is, with the thumb and forefinger of one hand, pinch the spot where the two plys form a Y. Let the A-ply dangle free, and with your other hand, twist the B-ply and wrap it over the A ply.  Then grab the A-ply, twist it and wrap it around the B-ply.  Once you get the rhythm of it down it should progress kind of quickly.

If you’re working with a really pliable fiber, like cotton or fur, then this part of the process is a little simpler, you continue twisting each ply simultaneously, and allow the cord to naturally twist the two plies together.

Alright, now as your run out of slack, you need to begin twisting new fiber into each of the two open ends of your 1 ply strings, then as they become incorporated into the 2 ply cord, they will ‘lock’ in and you can continue to grow your cord until you run out of fiber.

Now, you can take your cord and twine or brade them together to make cable, the same way you used your fibers to make cord, cable is exponentially stronger than the cord its made from.

I hope that made sense… I’ll have to wait for comments to find out.

Hemp, Milkweed, and Dogsbane:

Hemp, Milkweed, and dogsbane are the very easy to work with and produce a strong, reliable cord.   To get fiber from hemp and it’s friends, find long stalks, and break them off just above ground level.  The recently dead work best, they should be dry but not brittle.  take the stalks and crush the thickest end to start your harvest.  What you want to do is break off the wood, starting at the fat end, and separating it from the hairlike fiber that runs the length of the stalk.  Once you’ve gotten rid of all the wood, you should be left with some barky, kind of stiff strands of fiber.  Roll those between your hands or fingers to shed the bark.    Once you  have a nice big pile of fiber, figure out your thickness and start connecting your open ends to make long strands.

Leg Rolling, the quick and dirty cordage method:

Fold the fiber in half, and lay it across your upper right leg.  Roll your right hand down your leg, over the  two strands of fiber, while holding it tight and keeping it separated with your left hand. Once you have completed this motion a few times and wound your fiber into two tight strands, you can release the pressure with your left hand. The two strands of twine should naturally start to twist together, help them along, just following the way they’ll naturally twist; move the ‘finished’ twine to lay some untwined slack on your leg and repeat, rolling then twisting.  According to most accounts, a good rate is about 10′ per hour, which means a shitload of fiber.

Braiding or Plaiting:

Braids can be very simple or extrodionarily complicated.   The basic braiding technique is: Lay out three strands or cords, tied or secured at the top together, and lay it out flat.  Take the strand on your right hand side and cross it over the piece in the center. Now take the piece on your left hand side and cross it over the piece in the center. Pull it taut, repeat.

A 4 plait, or lariat braid is much stronger, and is only slightly more complicated:  I am explaining this in detail so you can visualize it and check your work, but the process is actually quite simple and becomes a patterned routine quickly.

Lay your 4 strands side by side. We number these 1,2,3,4 from left to right.   Take strand #4 and lay it over strand #3, take strand #1 and slip it under strand #2 (or lay strand 2 over 1), so now 1 and 4 are in the center and 3 is on the far right, while 2 is on the far left. Lay 1 over 4. Now lay 3 over 1, meaning now strand #1 is on the far right, woven through the other strands in the order under, over, under.  Now, reset your numbers again from left to right and repeat.   However to simplify the repetition, all you’re doing is taking the left most strand and weaving it under, over, under, then taking the new leftmost strand and doing it again.    This will make a sturdy cord or cable, provided you use good fiber.

You can use green fiber, like grass or palm leaves. You can treat them pay passing them through a flame for a a few seconds at a time or blanching the material in boiling water, but then you have to wait for it to dry out.   This will make the fiber more pliable.  The thinner your strand bundles are, the stronger your rope will be in the end, but it requires more labor to make.

An urban alternative:
Plastic bags- Flatten it out as much as possible. Cut the open end with the handles and the bottom off.  Then, fold it over and over until until its easy chop into around 15, 1 inch wide segments.   When you unfold the segments you’ll have about 15 rings of the same circumference of the bag.  Make a chain out of these rings by looping them together until you have a single long cord.  Do this three  or four times.

Now take your three or four plastic cords and cable them by twisting/braiding them together using  any of the techniques we’ve described here.  It will make a pretty strong rope.

Fiber Shredder: This is a basic tool you can use to speed up the process of prepping your fibrous husks for cording.  Essentially, you’re making a tool resembling a spork out of wood or bone.  Find a piece of hard wood with a smooth, knobby character.  A short piece, about 5 inches long and 1 inch wide will work.  Carve some ‘teeth’ into one end, about 4 or 5 pointed teeth, so it functions like a comb.  By running these teeth lengthwise up your dried leaves and stalks, you’ll simultaneously shed excess bark and separate your fibers into thin strands.   It makes the fiber prep part of the process much faster than shredding with your fingers alone.


2 Responses to Campsite Crafting 01 : How to Make Rope

  1. Bolo

    Really appreciate the work you’re putting into this, keep it up!

  2. Brodie

    Can you post up something about how to make toothpaste?

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