Crazy for Cordage

Cording is a specific way to twist fibers to form strands, ropes and perhaps least surprisingly, cords.

Cordage is literally one of the oldest technologies humans have. There were civilizations primitive enough not to have discovered the wheel that made it, and there is some evidence that suggests that Neanderthals had discovered cord making before homo sapiens made the scene.

Although cordage can be made from animal products such as hides, fur, and sinew, it is plant fibers that are the most commonly used. Among plant fibers commonly used are bramble (blackberry), coir (coconut), cotton, jute, nettle, palm, tree bark, yucca, and hemp, but almost any reasonably long fiber can be used.

Collecting Fibers

Fibers from some plants can be extracted and corded by hand without the need for tools. For example, by bending hemp stalks the inner core can be teased away from the outer long fibers. The fibers from palm leaves can be used by tearing the leaf into strips and fraying the fibers. While there are mechanical means available to speed the process and make it easier, if need be cordage can be made from these types of fibers when stranded on a deserted island or lost in the woods.

Separating fibers from some plants (such as coir from coconut husks), requires more processing, as they are first soaked in enzymes in a lengthy process known as retting.

Making Yarn

Fibers are first simply twisted together to form yarns. In the case of the most basic of cords this is done a little at a time immediately before cording, but the yarn can also be prepared in its entirety in advance. A drop spindle is a simple wooden device with a small round wheel fixed to a non moving axle. This allows the spindle to be dropped and spun to twist fibers into yarn, which is then wrapped around the axle for storage allowing the next section to be spun. The spinning wheel was invented as an improvement to the drop spindle, and modern yarn is made almost entirely by machine. Prepared yarn is wound into skeins. The yarn can then be either used for textiles such as weaving or crocheting, or corded to be thicker and stronger.

Making Cordage

To cord yarn:

Tale a length of yarn and hold it by pinching with the thumb and forefinger of each hand, leaving a short space between thumbs.

Twist the yarn by pushing one thumb up and the other down (this step can also be done directly to the fibers, with the first twists counting as making the yarn). Continue rotating the yarn until the twisting causes a buckle forming an “eye” once it naturally twists together.

From this start, there are three main methods of continuing to twist the yarn:

  1. The yarn can be continued from the starting position using the same motions. While this is the simplest method with the most control, it is also the most fatiguing and labor intensive.
  2. Careful examination will reveal that if the two free ends are positioned parallel to each other, they rotate in the same direction. As such, both pieces of yarn can be held by the same hand, and turned either individually or in tandem by the same thumb forefinger pinch. This method has the advantage of freeing the off hand to help guide the cord after the twist.
  3. As a logical next step, the two free ends can be placed on a surface such as the top of a thigh, and then rolled with a hand motion starting from the fingertips and continuing to the bottom of the palm. This allows both pieces of yarn to be spun tighter without coming into contact and intertwining prematurely.

The cord (also called a strand) may be used as is, or combined with other strands to make a rope.

Making Rope

Ropes are made from twisting individual strands (3 is common) in the opposite direction and letting them come together in much the same way the strands were made. Making rope by hand is very labor intensive, and even simple rope making machines can speed up the process substantially.

Cordage made from natural fiber may not be as strong as those made from synthetic fibers, it does have the advantage to not being a pollutant if abandoned into nature. A natural fiber rope or cord will eventually decompose which can make it a more environmentally sound choice in situations such as for fishing netting where it may become lost with use.

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Grubbycup was raised on a family-operated organic dairy farm in central California.