by Todd Walker
Arguably, the most underrated and overlooked primitive technology is rope and string. That is until you run out of modern cordage. A whole new appreciation for stuff that binds will quickly become apparent.
Ropes and knots predate the ax, the wheel, and possibly the controlled use of fire by our ancestors. Think of stone tools. These had to be tied to the end of sticks. Shelters stood with joints bound by fibrous lashing material. Animal sinew, catgut, and hide were used as well. But, as my friend, Mark Warren, says, it’s easier to get your hands on plants since they don’t run away from you.
Fibers that Bind
In my area of Georgia, tree bark, roots, leaves, stems, and stalks can be used for bindings. For our cordage class at school, we used Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) and cattail (Typha) for fiber material. Cattail from our second-hand beaver pond, and tulip poplar from my stash I collected over the years.
You’re not limited to a few choices in nature. Below are 18 cordage fibers made and displayed by Scott Jones at one of his workshops I attended. If you’re into primitive skills and technology, I highly recommend you pick up his books, Postcards to the Past, and A View to the Past. Both are essential for any primitive practitioner on your Christmas list!
Besides the 18 listed below on the display, we also used okra stalk, that’s right, the garden variety, to make cordage in his class.
From L to R:
- Red Cedar
- Bald Cypress
- Atlantic White Cedar
- Red Mulberry
- Black Locust
- Yellow (Tulip) Poplar
- Winged Elm
- Paw Paw
- False Nettle
- Blue Star
- Evening Primrose
- Spanish Moss
- Button Snakeroot
Different materials require different methods of extracting fibers. For our purposes, and to keep this article manageable, we’ll stick with the two materials we used in class – tulip poplar and cattail.
As mentioned earlier, I collect tulip polar bark every chance I get. This tree has many uses – (see here and here). It’s best to harvest in late spring and summer as the bark will “slip” off the trunk with ease. The inner bark is what you’re after. I like to use inner bark from fallen limbs or dead standing saplings. Simply soak the dried bark, a process called, retting, in water for a few days to a few week. At my fixed camp, I toss large sections of bark into the creek and weigh them down with rocks. The soaking helps break down the stuff that holds the outer and inner bark together. After the bark is retted, the inner bark should peel in long, useful strips.
Hang the strips to dry. Pre-dried fibers are less prone to shrinkage even after wetting them during the cordage making process. Separate the strips into finer fiber bundles (hair-like fibers) for stronger cordage. Or you can start twisting wider strips for expedient cordage.
We have a nice stand of cattails next to our outdoor classroom. At this point in the season, the leaves are dead and brown. For green leaves, cut and dry until they turn brown. You’ll notice these leaves twist better when damp. Even a morning dew enhances their flexibility.
Cattail leaves can be striped into smaller widths for stronger cordage but wasn’t worth the effort for our class. For expediency, we used whole leaves. Here’s how…
Reverse Twist Two-Ply Method
For our beginner cordage-makers, we used whole cattail leaves and wide strips (1/2 inch) of tulip poplar inner bark. Larger material allows the student to see how the twisting works and is easier to handle than fine fiber bundles.
Also, keep the fiber material damp during the whole process.
Start in the middle of a strip of fiber material about arm’s length long. Pinch the ply with the index finger and thumb of both hands with 2-3 inches between your pinch points. Begin to twist the ply away from your body with your right hand in a clockwise rotation and left hand counterclockwise. This will cause the ply to twist until it naturally bends into a kink/loop.
Pinch the loop with your left hand (index finger and thumb). You now have two plies extending in a “Y” formation. Pinch the strand furthest from your body with your right hand close to your left hand (about 1/4 to 1/2 inches). Twist your right hand away from your body in a quarter turn or 90 degree rotation.
While holding the twisted ply between your thumb and index finger, reach your middle finger on your right hand around to grab the strand closest to your body. Grip this ply with your middle finger against your index finger. Now twist back a quarter turn to the original starting position. This motion brings the outside ply over the inside ply. The two plies have now switched places. Release the ply you were pinching and repeat the process on the “new” outside ply.
Once you get the mechanics down you’ll be able to hand-twist tightly woven cordage like a champ. One student picked this motion up quickly and made a few feet of cattail cordage in less than 30 minutes.
If both plies are even when you begin twisting, you’ll end up backtracking (unwinding twists) to make a splice. With experience you’ll find that starting the kink/loop with one ply longer than the other will take care of this problem.
When you get to the end of your rope (about an inch left on the outside ply with a longer inside ply), and need to make longer cordage, a splice is needed. Take another length of fiber material of similar diameter and lay it in the “Y” with an inch of material overlapping. Pinch the overlapping new fiber on the existing two-ply cord you’ve already made. With the new ply running parallel with the short outside ply, pinch these together with your right hand and continue the two-ply twisting technique described above. This splicing technique will continue until you twist a length of cord long enough for your needs.
Note: For any left-handed folks, reverse the instructions.
Trim the overhanging spliced material on the finished cord. Now you can terminate the end of your cord with a couple of half hitches.
Start using your new cordage for primitive binding projects like a Hoko knife.
Below is a video we did during class on making cordage for those interested…
The reverse twist method is useful when smaller lengths of tightly woven cordage are needed. We’ll do a future post on a method called the “Thigh-Roll”. This technique is a speedy way to make large quantities of natural two-ply cordage… and easier on your hand muscles.
Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,
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