Chapter 2 Introduction Chapter 4
Pre-Revolutionary Ropemaking in the American Colonies

3. Single Strand Rope

... making rope is like spinning yarn on steroids.
knitsbyjenn 2015 [510]

A single-ply rope is called a yarn. This is the basis of all rope making. Twisting is what keeps a bunch of short, individual fibers from falling apart into a tangled nest of fluff.

Sketch showing two fibers sliding past each other.
Sketch showing two fibers moving past each other with nothing holding them together. Sketch of two fibers with diagonal force pushing fibers together.
Sketch with two fibers twisted togther, providing diagonal force in all directions.
(A) (B) (C) (D)
Figure 3.1: Friction Between Fibers.

 

Figure 3.1 (A), shows two fibers side by side, being pulled in opposite directions. Where they are in contact, there will be friction, reducing slippage. How much friction depends on how much overlap there is between the fibers, how smooth the fibers are, and how much force is pushing the fibers together.
Figure 3.1 (B), just shows that if the fibers aren't pushed together somehow, there's nothing to keep them from sliding past each other.
(C) shows the two fibers oriented at an angle to the pulling forces. Here, part of the force is pushing the two fibers closer together, increasing the friction, and decreasing slippage.
And section (D) shows the two fibers twisted around each other. The twisting forces the fibers into maximum side-to-side contact, from every direction perpendicular to the yarn axis, preventing the fiber from sliding past each other.

But the fibers in a twisted yarn will tend to un-twist unless there is something holding the ends in place, or it is wound around something else. In many applications, this isn't a problem. Tying down thatch on a roof, and tying up the harvest, for example, are cases where single-ply yarns are completely satisfactory. [890]

A single-ply yarn, especially when made from straw, is called a sugan, sugane, sugainn, suggane, súgán, or shúgáin in Ireland. The Scots call it a sookan, soogan, or a soucan. [260] In Ireland, "súgán" is used to make the seats of súgán chairs, similar to rush seats common in American and English chairs which became popular in the middle 1700s. [595]

Sketch of a chair with a traditional rush seat.
Figure 3.2: Chair with Single-ply Cord Seat.

 

In Scotland, in addition to all the other uses, straw yarn was wrapped around the tops of shoes and up the leg as "strae-buits" (straw boots) to protect the wearer from snow. [260] England, Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man provided many indentured and convict laborers to the Colonies. These places also relied on home-made ropes to keep the thatching on the roof of the house. [915]

In the British Isles, rope making was a social event, when neighbors would gather in the evening to make ropes for their roofs and to bind up the harvest. One person turned a crank or crook, and another sat by a pile of straw, adding new material while the twister twisted. As the rope grew longer, the twister had to move backwards to keep the yarn taut. With very small houses, the twister often ended up outside. Getting the twister out of the house is a popular plot element in many local stories. A young lady gets a younger sibling to turn the crank so she can have some private time with her suitor. Or a young woman's parents use the same ploy to get rid of an unsuitable suitor. [930]

Yarn Tools

Although it is possible to twist a yarn with nothing but your fingers, several types of tools have evolved to speed the twisting process. In the "Survey of English Dialects" [850], when asked, "What do you make straw rope with?", the answers included:

band-hook, band-maker, band-spinner, bond-spinner, band-twirler, band-twister, band-finder, belly-auger, binder, bind-hook, bond-hook, bind-turner, bind-twister, bond-hook, bond-maker, bond-spinner, bond-turner, bond-twister, bond-winch, bond-winder, bowl-turner, crank, hand-fork, hay-hand-maker, hay-band-twister, hay-rake, hay-tweezers, hay-twister, hook, jenny, pair of cranks, pair of twisters, rake, rope-maker, rope-winder, scud, scud-winder, sime-twiner, sime-twister, sked, sked-binder, sked-winder, spindle-hook, spinner, spinning-jenny, straw-hook, straw-rope-twister, straw-spinner, straw-turner, straw-twiner, straw-twister, straw-whipple, straw-winder, swintle, swivel, thime-spinner, thraw-crook, turnel, turner, turner-up, tweezers, twiddler, twiner, twister(s), twisting-wire, twizzler, whankie, whim-wham, whipple, wimble, winch, winder, windlass, wink.

And that was just the English. The Scots and Irish have their own particular names for these tools.

Generally, yarn twisting tools can be divided into five basic groups, based on shape and manner of operation: crooks, cranks, reels, spinners, and wheels.

Crooks

Sketch of three bent wood crooks for twisting rope.
Figure 3.3: Bent Hickory Crook (left), Bent Hickory Crook with "Store" Swivel (center), Bent Twig (right).

 

Crooks resemble a shepherd's crook, with a cord tied across the hook part.

These can also be called: crúcan, or croakeen, corthsagan, thraw-hook, thrawcruk, thraw crwik. The "throw" part meaning to twist or entwine. [260] [790]

This tool is mostly found in places the Romans never conquered, like Scotland and Ireland. The shape lets the spinner twist faster, with more torque, and more smoothly than can be done with just your fingers.

The fibers to be twisted are looped around the end of the crook part, just outside the crossing string. The pivot hand, that furthest from the fibers, is in-line with the cord to be twisted. The shape of the crook puts the twisting hand, closest to the fibers, off axis. This gives leverage for higher torque, and allows more muscles to be brought into play than just twisting with the fingers.

Sketch showing how a rope making crook is used.
Figure 3.4: Twisting Cord with a Thraw Crook.

 

The twister twists the crook, while the spinner sits by the supply of straw, and feeds the fibers onto the ever-lengthening cord.

Cranks

Sketch of an all wook crank, and an iron wire crank with wooden handles.
Figure 3.5: Wooden Crank (left), and Wire Crank with Wrapped Wooden Handles (right).

 

The crank arrived in Roman Europe sometime around 200 A.D. [555] Cranks are also called throw crooks, like the crooks above. Probably since they replaced the older tool that did the same job. This tool can also be called wimble, whimble, or wimbrel. This is probably due to the resemblance to a carpenter's brace and bit which is also called a wimble. [850]

Cranks work on the same principle as crooks, but the positions of the hands are reversed. The pivot hand is closest to the fibers, and the twisting hand is further away.

Sketch of a crank in action.
Figure 3.6: Twisting Cord with a Crank or Wimble.

 

For small ropes, the crank is used in the same manner as the crook, with the twister moving backwards, and the spinner stationary at the fiber supply end of the rope. At ropewalks, where yarns hundreds of yards long were made for ships' ropes, the cranks were stationary, and the spinner walked backwards, with a bundle of fibers wrapped around his waist. Cranks can be either hooked at the end, or provided with a hole for a cross pin. Each has its advantage.

Sketch of a hooked crank, and a cross pin ended crank.
Figure 3.7: Hooked (top) and Pinned (bottom) Cranks.

 

The hook can support more strain than the cross pin. This is important when working with large ropes and lots of torque. But the hooked crank is difficult to insert into an existing hole. You either have to form the hook after the crank is in place, or the block the crank turns in must be split at the hole.

 

Reels

Albrecht Durer wood block print of a ropemaker at his reel. Medieval illustration of a ropemaker spinning rope from his reel.
Figure 3.8: Albrecht Durer. [973] Medieval Ropemaker. [1005]

 

At first glance, a ropemaker's reel, sometimes called a "spun yarn winch", looks like something you store rope on once it's been made, not something you use to make rope. [110] [1030] But the ropemaker pushes the forming yarn against one of the "ears" of the reel, causing the reel to turn, and twists the fibers together. [1010]

First of three sketches showing the working of a ropemaker's reel.
Second of three sketches showing the working of a ropemaker's reel.
Last sketch of the series of the working of a ropemaker's reel.
Figure 3.9: Twisting Cord with a Reel.

 

[1010] [1040] When the yarn is long "enough", the ropemaker wraps it around the horizontal bars of the reel, and commences spinning again. If the horizontal bars are set at a fraction of a foot or a yard, then it is simple to keep track of how much yarn you've made.

Sketch showing how newly twisted twine is stored on the reel and twisting continues.
Figure 3.10: Winding Cord onto the Reel, and Twisting Again.

 

Often the spindle, on which the reel turns, has a sharpened end so it can be driven into any convenient wall or post at the job site.[990]

The great benefit of the reel is that it only requires one person, unlike the crooks and cranks above, or the spinners and wheels below.

Spinners

A spinner is just a piece of wood with a hole near one end, that can freely spin about an axle. The axle can be a carved wooden dowel, a round iron spike, or any round metal rod.

Sketch of an assortment of rope spinners.
Figure 3.11: An Assortment of Spinners.

 

Like the crooks and cranks, the person operating the tool just provides the twisting action, and another person, at the other end of the cord adds the new fibers.[977]

Additional names for this type of tool are:

Spinner, Mayan spinner, rakestraw spinner, rope spinner, twister, rope twister, hair twister, twisting paddle, whirligig, tarabilla, tarrabee, tarabi, tarabe, taravia, taravilla, taravita, torteiral or torneiral [840] [420] [977]

Although a Boy Scouts publication calls this an "Indian Rope Spinner" [305], no pre-Columbian examples have been found. This method of twisting may have been introduced by the Spanish.

Sketch showing how yarn is twisted with a rope spinner.
Figure 3.12: Twisting Cord with Spinner.

 

The spinners I generally use are notched at the top of the stick. These are for twisting yarns into ropes. But some examples are notched under the axle. If you are using the spinner to make yarns from raw fibers, you can wrap the finished yarn around the lower part of the spinner and the new yarn won't get caught in the axle.

Wheels

Wheels give the ropemaker the ability to spin more than one yarn at a time, and also turn the spindles at a higher speed than a crank or crook.

A worker, usually a boy apprentice, turned a crank on a wheel which drove several spindles, either by cord bands, or cogs.

Plate 20 16 2 from Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopedia showing band driven wheels
Figure 3.13: Diderot and d'Alembert - Band Driven Wheel. [263]

 

Plate 20 16 1 from Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopedia showing cog driven wheels
Figure 3.14: Diderot and d'Alembert - Cog Driven Wheel. [263]

 

Wheels are usually more complicated, and heavier than cranks, crooks, and spinners, so the wheel stays in a fixed position, and the spinner moves away from the wheel, carrying his supply of fibers with him.

Because the spinner must face the wheel while working, and is always moving backwards as the yarn gets longer, there is an old saying, “you’re behaving like a ropemaker, you’re going backward instead of forward.”[525]

Next...

Two Strand Rope

 

Chapter 2 Introduction Chapter 4
Colophon Contacts