Chapter 6 Introduction Chapter 8
Pre-Revolutionary Ropemaking in the American Colonies

7. Fibers

Ye cannot live for yourselves; a thousand fibres connect you with your fellow-men...
Partaking in Other Men’s Sins
Henry Melvill 1855

Natural fibers come from minerals (rarely), animals, and plants.

Mineral Fiber

Although most modern, synthetic, fibers are petroleum based, there is evidence of historical use of asbestos fibers for cloth and cordage. The Hohokam people in Arizona used asbestos in some of their cordage and textiles. [480] Benjamin Franklin had a purse made of asbestos fibers that ended up in the British Museum. [760]

Mineral fiber cordage is so rare, it almost isn't worth mentioning, and yet the possibility was known in the American Colonies.

Animal Fiber


Animal intestines have long been used for: Gut is twisted wet, then stretched out until it is dry. Gut becomes soft and stretches again if it gets damp. Care must be taken to keep these strings out of the rain and away from places where spilled liquids are a problem.


In the American colonies, horse hair was most often used, but buffalo hair was used by the Plains Indians. A single horse tail can make six to seven feet of 3/8ths inch rope. Any great length means you need a lot of horse tails or manes. Horse tail hair is slick and hard, making it more difficult to work with than some other fibers. It is usual to combine tail and mane hair when making rope. [977] Mane and tail hair grow, roughly, at a rate of one inch a month. With a large enough stable of horses, and limited demand, this can be a sustainable source of useful fibers.


Raw hide, and to a lesser extent leather, are like gut, in that they do not last long if they get damp. [510]
Hide ropes shrink as they dry. This can be useful if you need to permanently bind dry items. [610]
Knots tied in damp hide ropes are very hard to untie.


Sinews are very strong, and the fibers glue themselves together when dampened. Uses include:

Like gut and hide, these ropes and cords must be kept dry, or they become soft and lose their strength.

Other Animal Fibers

Plant Fiber

Plants provide the highest volume of fibers for rope making, by far. The cost per pound for vegetable fibers is much lower than any of the animal fibers.

All English ships in the Colonial era used hemp rope. Many tons of hemp were turned into rope, every year, at every major port in the world.

People not involved supplying rope for the sailing trade had many other vegetable sources. Usable fibers are found in plant stems, leaves, roots, bark, and seeds. The wild grasses, vines, and trees surrounding a Colonial farm could provide cordage for most simple needs.


Processing Vegetable Fibers


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