Pre-Revolutionary Ropemaking in the American Colonies
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.
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.
Benjamin Franklin had a purse made of asbestos fibers that ended up in the British Museum.
Mineral fiber cordage is so rare, it almost isn't worth mentioning, and yet the possibility was known in the American Colonies.
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.
- Violin Strings
- Tennis Rackets
- Bow Strings
- Spring Pole Lathe Strings
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.
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.
- George Washington ordered a horse hair well rope. Horse hair does not rot nor stretch when wet.
- Not rotting or stretching when wet make horse hair ideal for fishing line.
Raw hide, and to a lesser extent leather, are like gut, in that they
do not last long if they get damp.
Hide ropes shrink as they dry. This can be useful if you need to
permanently bind dry items.
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:
- Bow Strings
Otzi, the Iceman's bowstring (c. 3200 B.C.) was three-ply sinew.
- Spring Pole Lathes
- Often used to attach arrowheads to shafts.
- For sewing leather goods.
Like gut and hide, these ropes and cords must be kept dry, or they become soft and lose their strength.
Other Animal Fibers
There are other fibers, produced by different animals, that could be used for
ropemaking, but they are either not local to the American Colonies, or are just too
expensive for something as prosaic as rope. Or both.
A single silkworm cocoon yields 300 - 900 yards of raw silk.
It takes about 3000 cocoons to make a pound of silk.
100 feet of 1/4 inch rope weights something over two pounds.
Silkworm eggs and mulberry trees were introduced to the American
colonies in 1603.
Efforts to produce silk commercially in the Colonies continued through the 1760s.
Silk has been used to make cords to fasten the clothing
of the very rich.
- Spider Silk
Where a single silkworm can produce 300 to 900 yards of silk,
a single spider web has only 12 yards of usable silk.
The diameter of spider silk is around 1 / 50th of the
diameter of a human hair.
In the 1770s, a French naturalist, Francois Xavier Bon de Saint Hilaire, made a pair of spider
silk gloves, which he presented to the French Academy.
Saint Hilaire used the silk from spider egg cases.
The one time I tried to make rope from spider silk, I wrapped several large
garden spider webs onto a stick
one dewey morning, when the webs were easily seen. I found twelve webs,
was able to squsih/pack the webs into a long thread, then twist and fold
a three strand cord from that. There was maybe a foot of finished "rope",
thinner than one of my eye lashes.
The time involved gathering the material for a spider silk rope would
put the cost way beyond anything any reasonable person would want to spend.
Figure 7.1: Spider Silk.
- Sea Silk
Sea silk (byssus) is the name given to the fibers that one variety of clam, (Pinna nobilis),
uses to anchor itself to rocks and ships.
Sea silk has a long history in textile production, but
again, the material far too costly for rope.
Baleen, or whalebone, is the material filter-feeding whales use to strain krill
from sea water. It is very fibrous, and has been used in whale hunting communities
to make cordage.
Baleen has the advantages of not rotting in sea water, and staying flexible
in sub-freezing weather.
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