Chapter 7 Introduction Chapter 9
Pre-Revolutionary Ropemaking in the American Colonies

8. Processing Vegetable Fibers

A modern woman sees a piece of linen,
but the mediaeval woman saw through it to the flax fields,
she smelt the reek of the retting ponds,
she felt the hard rasp of the hackling,
and she saw the soft sheen of the glossy flax.

The Land Of England: English Country Customs Through The Ages
Dorothy Hartley 1979

Before a rope can be spun, the fibers often need to be separated from the rest of the plant. Plants are made up of three basic parts. The fibers you want to keep, the woody parts that make the plant stiff and help it stand up, and the glue that holds everything together.

The fibers are mostly cellulose, the woody parts are lignin, and the glue is pectin. But a Colonial ropemaker wouldn't be familiar with those terms, since cellulose was first identified in 1838 by Anselme Payen, lignin in 1813 by A. P. de Candolle, and pectin in 1825 by Henri Braconnot.

Getting rid of the woody parts can take up a lot of time. The effort you are willing to spend cleaning your fibers depends on how urgently you need that rope. Cleaner fibers mean all the weight of the rope is in the fibers. The woody stuff is just weight, and can cut the fibers of your rope. This is a trade-off you have to weigh. Speed of production against the other necessary qualities of the finished rope.

The ideal plant has lots of long, uniform fibers, only loosely attached to the woody parts. But since we haven't found that plant yet, these are the ways people get everyday plants to give up their fibers.

For a small piece of rope or twine, you can scrape many fibers clean with your thumb-nail, a shell, rock, or a sharp edge of wood. But if you are building a bridge or rigging a ship, your thumb-nail won't last long.

For many bast fiber processes, the material isn't separated into individual fibers, but is worked as long thin ribbons.[105] [290] [613] [777] [1045]


In some cases, usable fibers can be pulled straight from the plant without any additional processing. This is particularly true with palm fronds, grape vine bark, and the bast fibers of hemp, flax, and bittersweet vines.[290] [380] Other plants yield their fibers with more reluctance.

Traditional European Fiber Processing

The Colonial methods of cleaning flax and hemp were designed to handle large amounts of fiber. Consider the flax needed to make a man's shirt. Over two yards of 57 inch wide linen, at fifteen thread per inch. That works out to over two miles of linen yarn. Or one hundred feet of 3/4 inch diameter rope needs a mile of clean 1/8 inch yarn.

To efficiently clean all this fiber, the European processes brought over by the Colonists consisted of:

Retting, rotting, rating

Retting uses bacteria to break down the glue that hold the woody parts to the fiber.

A Colonial ropemaker would just say that the water is responsible for loosening the fibers.[328] van Leeuwenhoek first saw bacteria in the 1670s with his microscope, but nobody paid attention for another hundred years. The word "bacterium" was coined in 1828.

There are two types of retting. The first is dew retting where the plants are left out in a dampish field, and turned occasionally. The other is water retting, where the plants are weighted down in a stream or pond.[611] [290] [410]

Retting can take several days, weeks, or even months, depending on your climate. Care must be taken not to over-ret, as that will drastically weaken the fibers.

The bacteria responsible for water retting can be an environmental concern for people downstream. Not just the odor, but the water may become unsafe for human and animal consumption.

Depending on what you are using the rope for, and how soon you need it, retting is often omitted.

Some plants, like yucca and daylilies, have old dead leaves at the base, under the current season's growth. These are naturally retted. Just rub them between your palms to get rid of the woody parts, and you're ready to twist.

Breaking, bracking, braking

Breaking is, like it sounds, physically breaking the woody parts of the plant so you can separate the fibers more easily. You can do this with a roller mill, beating with a stick or stone, bending around a fixed object, twisting with your hands, etc.[160] [290]

For commercial crops like hemp and flax, breaking generally comes after the plants have been retted and dried.

Scutching, skutching, scotching, swingling

Scutching is a rough scraping out of the woody parts broken from the fibers in the breaking operation.[290] [160] [610]
You scutch on a scutching board with a wooden scutching knife.

Diderot and d'Alembert illustration of scutching.
Figure 8.1: Diderot and d'Alembert - Scutching.[262]


Scutching board with hemp and scutching knofe.
Figure 8.2: Scutching Board with Hemp and Scutching Knife.


Hatchelling, hackling, heckling

Hatchelling is pulling a bunch of fibers through a rough comb to remove the trash not taken out by the scutching. This also eliminates shorter fibers, and gets rid of tangles.[610] [290] [380]

Diderot and d'Alembert illustration of hatchelling.
Figure 8.3: Diderot and d'Alembert - Hatchelling.[262]


Hatchel from Mount Vernon
Figure 8.4: Hatchel from Mount Vernon.


Green vs. Wet

Shrinkage from Twisting Fibers While Still Green
Figure 8.5: Shrinkage from Twisting Green Fibers.


If you twist your fibers when the plant is still green, then your rope will become loose as the fibers dry out, as in Figure 8.5, above. Some dried fibers might twist better if they've been briefly soaked in water before spinning. But softening the fibers shouldn't plump them up like they were when green.

If you find yourself with a rope like the one above, it might still be usable when dried if you carefully stretch and twist it. It could be faster than making a new rope from scratch.


One further, optional, step in processing is boiling the fibers in a weak alkali solution of wood ash and water.[380] [670] The alkalis help break down the gluey parts of the plant. This is a chemical version of retting. The few times I have tried it, I didn't notice a big difference in the fibers. But I didn't do a scientifically controlled study. Maybe I didn't have enough wood ash. Maybe I didn't boil things long enough. Maybe I had the wrong kind of fibers.

More study is needed. Another day.

Modern Option

If you have a long driveway, scatter your harvested plants on that. The cars driving back and forth over them will do a good job of breaking down the hard parts, and there will be a certain amount of dew retting going on at the same time. This only works for small batches. You can do this on a dirt or gavel road, but then you have to wash all that grit out before you start twisting.

Keep an eye on the weather. You don't want your raw materials washing down the gutter or blowing into your neighbor's bushes.


Plants for Cordage


Chapter 7 Introduction Chapter 9
Colophon Contacts