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 some degree of processing. Plants are made up of three basic parts. The fibers you want to keep, the woody parts that make the plant stiff and help them 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 know that, 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 dead 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.

Stripping

In many cases, usable fibers can be pulled straight from the plant without any previous processing. This is particularly true with hemp, palm fronds, bittersweet vines, and grape vines. [290] [380] Some plants yield their fibers with more reluctance.

Retting, rotting

Retting uses bacteria 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. van Leeuwenhoek first saw bacteria in the 1670s, 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. [615] [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

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. [263]

 

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 8.2: Diderot and d'Alembert - Hatchelling. [263]

 

Boiling

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.

Next...

Plants for Cordage

 

Chapter 7 Introduction Chapter 9
Colophon Contacts