Chapter 8 Introduction Chapter 10
Pre-Revolutionary Ropemaking in the American Colonies

9. Plants for Cordage

Sedges have edges, and rushes are round but grasses have knees from their tips to the ground.
Old Saying

The little poem above is useful for identifying different grass-like plants, many of which are used in making rope. Sedge stalks have triangular cross-sections. They have edges. Rush stalks are round and smooth all the way up. Grasses have joints, or knees, along the stalk, like the joints in a bamboo cane.

But not all rope fibers come from sedges, rushes, or grasses. Many cordage fibers come from the grassy plants, but also from vines, shrubs and even trees. Seeds, root, leaves, and bark have all are used to make rope.

A Word About "Latin Names"

Carl Linnaeus (1707 - 1778) is considered the father of binomial nomenclature for scientific classification. Those are the Latin Names you see in plant catalogs and science books. His "Systema Naturae" was first published in 1735. It was very influential in the academic world, and had reached the tenth edition in 1758.

However, it was entirely in Latin, and did not have illustrations. John Hill, M.D., a contemporary of Linnaeus, in his 1770 "The Useful Family Herbal", did not agree with the new method of naming plants. In Hill's book:

"The Plants are aranged according to the English Alphabet, that the English Reader may know where to find them : They are called by one Name only in English, and one in Latin ; and these are their most familiar Names in those Languages ; no Matter what Caspar, or John Bauhine, or Linnaeus call them, they are here set down by those Names by which every one speaks of them in English." [415]

The ropemaker of the 1770s would not know the modern Latin Names, but they are included here to assist the modern reader.

A List of Plants

This list is by no means complete. These are some of the plants I have used, and not all of them are native. The colonial ropemaker would be unfamiliar with the natural fiber ropes commonly available today. Jute, manila, and sisal were not imported into North America until after 1800. If a plant isn't native, note is made of its probable introduction date.

There are many useful plants not listed here. If you find a plant in your garden, or on a walk, and it looks like it might make good rope, try it. But check a good plant guide before you commit. If you see a vine with lots of tempting hairy rootlets sprouting out of the side, it's probably poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). Leave it alone.

Sketch of poison ivy climbing on a tree trunk. Sketch of poison ivy leaf.
Figure 9.1: Poison Ivy.

 

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is another nice vine, and the younger shoots can make good, strong cordage. But some people, myself included, react to it like poison ivy.

Richard Graves, [295] has a simple three step test for plants:

If your plant passes all three tests, and there is enough of it around to get your job done, you have found your new supply of fibers.

Remember, different parts of the same plant have different properties. If the leaves don't hold, maybe the bark or the roots will work. How much time and effort you spend looking for good fiber will depend somewhat on how badly you need that piece of rope. It's better to become familiar with the plants, and the parts of plants, that can make rope when you have the time, and not scramble if you need to make rope on short notice some day.

So here are the plants I've used, with a nod to John Hill, "... aranged according to the English Alphabet...", according to the names I first heard them called.

Bramble (Rubus fruticosus)

Blackberry family. [380] [285]

You can strip the leaves and thorns off long vines with a good pair of heavy leather gloves. Lacking those, you can rub a stick down the vine, knocking off thorns before you cut the vine.
The outer bark peels off easily in the late Spring, early Summer, but later in the season, you may have to pound on it a bit to loosen the fibers.

The outer bark and fibers have a waxy feel, and the fibers are stiff and coarse.
Might benefit from retting and hatchelling.

And the berries are tasty.

Sketch of Bramble (Rubus fruticosus).
Figure 9.2: Bramble.

Cattail (Typha latifolia)

Cattail [743] [500] [635]

The cattail is a very useful plant for food and for fiber. The distinctive "hotdog on a stick" shape is usually found in standing water, or damp ditches.

The long leaves are shredded, retted, and twisted. There are some references to spinning the seed fluff, but I can't say I've had any luck with that.

Sketch of Cattail (Typha latifolia).
Figure 9.3: Cattail.

Cedar (Cedrus spp.)

Cedar [905] [200] [255] [325] [635] [670]

If it smells like a freshly sharpened pencil, it's probably a cedar.

The inner bark of cedar can be pulled off in long strips in the late Spring and early Summer. Fresh cut branches one to two inches in diameter give layers of bark 1/16 to 1/8th inch thick. On a good day, the bark will peel around small projecting branch stubs, and down tributary branches.

Pounding or retting will yield a fairly strong and soft rope. But if you are in a hurry, the untwisted strips of bark make a reasonable binding for shelters, etc.

Sketch of Cedar leaves.
Sketch of Cedar bark.
Figure 9.4: Cedar.

Corn Husk (Zea mays)

Corn Husk [285] [265]

The dried husks are easily torn into usable strips. Corn husk isn't particularly strong, but they make a reasonable string for kitchen use.

Sketch of Corn Husk (Zea mays).
Figure 9.5: Corn Husk.

Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)

Daylily [743] [285]

Daylilies were introduced by early Colonists.
The dried leaves at the bottom of the plant, from last season, are naturally retted, and ready to twist into rope.

Sketch of Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva).
Figure 9.6: Daylily.

Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum)

Dogbane [325] [030] [480] [635] [500] [670]

Also known as Indian hemp since this was the fiber the Native Americans used for most of their ropemaking needs. The fibers are very fine and quite strong. Dogbane does not stretch when wet which makes it useful for holding buckets and pumps together. The fibers can be stripped right from the stalk in late Spring, early Summer. Some people recommend harvesting after the first frost, and working with the dry stalks. I prefer to strip the stalks while they are still green.

NOTE: the USDA lists dogbane as a poisonous plant containing cardiac glycosides. The "bane" in dogbane means a cause of harm or damage.

The Native Americans used dogbane for centuries without known problems. Use caution, and your judgement. Wash your hands.

Sketch of Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum).
Figure 9.7: Dogbane.

 

Elm Bark (Ulmus spp.)

Elm [285] [030]

In the Spring, and early Summer, cut one to two year old branches and shoots, about one quarter inch diameter or smaller. The bark pulls off in long strips.

The branches will grow back over time. This is the basis of the traditional woodland management practices of coppicing and pollarding.

Sketch of Elm (Ulmus spp.) leaves.
Figure 9.8: Elm.

 

Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

Flax [200] [030] [290] [750] [590] [755]

Flax makes a good, pliable rope. But flax is more valuable spun and woven into linen fabric. There are many varieties, some native, others imported by early colonists. All have good, fine, strong fibers.

Sketch of Flax (Linum usitatissimum).
Figure 9.9: Flax.

 

Giant Foxtail (Setaria faberi)

Giant Foxtail stalks make a reasonably strong cord, if the yarn is one quarter inch or more in diameter. Suitable for binding crops, for example.

An introduced plant, listed as a noxious weed in several states.

Sketch of Giant Foxtail (Setaria faberi).
Figure 9.10: Giant Foxtail.

Grapevine Bark (Vitis spp.)

Grapevine [743] [285]

Young vines can be twisted just as they are. Slightly older vines can be used as withies without any further work. From vines more than an inch in diameter, peel the bark off in strips. The inner bark comes off in ribbons about one sixteenth of an inch thick.

Grapevine bark makes a stiff rope useful for one-time binding jobs like fences or baskets.

Although there are many introduced, invasive, species even native grapes like Fox and Riverbank grape are listed in some states as noxious weeds.

Sketch of Grapevine Bark (Vitis spp.).
Figure 9.11: Grape.

 

Hemp (Cannabis sativa)

Hemp [030] [430] [330] [750] [140] [160] [770] [610] [755]

For centuries, hemp was the premier ropemaking fiber. So much so that other plants used in ropemaking are often called hemp, such as Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Manila hemp (Musa textilis), bowstring hemp (Sansevieria trifasciata), etc.

All hemp species are imported, but seeds came with some of the first colonists. Traditional processing for commercial hemp includes retting, drying, breaking, scutching, and hatchelling. However, when the stalks are still green, the outer "bark" layer can be stripped off and used with minimal processing after drying.

Sketch of Hemp (Cannabis sativa).
Figure 9.12: Hemp.

 

Honeysuckle (Lonicera l.)

Honeysuckle [743] [285] [380] [853]

The one year old vines can be twisted as you would individual fibers. Younger than one year, and the vines are too tender and will break. Two year old vines are too woody, and will snap.

The fibrous inner bark of the trunk of the woody, bushy honeysuckles, and leathery inner bark of Japanese honeysuckle, can also be harvested and twisted.

Several of the native honeysuckles are listed as endangered, but many of the imported varieties, like the Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), and Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) are listed as invasive, banned, and prohibited noxious weeds.

The climbing vines have a characteristic "S" twist.

Sketch of Honeysuckle (Lonicera l.) leaves. Sketch of Honeysuckle (Lonicera l.) vines.
Leaves Vines.
Figure 9.13: Honeysuckle.

 

Hops (Humulus lupulus)

Hops [030] [590] [770] [340]

Hops is a close cousin of hemp. Hops fibers were sometimes used as a substitute for flax. [120]
Early in the season, the hop growers will tear out all but the most vigorous bines (technically hops grows on Bines, not Vines) so the strongest shoots will climb the strings and mature. At harvest time, the whole plant is pulled up. Either of these times is a good time to get material for ropes. Especially if you offer to help the farmer with the work.

Hop bines can be processed like hemp or flax. Retting, drying, breaking, scutching, and hatchelling.

There are both native and imported varieties.

Sketch of Hops (Humulus lupulus).
Figure 9.14: Hops.

Jute (Corchorus olitorius)

Jute [285] [600] [030] [410]

Jute does not grow in the United States. All jute is imported.
Jute processing became big business in Dundee, Scotland in the early 1800s, where the raw fibers were imported from India. Jute would not be a common fiber in the American Colonies before the Revolution.

For demonstration purposes, jute makes a nice soft rope, although not particularly strong.

Sketch of Jute (Corchorus olitorius).
Figure 9.15: Jute.

Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Milkweed [743] [905] [030] [500] [670] [770] [255] [635]

Milkweed is in the Dogbane family, and is used and processed in the same manner. Also like Dogbane, the white latex sap is full of cardiac glycosides. The older the plant, the more poisonous it becomes.

Be careful.

The fibers are long, and strong, with a sliky sheen. Fiber yields can be as high as those for hemp or flax.

Sketch of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).
Figure 9.16: Milkweed.

 

Manyflower Flatsedge (Cyperus lancastriensis)

Sedges [743] [285] [030] [080] [450]

Egyptian papyrus, (Cyperus papyrus), is a member of the sedge family, and was used to make rope by the Egyptians for centuries. The strongest fibers are in the distinctive three-sided stems. (Sedges have edges...)

The Manyflower flatsedge is native in most states south of the Great Lakes and East of the Mississippi.

This plant is endangered in Illinois, New Jersey, and Ohio.

Sketch of Manyflower Flatsedge (Cyperus lancastriensis).
Figure 9.17: Manyflower Flatsedge.

 

Mulberry (Morus spp.)

Mulberry [743] [285] [030]

Not as strong as elm bark, but it makes a serviceable cord. Just because silkworms can make some of the world's strongest fibers from this tree, doesn't mean everybody can.

You will often see different shaped leaves on the same branch. Some with "mitten thumbs" on the bottom edge, some with two "thumbs", and some without any.

The Paper Mulberry was introduced to Virginia in 1603, as part of an effort develop a silk industry. [530]

Sketch of Mulberry (Morus spp.).
Figure 9.18: Mulberry.

 

Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata)

Orchard Grass [770]

The stalks and leaves can both be twisted together.
(...grasses have knees from their tips to the ground.) The grass stalks have "knees" or "nodes" between the leaves.

Orchard Grass was introduced by the early colonists. George Washington mentioned it as good feed for cattle. [885]

Sketch of Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata).
Figure 9.19: Orchard Grass.

 

Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus)

Oriental Bittersweet [165]

This is a non-native invasive species, brought to this country in the late 1800s. It is prohibited by law in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. It is listed as a noxious weed in North Carolina and Vermont. [853]

The vines can easily grow twenty feet in a year, and will smother and break the trees they climb seeking sun. The bark from young vines, smaller than 1/4 inch in diameter, is easily pulled off in long strips. After drying a few days, the outer bark crumbles off without much effort, leaving very fine, strong fibers.

Although this is not a Colonial era plant, cutting it down is a public service, and you get good raw materials. Unless you use a strong herbicide, oriental bittersweet will keep coming back, so you will have an unending supply. But if you keep it out of the trees, that's something.

The vines have a characteristic "Z" twist when climbing.

Sketch of Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) leaves. Sketch of Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) vines.
Leaves Tangled Vines

Figure 9.20: Oriental Bittersweet.

 

Palm (Arecaceae spp.)

Palm [200] [615] [743] [285] [380] [080]

The fibers on the trunk, under the leaf stalks, and the fibers in the leaves themselves are used in ropemaking. The fibers of the coconut husk are used in making coir.

The Colonial ropemaker could get palmetto palm from the Carolinas, but not much further north.

Coir would be unknown to an 18th Century Colonial ropemaker.

Sketch of a Palm (Arecaceae spp.).
Figure 9.22: Palm.

Rushes (Juncus effuses)

Rushes [743] [030] [500] [380] [265]

Rushes are native in most of the Northern Hemisphere. Used in basketry, thatching, and ropemaking, the stalks are dried, and used whole.
(...and rushes are round...) Rush stems have a round cross section, and no "joints" or "nodes" like you see in grasses.

Sketch of Rushes (Juncus effuses).
Figure 9.23: Rushes.

Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides)

Spanish Moss [743] [840]

Used by the Native Americans around the Gulf of Mexico for making rope and blankets. Spanish moss grows as far north as the southern edge of the Chesapeake Bay.

Spanish moss isn't really a moss, but a relative of the pineapple family. It is an epiphyte, not a parasite, which means it doesn't draw nutrients from the host tree. Big accumulations can be a problem in heavy rain and high winds because of the additional stresses put on the branches.

Without retting, the rope you can make will be fat and fluffy. Not a strong rope for critical situations.

Retting removes the spongy grey-green outer layer, and leaves an almost black core like coarse beard hair, or soft steel wool. But retting has the associated nasty smell. The moss can also be dried and rubbed to clean. But drying Spanish moss presents a few problems. The plant is an epiphyte, it lives off the moisture it gets from the air. Pluck a bunch from a tree, put it in your back yard, and it will continue to survive.

If you bury Spanish moss in the sand, it will eventually die from lack of sunshine, and the sand will help scrub off the outer layer.

Sketch of Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides).
Figure 9.23: Spanish Moss.

Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum)

Stiltgrass [853]

An invasive species introduced to the United States around 1919. Makes a coarse rope suitable for binding crops or thatching.

Japanese Stiltgrass is banned, by law, in Connecticut, prohibited in Massachusetts, and listed as a noxious weed in Alabama.

Dew retting for a week or so makes the stalks more pliable.

The seeds are small and hard to see. Moving a stiltgrass rope from one place to another can spread this invasive pest.

Sketch of Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum).
Figure 9.24: Stiltgrass.

Timothy Grass (Phleum pratense)

Timothy [285] [770]

Timothy grass was introduced to the Colonies in the early 1700s, but known to George Washington [770] and Benjamin Franklin.

Timothy can grow to be almost five feet tall, and has a long, tight, sausage shaped seed head, around 3/8 inches in diameter.

Both the stalks and the leaves have good fibers for twisting.

Sketch of Timothy Grass (Phleum pratense).
Figure 9.25: Timothy Grass.

Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Tulip Poplar [285] [380]

The Tulip Poplar isn't really a member of the Poplars (Populus spp.), but is more closely related to the Magnolias.

The inner bark from freshly cut trees and larger branches can be used immediately, or dried for later use. Some sources recommend boiling with wood ash for up to an hour [670], but I haven't seen any improvement.

Sketch of Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera).
Figure 9.26: Tulip Poplar.

White Clover (Trifolium repens)
White Clover [770]

The flower stalks and the ground runners make a reasonable cord.

Sketch of White Clover (Trifolium repens).
Figure 9.27: White Clover.

Yucca (Yucca spp.)

Yucca [325] [743] [285] [500] [030] [490] [635]

The old, dry leaves at the bottom of the plant are usually pre-retted. All you need to do is rub them between your palms to work out the fibers.

Yuccas are native from Florida to Massachusetts, and Virginia to California.

Sketch of Yucca (Yucca spp.).
Figure 9.28: Yucca.

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Ropemaking Byproducts

 

Chapter 8 Introduction Chapter 10
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