Old timers could fix most things in their world with a piece of baling wire. Nowadays, duct tape has replaced it as the handyman’s all-purpose fix-it. But for thousands of years, cordage held the place of a general, all-purpose, must-have product.
Cordage is any rope, twine, string, thread, or lacing that you can produce from natural materials, and it is amazing the variety of materials available to you. Between animal and plant products, you can supply almost any conceivable need.
With homemade cordage you can lash together a lean-to or make a bowstring, fishing line, or even laces for your boots. Always remember to dry out your natural cordage if it should become wet, since it will tend to rot over time if you don’t.
When Native Americans killed an animal, they used as much of it as possible. Little went to waste in the hunter-gatherer society. They couldn’t run down to the local hardware store for their supplies, so they made do with what they had on hand.
The drawback of most animal products in that they tend to not be water resistant. If they become wet during use, the results tend to be very unsatisfactory.
Rawhide has many uses. It can be used with the fur on or soaked in water with wood ashes added until the hair pulls off.
Rawhide can then be cut into thin strips and used as lacing. The best way to get long laces is to start in the center of the hide and cut the width of your lace in a spiral pattern all the way out to the edge of the hide. If you are careful you will end up with one long lace that can be cut to length.
Rawhide can be used dry for things like shoelaces or binding that will be tied and untied. It can be preserved somewhat for this use by treating it with oil/fat. It can also be smoked to a deep brown color and this will preserve it also.
Where rawhide really shines is as a semi-permanent binding; in many ways, it surpasses even duct tape for this. To use rawhide for binding, you should remove the hair and soak it if it is dry.
Cut to whatever size you need for binding and wrap the rawhide around whatever needs bound together.
The rawhide adheres to itself, and when it dries, it shrinks, tightening whatever you have used it on to bind it together. Many cracked or broken rifle stocks were repaired with a rawhide wrapping.
Deer sinew makes good binding material similar to rawhide. You know it’s good when crafters sell an artificial replacement.
Sinew is made from tendons of large game. They need to be separated from the meat and bones and then allowed to dry. When they are dry, they are pounded lightly until the fibers start to separate. Once you have a pile of fibers, you can then twist them together to make your line.
Sinew is applied to the back of bows to keep them from splitting. It is also used to make natural bowstrings. Sinew must be kept dry or it will come apart.
Gut continues to have many modern uses. It is used for musical instrument strings, tennis racket strings, and sutures. Gut is used in the wilderness much like sinew, but it requires less preparation.
Gut is an inner lining of the small intestine. The intestine is washed and slit open and then the inside mucous membrane is scraped off. The next inner layer is the submucosal layer and the one you want to use. The outer layers may be separated and used also, but the submucosal is the best.
Plant cordage products have a couple advantages over animal products for the wilderness cordage maker.
The first is you don’t have to chase down a plant before you can use it for cordage. The second is many plant cordages will work under wet conditions without stretching or breaking. You can even make fishing lines and nets from plant cordage. As a general rule, fibers should be worked while they are wet.
When making cordage from a tree, you will want to use the inner bark called the cambium layer. This is the layer that transports water and nutrients up the trunk of the tree to the leaves.
Basswood or linden is considered one of the best trees for cordage making. Pick a small tree roughly four to six inches in diameter and make a cut in the bark near the ground. Use your knife to get the bark started coming off the tree. When you can grasp it with your hands lift it pulling upward until it pulls off of the tree. You should end up with a nice long strip of bark.
When you have your strip you can start working the outer bark away from the inner bark and peeling them apart.
Once you have the inner bark separated you can use it as-is. You can cut it into thin strips for lacing or weave it together to make baskets or containers.
Other trees that produce good cordage include elm, white oak, cedar, and hickory. If none of these are in your area, experiment with what you have available.
If you have a lot of time on your hands, you can soak the bark for several weeks to allow the material that binds the fibers together to rot. Then you can separate out some fine fiber to be twisted into some first-class cordage.
A quicker method is to boil the bark in a lye solution, made up of water and wood ashes. After a day the fibers are ready to be rinsed and separated.
Many evergreens, especially spruce, produce long, shallow roots that can be used for cordage. Shallow digging out away from the trunk of the tree will usually turn up one of these roots. Once you have found one, pull it gently out of the ground until you have your desired length. If you need several, search under many different trees so you don’t do irreparable damage to just one.
These roots can be used as-is for rough lashing, or you can remove the bark and split it to make a finer cordage.
Supple green branches of any type can be used to tie things together. As long as they don’t split when you tie them off, they can be used. They do not make fine cordage but can get the job done in the short term if you require them.
Depending on the part of the country you are in, you may be able to find vines growing. Vines can be used for rough lashing but tend to rot faster and be weaker than processed cordage. They will see you through a tough spot if you need them since you can harvest several yards very quickly.
There are many plants out there that allow you to produce fine cordage. They include yucca, dogbane, milkweed, stinging nettle, and flax. If you can identify one of these plants, use anything you can extract some fiber from them. Most weeds will produce something.
These plants can be used dry with their fibers carefully stripped out and then twisted together into some ultra prime cordage. Or they can be processed green, usually in water to help wash away the material that binds the fibers together.
They should be crushed by hand, with a mallet, or a smooth stick. The fibers can then be gently stripped away from the other material. Some of them can easily have the fibers split out with your thumbnail.
Brambles can be stripped of their thorns and used as is for a pliable lashing material. You can also split them and remove the pithy inside before further splitting and twisting or plaiting into usable cordage.
Plaiting and Twisting
I have read instructions over the years that have left me scratching my head trying to figure out just how to make cordage. I had someone show me a simple plaiting method when I was in high school, but could never figure out twisting until I saw it on an online video, then everything clicked.
The Internet is an amazing tool and I suggest you use it to watch several videos detailing how to twist or plait your cordage. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video can be worth many times that.
If you take some time to learn and practice the basics you should never long be without cordage again.