“Primitive means first, not worst” — these words ring as true today as ever. Those new to bushcraft may feel a little intimidated as they begin to learn traditional skills. As with many things, the more you learn, the more you learn that you don’t know.
Bushcraft skills require characteristics like attention to detail, concentration and patience, but with effort and diligence anyone can learn basic skills quickly. Mastering skills that allowed our ancestors not only to survive, but to prosper in their local environments, gives us a sense of connection with the past, but also allows us to gain a skill we eventually might need.
One easy way to get out and enjoy the afternoon in many states is to build cordage using the abundant yucca plant. Yucca plants are plentiful in the prairie region of the Great Plains and desert region of the Great Basin. This plant served the First Nations people of this continent in many different ways, including as food, soap and cordage. Creating cordage using this prickly prairie native can be done quickly and easily.
There are several varieties of yucca, but in my region the soapweed yucca dominates the landscape. You will only need a few tools to get started. First remember to get a good knife and possibly a full water bottle before you leave the house. The knife will help you harvest the cordage and the water bottle will help you wet the cordage if you are not working next to a water source. These are the only tools you will not be able to create out of natural material.
What You’ll Need
The next step is to find a location where yucca is plentiful; it helps if this location is close to an area with a bit of timber, as timber will be needed for tools. Once you have located the soapweed, remove several leaves using your knife. These will be used to create the cordage. Select healthy green leaves. Longer and thicker leaves will provide more material with the same effort. How many you need depends on the length and thickness of your desired cordage. Two good leaves should be able to produce about six inches of cordage of a fairly small diameter. As a beginner, I started small and worked my way into larger and larger projects.
Once you have harvested your yucca material, you now need to begin finding or producing tools for your project. In addition to the yucca, you will need a wooden baton (hammer) and a wooden hammering surface. The baton should be of decent weight and fit comfortably in your hand. A heavier baton will make the processing easier, but the work can be done even with a lighter wood. As for the hammering surface, any smooth wooden surface should work. At this point you only need one more tool: your scraper. Scrapers can be either a piece of stone with an edge, like flint, or a split tree limb with an edge. A word of advice here: Stones with rough edges can tear plant fibers while processing the cordage, while wood will work slower but will be easier on your plant fibers. Torn plant fibers could result in an inferior product with a lower tensile strength. Once you have gathered your yucca, baton, scraper and have found a hammering surface, you are ready to begin making cordage.
To begin, lay one yucca leaf on the hammering surface. Take your wooden baton and begin to hammer the leaf. Use good force; you are trying to break the outer layer of the plant and get at the fibers within. Shortly, you should begin to see the plant membrane beginning to break apart. It will fray and turn a lighter shade of green. As you break up the exterior of the plant, be sure to work the edges as well as the middle portion. Continue hammering and working the length of the yucca leaf. At any point if you want to check your progress, you can stop and scrape off the plant material. Using your scraper and adequate pressure run the edge of your scraper lengthwise with the fibers of the plant to remove plant matter. You must always work with the plant fibers, as working across them will damage your fiber and reduce their strength. The plant membrane should come off easily as you scrape the length of the leaf. Make sure you remove all of the exterior plant material.
Repeat the process of hammering the plant and removing the outer plant material until one side of the leaf has been completely cleared. Next, flip the leaf over and repeat the process on the backside. This side should not take as long, since much of the membrane may be broken from your previous hammering efforts. Again, be sure to remove as much of the membrane as possible and always scrape with the grain of the fibers. Once complete, set the processed leaf to the side and begin with your next yucca leaf. Process as many leaves as necessary for your project.
After you have finished processing your yucca leaves, you are ready to begin making cordage. Select a processed leaf and separate groups of the fibers. For light projects I generally get about three bunches of fibers per leaf of equal size. This should get the most out of your processed plant material and also provide adequate strength for small projects. Once you have separated the fibers, you are now ready to begin braiding your cordage. It is at this point you might want to get the fibers slightly wet using your water bottle, as the fibers are easier to work while wet and they tend to dry very quickly. All of the following steps will be described for right-handed people; for left-handed people simply reverse the hands.
To begin, select two bunches of fibers and match the middles of each. Pinch the middle with fingers on your left hand. Holding the fibers, make a 9 with the fibers, laying one on the “front” of the other. You should still be pinching the yucca with your left hand. Next, reach over the “front” strand with your right hand and grasp the “back” strand between your thumb and pointer finger. Twist the “back” fibers away from you. Twist them as tightly as you can to create a solid product. With the strands still twisted away from you, now reach over the twisted strands and grab the “front” strand with your middle finger, pressing the fibers against your pointer finger that is still twisting the “back” strand. This will take just a little practice, but after the first 5 minutes you will get the hang of it. Once you have captured the “front” fibers with your middle finger, pull them over the twisted “back” fibers toward you. The mantra is “twist away and pull toward.” Move your left hand slightly up the cord to pinch your first twist in your cordage. Repeat the process as described above, this time twisting what was the “front” away and pulling what was the “back” toward you. Twist away and pull toward you.
At this point you are well on your way to making all-natural cordage like the ancients. As you work, you will begin to run out of material. The final step to learn is how to splice in new pieces of fiber into your cordage. How thick you want your cordage to be will determined when to add new material. By adding new material earlier, you can build up your cordage early to create a very strong product. If you are only making light cordage, you can wait longer before making your splice. This will allow you to get the most out of the yucca you processed. Making a splice is rather easy. Build your cordage as mentioned in the earlier steps until you get to a point where you want to add more material. While still pinching your last twist with your left hand, grab a new bundle of yucca fibers and fold in half to find the middle. Place the middle directly in the center of where your next twist will be. Next, simply include the new fibers into your twist away and also in your pull toward you. There you have it. You have created a splice and increased the length and strength of your cordage. You can continue to add length or strength to your product, depending on your needs. Once you have gotten toward the end of your project, work past the desired length by several inches and make a simple overhand knot to tie off the end of your cordage. The end you began on should be a loop, and the end you finished on should be a knot.
People of all ability levels can master this skill rather easily. It is a great way to introduce someone into primitive living skills. Not only is this skill easy to pick up, but it offers a wide range of uses when in the wild and even for projects around the house. Whether you have needed a nudge to start down the primitive skills path, or you have been living in the bush for many years, get outside and practice this ancient skill. Although it may be ancient, it still has relevance, usefulness and gratification in the modern world.
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