Spartacus was famous for crafting ropes from trees and weeds to save his men and lead then from slavery. Thankfully, we don’t have to make rope for such extreme times, but it’s a good skill to master just in case.
Just about any long-stemmed plant material can be pounded into a fiber to make rope, but some plants are better than others.
There are three steps to making rope:
1. Collecting the cordage material.
You want to find plants and materials that are fibrous and tough. There are five potential materials for cordage from plants:
- Long grass.
- Tree bark from ash, box elder, basswood, elm, walnut, cherry, cedar, aspen, willow, cottonwood, hickory or oak.
- Woody stalks from plants like dogbane, stinging nettle, velvet leaf, milkweed, fireweed and evening primrose.
- Leaves from yucca, cattail or fern.
- Roots from spruce, juniper, tamarack, cedar and pine.
Dogbane is often the plant of choice. It’s a member of the hemp family and is easy to work. The easiest way to do this is to break a plant or tree stalk and see if it is resistant to an easy break. If the fiber is tough and resilient, you have the potential for good cordage.
2. Tempering or preparing the material.
Unless you’re using grass, he materials needs to be “worked.” This can involve twisting, pounding on a rock or stripping into pieces. Sometimes, the material needs to be soaked in water. The idea is to shred the fibers of the plant into strands that are easy to work and twist. Pounding with a small rock on a larger rock is the most common method, but twisting can also work with fibrous plants like dogbane and milkweed. Any pounding should be done with a rounded rock so that sharp edges don’t cut the material.
You can also roll the plant material between your hands, on your pant leg or twist it and stretch it.
3. Braiding and splicing.
This is where it all happens. What you’re going to be doing is a basic braiding process of overlapping three or more strands of plant fiber. You’ll need to add in additional pieces as you go to splice in new fibers. Sometimes you can actually tie small knots to make a better connection from splice to splice. (Watch the videos below.)
The Basic Wrap
Hold the ends of the fibers and roll the whole bundle against your pants leg in one direction. By making repeated strokes along the entire length, you should be able to twist the fibers into a strand of makeshift cordage that’s many times the strength of the original strands of material.
Start by twisting the fiber bundle in the middle until it kinks; then hold the kink between the thumb and index finger of one hand. With the fingers of the second hand, twist the bottom strand toward you and wrap it once around the other. Now, hold this wrap with the first hand, twist the new bottom strand toward you and wrap it around the other. Continue the process along the entire length.
Below are videos that show how this step looks, one with grass and the other with bark.
Story continues below videos
Twist and kink the bundle so that one end is twice as long as the other. (This will eliminate the chance of producing parallel splices that would seriously weaken the cordage.) Then, using the reverse technique, wrap to within an inch or two of the short end. Next, separate the fibers of the short end with your fingers (so they spread out like a broom). Now, attach a second bundle of equal thickness by spreading and fitting its fiber ends into those of the first bundle. Continue twisting and wrapping as before, taking care not to pull the strands apart. When you come to the end of the original long strand, add a third piece — and so on.
After you’ve finished a length of cordage you can then take additional corded lengths and repeat the process to give your rope additional strength. If you are using your cordage to tie together logs or other types of connections like joints, you’ll want to wet the cordage first to make it more flexible.
You can combine different materials from various plants and trees. This could help with splicing and the overall strength of your finished rope.
In spite of your best efforts, you probably really shouldn’t depend on homemade cordage to sustain any human weight. It may seem indestructible, but the splices can suddenly slip and you don’t want be hanging over a cliff when that happens.
This type of cordage is intended mostly for lashing and binding other materials such as supports for a lean-to, logs for a makeshift raft, or other temporary structures. Cordage can last about a year, but like any other plant-based material it will eventually deteriorate with time.
Have you ever made cord? Share advice would you add? Share it in the section below: