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Natural cordage tutorial (picture heavy)

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This is a picture tutorial on how to make serviceable cordage out of natural fibers. I happen to be using Common Milkweed in this series of photos. As it happens, Milkweed does not grow in Nova Scotia (or if it does I haven't found it yet!) so a big shout-out goes to our good friend Machine for sending me these stalks all the way from Connecticut! Thank you sir. If you do not have Milkweed in your area, this technique known a "Reverse Wrap" can be used for virtually any type of fibre-baring plant.

 

Now, I understand that a few of the pictures could be a bit clearer and a bit more in focus but, hey... speak to Mrs Blue about that...... its none of my doing!!  :P

 

To start, I have selected a stalk where repeated freezing and thawing has seperated the "bark" containing the fibres from the hard, woody inner stalk. I usually look for Milkweed stalks that have a mottled-white/grey/black appearance.

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This shot clearly shows the fibres of the "inner bark".

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To begin removing the fibres from the stalk I first crush and flatten the entire length of the stalk between my fingers moving from one end to the other:

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Once flattened, I will split open the length of the stalk:

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This shows the stalk almost completely opened up:

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Once the stalk is completely opened up, I will break it about 6 inches down from the base. The crack must go completely thru the hard inner core of the stalk but, not tear the fiberous outer layer....

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....like this:

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The next step is to slowly peel the fibres away from the inner core:

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This process can be quite easy and will produce a long sheet of fibres, often the entire length of the stalk without tearing. I begin by removing the fibres from the short length of broken stalk:

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Once the short end has been removed, I then finish by stripping the fibres from the rest of the stalk's length:

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I have discovered that the fibres will have less of a tendency to rip or tear if I pull them away from the stalk....

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....rather than pulling them down from the stalk at a sharp angle:

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This is what I'm left with when the process is complete:

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The next step is called "buffing". By lightly rubbing the length of fibres between the palms of my hands, I can remove the flakey outer bark from the fibres, and seperate the individual fibre strands all at the same time. You can clearly see the accumulating pile of greyish flakey bark on the table.

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You can see a comparison here between the buffed fibres on the left and the raw fibres on the right:

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Once I have completed the buffing process, about 4-5 minutes, I am now ready to begin twisting the fibres into cordage. To start, pinch the length of fibres between the thumb and fore-finger of the left hand (if you are right-handed).... at a point approximately 1/3 of the length down the fibre strand. For this demonstration I have seperated the whole quantity of fibres in two, and am starting with only half of the total quantity.

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Now, I am right-handed, so I start by twirling the fibres between my thumb and fore-finger of my right hand in a clockwise direction. Twist until the fibres tighten up and actually form a "pig's tail" curl when you gently release the pulling pressure. I cannot stress enough the importance of the CLOCKWISE rotation of the twist as it will make the difference between success and failure with the next step and in the finished product.

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Once this pig's tail has been formed, I grasp the length of fibres on the right side, twist them clockwise, then wrap that length COUNTER-CLOCKWISE over the top of the fibre strands that are on the left side. I now have a "new" untwisted length of fibres on the right that I twist clockwise, again with the thumb and fore -finger of my right hand, then wrap that over the top of the fibre strand on the left side. This twist and wrap process continues throughout the entire length of cordage always "working" with the fibre strand on the right side. To test whether you are doing this twist-and-wrap process correctly, make several "courses" of twists and wraps, then pinch the pig's tail at the top and let the fibres hang down. If tthe cordage unravells... you have done something wrong. If the cordage remains tightly twisted... you have done this correctly.

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I have now twisted enough cordage so that I have reached the end of the shorter length of fibres. It is now time to "splice in a new length of fibres onto that short length.

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Start by placing the new length (in my left hand) between the two working sides (in my right hand) leaving a short "tail" of new fibres to extend out the "top" of the splice junction:

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Next, lightly rub the new length of fibres into the shorter length:

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Twist and wrap 2 courses of cordage then fold the "tail" back into the new length of fibres and continue twisting away.

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The length of cordage nearly complete:

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The completed length of cordage shown next to a length of raw, unworked fibre:

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There... its as easy as that!!  :P

 

 

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It is an excellent demonstration BB.  Thank you for taking the time to do a step by step. 

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Nice one BB i use the same technique on stinging nettles over here but i often ret the steams first.

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Adi - I think the process of retting accomplishes the same thing that repeated freezing and thawing does.... basically. I believe retting is the process of breaking down the pectins to seperate the fibres from the other parts of the stem. By leaving the stalks in the field, or cut in a pile out in the open, naturally occuring bacteria and moisture will do the same job.

 

We have Stinging Nettles over here also, but the fibres on Milkweed are much more accessable than those of Nettles and often need no additional retting. You can often just pull up a stalk of Milkweed and strip it of its fibres immediately. The same goes for Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum L.), a relative of Hemp which yields a longer, stronger fibre and is found all over this continent.... except here in Cape Breton of course!  :curse:

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BB you might be right but we dont have much freezing and thawing here. Retting is basically starting to rot the plant, it is often used for when the plant has died and stayed standing so it drys out. By soaking the plant in water for a couple of days get moister back into the plant and the rotting process helps to release the plant fibers from the plant flesh.

 

Do you have the botanical name for milkweed, is it a member of the carrot family?

 

We dont have Dogbane over here but we do have Lesser Periwinkle and Greater Periwinkle (Vinca lesser/major) both used in basket making.

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Adi - There are about 70 different species of Milkweed that grow on this continent. Of those, the most common are:

 

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the most abundant and widespread of species.

 

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), as its name implies, is found growing along the borders of wetlands and ponds mostly in the Northeast of the US and Canada.

 

Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) grows mostly west of the Missiissippi River

 

Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) is often confused with Common but for the redish tint to its flowers.

 

Green Comet Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora) is found all across the continent but grows only in small patches and isn't widly used for its fibres.

 

Of these, I only have experience using Common, Purple and Swamp all producing long, thin stems with lots of fibre. Swamp Milkweed is my favorite variety because its fibres are very long, silky to touch, and very strong..... wonderful to work with.

 

Here is a great link for more info on Milkweed:  http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=ASCLE

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ah yes so this is this bed straw i keep hearing about.

 

I cant find any reference to the Asclepias sp in the UK, Europe in fact i can only find one outside N America and that is Rajmahal Hemp (Asclepias tenacissima) from E. Asia - Himalayas

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Adi - I believe you have flax over there but, aside from that and the Periwinkles, what other plants would you find for this use?

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Wonderful Tutorial BB, great job (as you always do!).

 

I can't help wondering how your pushing the shutter button on your camera with both hands in the pic..... :o

 

Seriously, that has to be one of the best guides I have seen.

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Yes we have flax and i have used that a lot, to be honest i think it was an introduced sp and is quite rear to find growing wild.

 

I have only used those two really along with Willow bark. clematis, blackberry bark and spruce roots

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Adi - Clematis seems to be your "do all" plant, as it provides both tinder and cordage. Milkweed will do the same double duty. various parts of the plant act as fine tinder, some parts (inner surface of the seed pod) can be used as a coal extender, and the fibre will also ignite into flame. Additionally, the young flower heads of Milkweed are edible and quite tastey fried in a flour/egg batter. Besides, the beautuful Monarch Butterfly uses the plant to lay its eggs on, and the larva will then eat its leaves.

 

Milkweed is a special plant for a lot of reasons.

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There is some evidence to suggest Clematis shoots are edible but i dont know how reliable that is as it is recorded as toxic. There could be a long lost way to prepare the shoots.

 

It is also great for hand drill as well as tinder. The fluffy seed heads are a great tinder to.

 

 

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Retting is a stage in the manufacturing of vegetable fibers, especially the bast fibers. It is the process of submerging plant stems such as flax, jute, hemp or kenaf in water, and soaking them for a period of time to loosen the fibers from the other components of the stem. Retting can also be done by letting the cut crop stand in the fields in the wet Fall, called "dew retting". Bacterial action attacks pectin and lignin, freeing the cellulose fibres. The stems are then removed and washed and subject to mechanical processing to remove the soft tissue and then dried so that all that remains are the fibres

 

Good stuff guys.

 

Nothing beats marijuana  8| Hemp rope is made from it.

http://www.hempbasics.com/

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Another plant i use is Rosebay willowherb which i think you call Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium).

 

The seed heads can be used as tinder and a stuffing to add insulation. The stems can be used as a thatching material and there are edible parts and madicinal properties.

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Hey Bigblue?

 

Does that cordage degrade over time or not, 'cause there's some milk weed by my house and i might try to make some cordage.

 

Sweet tutorial, too!!

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Dan - I have not noticed any degradation of milkweed cordage, unless it is repeatedly subjected to prolonged exposure to wet weather (then, any material will rot away). I've had a short length attached to my packbasket for years used to hold an old carved wooden medallion. I also have several longer pieces stored for years in a ziplock that I use for demos. 

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Dan - The technique of "reverse wrap" cordage making involves two hand motions... twisting one of the two strands of fiber and then "wrapping" or folding it over the other strand. I'm right-handed so I spin the strand on the right in a clockwise direction then wrapping over the left-hand strand in a counter-clockwise direction.

 

If you are left-handed begin by twisting the left-hand strand in a counter-clockwise direction, then wrapping it over the other strand in a clockwise direction....... exactly the opposite of the way I do it.

 

There is a simple test to see if you are doing it correctly: once you have completed a few courses of twists and wraps pinch the top/beginning the work piece and let the two strands dangle freely. If you have done everything correctly it will not unravel/unwind... if you have screwed it up somehow.... it will unravel/unwind.

 

I know it sounds complicated, but it really isn't. It just takes a bit of practice. Good luck.

 

BB

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