Making cordage from natural materials is a challenging but rewarding past time and one that has largely been forgotten. Like many things, string & rope making is now done in factories, so the skills are largely now automated, however in the not-so-distant past, this was a very important skill to master.
Cordage can be made from virtually any pliable material, with varying degrees of strength & flexibility. I’ve listed a few of my favourites below.
Firstly, I love nettles. They’re a fantastic food, brilliant for wildlife help to re-establish woodlands and are brilliant for making cordage with. Mid way through their growing season, as the stems start to turn purple, is the optimum time to harvest. Using gloves, or bare hands if feeling brave, they can be held then cut at the base, working from bottom to top of the stem removing the stinging hairs & leaves. After this, they need to be split open to remove the inner pith, it’s the “skin” that we’ll be using to make cordage with.
The reverse twist method is the most popular with nettles. Holding the fibre between the thumb & forefinger of both hands, twist in opposite directions until a kink is formed. Hold the kink & continue twisting both strands separately, winding the twisted cord down every so often.
Bramble works with a similar technique. Using the bright green fresh shoots means that they’re still flexible. Later in the year they can start to become too woody. Bramble is a little more brittle than nettle, so it is often difficult to get as tight a twist.
Palm and flax leaves can be split down into thin strips & either reverse twisted for plaited.
The inner bark from many trees can be used for cordage, such as lime or willow. Bast as it is known takes a little more processing. During the spring & early summer trees give their bark much more easily than later in the year, a simple cut down a stem is all that’s needed to get started, the bark can then be peeled off from around the branch. It is the inner bark that is used so I find it is often easier to remove the outer bark while it is still on the branch, however it can be done later as well. Once the outer bark has been removed, it can then be boiled in a lye (wood ash & water) solution for a few hours. This alkaline solution slightly breaks down the fibres, making them more subtle & flexible.
My advice for starting to make cordage is to get out & collect as many different materials as you can, then experiment! Learning what materials work best for what application is a skill that can only be learnt by getting hands on, so go & have a play. If it doesn’t work, find something else & try again!