While not difficult, making
cordage does take a few basic principles to learn. There are hundreds of
needs and purposes for cordage in the wilderness setting, and it is a
useful skill to know. Depending on the size of the cordage that you make
you can use natural cordage for anything from dental floss to fishing line
to snare cordage to climbing rope and every other need in between. While
this is not a video, I wanted to make it as easy to understand and follow
as possible. Like any skill this one takes practice. But if you will
follow the pictures and narrative, and take some time with the materials
in your area, you too can be making cordage in very little time.
There are many good
materials for natural cordage varying in size and strength. For the most
part you want to use materials that are abundant, strong, and easy to work
with. Some plants take more processing than others thus making the task
more involved. Some of the best natural materials are Dogbane, Hemp,
Nettles, Cattail, Spruce rootlets, and the inner bark of quite a few
different trees. On this skill lesson we will be using the stalk of
Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum). It is also known in different
areas as Dogbane and Indian hemp. Dogbane is a perennial herb with milky
juice; leaves opposite, simple, margins not toothed; flowers small,
pink-tinged, bell-shaped; fruit of 2 long and slender pods with many
silky-haired seeds. I love the Dogbane plant because of its delicate red
brown stalk that spreads into branches, and the hanging seed pods that
typically stay with the plant throughout the winter, making it easy to
identify. The resulting cordage is strong, tightly woven, and beautiful.
PLEASE NOTE: Dogbane is
poisonous. It contains the chemicals (Resins and cardiac glycosides) from
which "digitalis" is manufactured. It will not harm you to touch
or work with Dogbane, but it is wise to wash your hands after working with
While walking in the woods
I found a nice stalk of Dogbane from last year and pulled it up from the
roots. Dogbane is best, I have found, when it is last years material
already dried, but it can be used "green" also. This is the
resulting stalk – approximately 3 feet tall.
Here is the same shot from
a different angle…
The first step in preparing
the plant is to gently beat the stalk, breaking up the inner pith. This
shouldn’t be too hard, so as not to tear the fibers in the plant, but just
enough to cause the outer shell to break apart. I am using a wooden mallet
on an old stump in the pictures below.
Once the stem is worked in
this way you can take the stalk in your hand and gently separate the stalk
pieces. In this case there are 5 pieces that I ended up with. As you can
see below, they still have the pith in the stem, but it has been broken
and separated into manageable pieces.
This part is a little bit
tricky, but with care should not be a big problem. You now take the stalk
in your hand, and break the inner pith into segments. Each segment is
perhaps an inch or so long. Gently pull this broken pith away from the
outter fibrous bark. When finished you will be left with long strands of
"rough" cordage material.
When you are finished with
this you should have "raw" material to begin cording. However,
before we can make the cordage itself we still have to rub the outer
fibers between our hands in order to break away any remaining wood, pith,
or outer shell from the material.
Now we can begin making the
cordage itself. This step is easier to do than to explain, so please be
patient. Take the fibers in one hand, pinching the ends between your thumb
and forefinger. You must hold this end tight throughout the process in
order to keep your cordage "tight".
Now take your other hand
and separate the fibers into two equal parts. These will be called fiber
bundles. It is important for good cordage that these fiber bundles are of
the same thickness.
OK… Holding the cordage
tightly in your hand, take your free hand and grasp one of the
fiber bundles and twist it between your fingers away from your
You now take the twisted
fiber bundle and pull it back over the other fiber bundle. This twisting
and "reverse wrapping" is what gives the cordage strength and
symmetry. In effect, you are twisting the fibers in one direction and then
twisting the two bundles in the opposite direction, causing the two
bundles to "grip onto" one another.
Continue to do this over
and over until you reach the end of your fiber bundle. If you need longer
cordage simply grab a few more new fibers and twist them into one
of the fiber bundles. Make sure that you do not extend both bundles at the
same place or you will have a weakness at that spot in your cordage.
Stagger the fiber bundles until you have the desired length.
The final step is to tie a
knot in both ends of the cordage to keep it from unravelling. Then taking
one end of the cordage in each hand "buff" the cordage over a
stick that has been debarked and smoothed. This will soften the cordage
and take out any remaining pieces of bark or pith that might remain.
The resulting product is a
piece of cordage that is useful for any project that you might have need
of it for. It is strong and beautiful, and something that you can be proud
of knowing that you made it yourself!