Cordage

 

Cordage, or twine, was made in a variety of ways and from a variety of materials.  For my experiment with cattail mats, nettle and basswood were used to make cordage.  Milkweed, dogbane, slippery elm bark, cedar bark strips, shredded cattail, sinew, hide, and many other fibrous materials can also be used to make cordage.  For information concerning other plant materials and other Native American technologies I recommend a visit to the NativeTech pages at www.nativetech.org.  If you don't want to go through the time and effort to make cordage for a sewn cattail mat, you can use store bought twine.  If you do want to try and collect your own plant material, you've got to be familiar with the plants.  The fiber often has to be collected at a certain time of year.  Before you collect any materials for making a mat or cordage, make sure you have permission to use the plants.  The following sections describe when to collect nettle and basswood fiber and then go on to describe two methods of making cordage.  

 

Nettle

Off to the right is a picture of wood nettle, which has some of the strongest plant fibers I've come across.  Some nettle plants have good fibers and don't sting but I used wood nettle because I knew where a lot could be collected.

Collecting Nettle:   I collected most of my wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) in the summer, when the plants were still green and fresh.  It was actually quite easy to collect.  I stripped the prickly nettles off of the stalk by grabbing near the base of the plant and stripping upwards.  When stripping off the nettles I had a paper towel in my hand.  If you want to collect nettle in the summer I recommend you use a piece of thick cloth or leather.  After the majority of nettles have been stripped, the leaves can be plucked off.  

I was also able to collect a bit of wood nettle after the first frost.  The plant was shriveled and brown but I could identify it by its height and leaves.  The best part of nettle harvesting after frost is that the frost eliminates the stinging mechanism - so you have no need to fear getting stung by a droopy nettle.  

After stripping the plant and pulling the leaves off, I pulled the stalks out of the ground and tapped them a few times to remove most of the dirt.  Then I cracked the stalk and pulled on one of the ends.  Then I could see the fibrous outer "skin" of the plant.  I grabbed that fibrous "skin" and stripped the rest of the stalk.  Stripping the fiber off went pretty quickly.  When I thought I had enough fiber I tied some bundles and left them to dry.

You will get stung if you collect fresh nettle.  Don't hang around a patch too much!  Nettle can irritate long after you're out of contact!

 

 

Nettle Fiber:   To the left is a photo of my fresh nettle fiber as it was drying.  Dried green nettle strands often need to be rubbed or worked a bit before they can be twisted, as they dry to be quite stiff.  You can rub the fiber between your hands, pound it until the softer fibers separate from woody pieces, scrape it on something, wet it a bit, or peel it into thinner workable strips. 

Nettle fiber is quite durable and can be twisted into very thin cord which is still quite strong.  Nettle cord was often used for snares and fish nets.  Prehistoric people also sometimes used nettle fiber for woven bags and pieces of cloth.

Basswood

Basswood (Tilia americana) was used for cordage by many Native American peoples of eastern North America.  The large leaf shape can be seen to the right.  Basswood bark was collect during the spring, which is when the sap is flowing and it is very easy to pull the bark off of the tree.  Branches much larger than the one shown to the right were usually stripped, giving long and wide strips of bark.  I collected my basswood material in early June. 

Collecting Basswood:   After making a few cuts on the tree the bark was pulled off.  Whole branches were also cut and stripped later that day.  Then the bark was left to soak in water for about a week.  Soaking the bark makes it easier to separate the inner layer of bark from the outer layer.  The inner layer is the fibrous layer we want and, after soaking, can be pulled off of the outer bark layer in long strips.  Then the long strips of inner bark were dried, ready to be twisted whenever I wanted.  
            

Basswood Fiber:   Basswood cord or fiber was sometimes boiled to make the fiber stronger.  I tried this and boiled some of my fiber for about 10 minutes.  As far as sewn cattail mats go, basswood cord was used for tying the cattail leaves to the foundation twine and also for sewing the leaves together.  Basswood strips were also used to tie wigwam poles together and to attach mats to the pole frame.  Basswood cordage was used for many other purposes and it was said that every household had a ball of cordage handy.          

     

 

Other Cordage Materials

Milkweed and dogbane are two other plants which can be used to make cordage.  I was able to collect fiber from both fresh and dry plants.  Either way, I simply cracked the stem of the plant to get a grip on some of the outer skin fiber.  Then I simply pulled it off.  In the picture to the left I am pulling fiber off of a dry milkweed stalk. One source I read recommended cutting whole plants when the leaves were dry, cracking the stalks, and then collecting the strands of fiber (Davit 2001).

You may want to experiment with several plants, including some not mentioned or described on this website, in order to find out which fibers you prefer working with.  You may also wish to try working with fibers wet or dry, and wide or narrow.

Twisting Cordage

Now that you have some fibers collected, you can start to twist them into cordage.  Cordage can be made by a variety of techniques.  A finger twisting method can make cordage which has a very tight twist and is quite strong.  This is an easy method to start with.

Finger Twisting Method:   First, knot two pieces of fiber together at one end and then hold the knot in your left hand. Next, grab the fiber strand that is furthest from you.  Twist it up and away from you.  Now bring the strand towards your body, over the top of the front strand.  Keep the twisted strand in place with the fingers of your left hand.  Now that the strands have been switched, again take the strand furthest from you and twist it up and away from your body.  Then switch the back fiber to the front.  The fibers will spiral over each other and make cordage.  Repeat those simple steps to keep making cordage.  As you progress, keep sliding your left fingers over to keep the twist tight.  New fibers can be added by simply overlapping the ends and rolling them together during the process.  Extra ends that stick out of the cord can be trimmed after the twisting is complete.  This method creates tight and strong cord, but is a bit harder on the hands and takes longer compared to the second method I will discuss.

 
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Leg Twisting Method:   The method I have read about the most in Native American records is the thigh or shin twisted method.  The twist may not be as tight or uniform as finger rolling, but the process is much faster and makes strong cordage.  To begin, knot two strands of fiber together at the ends.  Hold the knot in the left hand and lay the strands over your thigh or shin (Figure 1).  Separate the two strands so that they are not touching each other.  While the left hand holds the knot, lay the right hand over the strands and push forward, rolling the individual strands forward.  Keep your hands close together for a tighter twist (Figure 2).

 

 

After the strands are rolled forward, release the knot from the left hand (Figure 3).  The two strands will then backtwist together on their own.  To strengthen the backtwist the right hand can drag the cord downward or the left hand can roll the cord a bit (Figure 4).  To twist the next section, slide the left hand over and grab the cord where the twisting stops and the strands separate.  Then simply repeat the process. 

 

When a strip of fiber is nearing its end, other pieces of fiber have to be spliced in.  To do this, place the new strand of fiber onto the short one and roll them with the fingers a few times until they hold together (Figure 5).  Then when you roll the strands as usual the new fiber is incorporated into the cordage.  Now you can make cord as long as you want!

 

Don't get discouraged!  It may take a while to get the fibers rolling.  Sometimes dampening the rolling surface helps, or rolling strands individually until they are rounded and ready for making cord.  Get the hang of the rhythm.  It does take practice!  My first cordage absolutely stunk!  Eventually you'll get a pattern going and be able to twist quite a bit of cordage in an hour.  My average rate is twisting about 10 feet of cordage in an hour.  If you want, once you've made some single twist cordage, you can repeat the twisting process using your cord instead of fiber, and make double twist cordage which is even stronger.

The Finished Product:   The above are balls of cordage I made for my experiment in sewn cattail mats.  The ball on the left was cord I made from nettle fiber while the ball on the right was made from basswood.  The balls of nettle and basswood cordage were 6.1 and 17.37 meters respectively.  My nettle cord was usually a little under 2mm wide while the basswood was a bit over 2mm. While preparing the materials needed to make the mats, I kept track of the time each step took.  Eventually, I was able to calculate out how much time it would have taken for me to make what would be considered a full size mat.  Twisting the cordage alone took over a third of the time for the entire mat making process!  Making cordage, which was used in hundreds of ways, must have been a very important and constant activity of many prehistoric Native American women.  It is not hard to imagine that many evenings throughout the year were passed while sharing news and twisting cordage.

 

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