Native Americans have always possessed a vast knowledge of cordage. The basic methods of this ancient technology have remained relatively unchanged. Cordage is made from two or more strips of fibers that are twisted or plied together. In the Eastern Forests of North America, Native Americans left the impressions of cord wrapped paddles and netting marks on their pottery 3000 years ago. The dry desert cave environments of the western coast of North America still preserve sandals and other textiles of cordage hand-twisted thousands of years ago.
In New England during the 1600's, the cordage made by Native Americans for their fishing lines and nets was superior to that of Europeans' by their own accounts. "ナnce the Engliド came they be furniドed with Engliド hookes and lines, before they made them of their owne hempe more curiously wrought, of フronger materials than ours, hooked with bone hookes...; they make likewiテ very フrong Sturgeon nets with which they catch Sturgeons of 12. 14, and 16. some 18. foote long in the day time" (Wood 1865).
Not only was this hand-made rope and string perfectly made, the tensile strength of many indigenous plant fibers was great enough to catch the largest sturgeon and salmon, and even for harpoon lines to retrieve whales and other sea mammals. The fiber cordage made from plants growing in New England was praised by Europeans for its fine quality, durability and superiority to English hemp: "Their cordage is バ even, バft, and ノooth, that it lookes more like ナlke than hempe; their Sturgeon netts be not deepe, not above 30. or 40. foote long." (Wood 1865).
'Indian Hemp' or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum, also called armyroot and black Indian hemp) was probably the most prevalent kind of fiber used for cordage. Native Americans made cord and thread from the fibers of many plants, trees (including evergreen roots), and other materials such as animal sinew and rawhide. [Cord from soaked sinew or rawhide strips needs to be dried in a tightly stretched position or the twists will loosen.] Other types of plant fibers used for making cord include Velvet Leaf (Abutilon abutilon also called Indian Mallow), the inner rind of the wormseed plant (which grows near the water),swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and the hairy milkweed (A. pulchra, also called white Indian hemp), and toad flax (Linaria linaria).
Many woody field plants such as dogbane, nettle, and velvet leaf are best gathered for their fiber after the first frost when the stalks are brittle. After the frost, the fibers strip away more easily than when the plants are 'green'. Pounding the stalk can help loosen the 'chaff' and ease the removal of the desired inner fibers. Simply crack back the top piece of the stalk, and peal the stringy fibers back away from the woody part of the stalk. Look for colonies of the red brown 4 ft. stalks of dogbane in moist, shady field edges. Some plants such as milkweed, cattails and sweetflag should be gathered in late summer before the frost, which breaks down and disintegrates the fibers in these plants.
The inner barks of trees like basswood and cedar are more time consuming to harvest. Speck (1976) describes the process wherein the Penobscot of northern New England prepared inner basswood bark. First the outer bark is cut through with an ax, loosened at the cut and pulled off upwards in long ribbons. Next, the exposed inner bark is separated with a knife, grasped, and pealed off in long strips. The ribbons of inner bark are coiled up for storage. When the bark is needed it first must be boiled for a day and a half in water with wood ashes. The lye from the ashes relaxes the bark fiber and removes the sap which would make the bark brittle and stiff. The boiled strips of bark are shaved down with a knife to their desired width. Without great care harvesting inner bark will threaten the life of the tree. Fallen branches can be a good source for basswood inner bark. Fairly suitable cedar bark can be gathered from fallen trunks.
Once fibers and plant materials were finally prepared, Native Americans in southern New England used the threads and cords to make ropes and lines, nets, mats, baskets and bags, belts and straps, shoes and many other items.
Methods for making rope or heavy cord from fibers involve anchoring two lengths of fibers to a post or to your toes, and tightly twisting each length in turn to the right. Then the right-most twisted length is passed over the left length (ie you switch the lengths between your two hands). The process is repeated, twisting the individual lengths, and then crossing the lengths over each other, splicing in new lengths of fiber to get the desired length. Look at Hilary Stewart's (1984) book Cedar for an excellent description of traditional rope making by Native American women of the Northwest coast.
'Thigh-rolling' is the fastest way to make fine cordage or string for sewing. If you look closely at most hand made cord, the plies are twined around in a 'Z' twist (the twisted strands lie diagonally from top right to bottom left). The individual strands in 'Z' twist cordage will be twisted in the opposite direction in an 'S' twist, the strands lie diagonally from top left to bottom right). Many plants that are inflexible or brittle when they are dry become pliable when they are soaked or dampened. Shredding and pounding the fibers can also improve the flexibility of many fibers. Even the shorter fibers of cornstalks and short grasses can be used if new pieces are continually spliced in.
Use two small bunches of fibers that are of different length. Hold the ends of two strands of fibers in your left hand. Drape their other ends over your right thigh. Roll the strands down your thigh using the palm and thumb of your right hand so that the strands 'S' twist up. At the end of this roll, release the hold of your left hand on the fibers and allow the strands to 'Z' twist in the opposite direction. Sometimes a quick reverse roll of the left hand on the twisted cord will help to tighten the ply. I find that this back roll tends to tangle the loose lengths of fibers.
The key to making even cordage is to continually splice in a new strand of fiber every couple of inches, well before the existing strands start to run short. Splice in a length of fiber by laying the new piece along the shorter of the two original strands. Twist the new and original fiber together as one strand and continue rolling the cordage. Do not attempt to splice the butt end of added fiber with the butt end of an original strand. Even Even if you can manage to ply two butt ends together this makes a very weak area in the cord. Each time a new piece is spliced in, leave an inch or so of the new fiber projecting from the plied cord, these can be trimmed off when the cord is finished.
Weaving, Basketry & Cordage Bibliography and Books to Buy On-Line
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© 1994 - Tara Prindle
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