When was the last time you used string or rope around your homestead? Now, how well do you think you’d fare if you weren’t able to pop down to the hardware store to get more? Don’t panic: there’s an easy fix for this. In fact, many plants on your own property (or growing wild nearby) are ideal for making cordage.
I’m going to break this down into a few different sections, as there are three major plant parts typically used for making thread, string, twine, and rope. These parts are the plants’ leaves, stems/canes, and bark. Chances are you have at least one of these species growing nearby, so you have a great source of plant fibers within easy reach.
Terms Used in this Article
The key to making cordage out of plant fibers is to soak them long enough to be able to separate them. This is a process known as “retting“. Basically, the water softens the fiber strand tissue by forcing the plant cells to swell up. They burst and start to break down, thus naturally separating the fibers.
When it comes to retting, there’s a noticeable line between not soaking for long enough, and soaking for too long. If you take the fibers out too early, they’ll still be tough and won’t separate easily. In contrast, you’ll know that they’ve soaked for too long if they fall apart into a gooey mess in your hands.
After being retted, many fibers are then scutched and hatchelled (pulled apart from other impurities and combed through) so they can be processed further. Fibers such as flax and cotton can then be spun into very fine threads, while sturdier fibers can be twisted and braided (plaited) into ropes as is.
Plants With Leaves That Are Good for Cordage
The plants listed below all have long, fibrous leaves that are excellent for making cordage. That said, some of them are tougher and sturdier than others. For example, daylilies and corn husks are great for making simple household twine, but you won’t be able to lash structures together with it.
In contrast, yucca and agave fibers are much sturdier and are better for making heavier twine and rope.
Cattails (Typha spp.) are known as “nature’s supermarket” because they’re fully edible. You’ll be delighted to find out that their leaves also happen to be ideal for making cordage!
The fibers in fresh new leaves aren’t going to be as thick or sturdy as older ones. Therefore, try to harvest mature, slightly dry leaves towards the end of the growing season if you’re going to use them for rope.
Alternatively, you can gather last year’s leaves in the springtime as they will be pre-retted for you.
Palm leaves (Arecaceae spp.) are gloriously fibrous and make a moderately strong cord. As such, if you live in a warmer climate where palm trees thrive, you have excellent cordage material within reach. Especially if you have a ladder handy.
If you’re aiming to make particularly sturdy cordage, you can twist or weave several strands of palm cord together into a thicker, stronger rope.
That’s right: the ornamental daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva) that are deliciously edible just happen to make decent cordage as well.
In the springtime, harvest semi-decomposed daylily leaves from the bottom of the plant. They will have retted (soaked) all winter under the snow or rainfall, depending on where you are. As a result, you don’t have to soak them further: you can just separate the fibers and process them into cord.
4. Corn Husks
Corn husks (Zea mays) are quite fibrous and can be processed into a lightweight string. While it’s not ideal for heavy work, it’s a decent standard household or kitchen twine.
Just don’t use it out in the garden to bind bean trellises or similar structures. It’s pretty but won’t hold up to strong outdoor weather conditions.
Much like with daylilies, year-old yucca (Yucca spp.) leaves harvested near the plant’s base tend to already be retted from winter’s damp. If they aren’t and are instead quite dry and brittle, you can slough off the lighter leaf matter after a brief soak in warm water.
6. Sisal Agave
Much like yucca, sisal agave (Agave sisalana) leaves are quite fibrous and have been used to make rope and twine for thousands of years. In fact, the Inca and Mayan peoples used it extensively: not just for making cordage, but also woven into cloth for garments, hats, footwear, home furnishings, and paper.
Stems and Canes Good For Making Cordage
Since stems and canes are generally the largest and sturdiest plant parts, it makes sense that they should be effective for making cordage. Plant fibers from stems and canes are known as “bast fibers“, and are found in the phloem of these stems.
The species below have fibrous stems and canes that are ideally suited for processing into rope. Just take note that some may require some special equipment to handle (looking at you stinging nettles and blackberries!).
Grapevine (Vitis spp.) cordage can only be made when the vines are very young and pliant. Gather them in early spring, and either twist or braid them into rope. Determine the thickness you need for a particular project, and go from there.
Use fresh, damp grapevine cordage to lash structures like trellises together, or to secure baskets woven baskets. Once it dries, it’ll be incredibly strong and difficult to break.
Flax (Linum usitatissimum) has been used to make cordage and fabric for thousands of years. In fact, the oldest evidence of flax fabric was found in a cave in the Republic of Georgia, and was 30,000 years old!
The fibers made from flax stems are up to three times sturdier than cotton, and are ideal for twisting and plaiting into rope. They just need to be retted, dried, scutched, and hatchelled before they can be twisted or woven into cord.
Hops plants (Humulus lupulus) are related to hemp, and their bines (actual term, rather than “vines”) can be processed the same way as flax.
You can either harvest young bines at the beginning of the season, or mature ones in the autumn. Young bines will be more delicate, while the mature ones will offer up hardier fibers.
Treat honeysuckle vines (Lonicera spp.) the same way you would use grapevines. Choose them once they’re about a year old, but less than three years old. If you harvest them too young, they’ll just fall apart on you. In contrast, mature ones will either snap in your hands or be too stiff for use.
Here’s a tip: if you’re keen on growing multi-purpose plants, consider growing haskap (L. caerulea) vines. Haskap is a hardy honeysuckle species that offers absolutely delicious berries once mature. After you’ve harvested its luscious fruits, you can transform its vines into rope!
If you’ve ever grown cannabis for medicine, you know how fibrous hemp’s (Cannabis sativa) stems are. They can be processed the same way as flax, and then twisted and plied to make a very sturdy, long-lasting rope.
Set aside the shorter fibers that aren’t ideal for making cordage, and try weaving them into cloth for various household uses.
Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) stems can also be processed like hemp or flax. They yield a beautiful fiber that can be spun into thin, silken threads or yarn. It’s ideal for making soft fabric, but can also be woven into a fairly sturdy cord.
You have to be careful when harvesting milkweek, however, as its sap can be quite toxic. Many people break out in severe contact dermatitis rashes from contact with it. Wear protective clothing such as long sleeves, gloves, and goggles whenever handling it.
13. Stinging Nettle
Speaking of unpleasant rashes, stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) doesn’t just provide nutritious food and vital medicine: it’s also spectacular for making cordage.
These plants’ bast fibers are very sturdy and can be processed like flax to make a durable thread. It’s stronger (and softer!) than linen when spun and woven into cloth, and both stronger and longer lasting than cotton when twisted into ropes.
If you’ve ever tried to get rid of a blackberry bush (Rubus fruticosus), you likely remember its fibrous stem. You may even have lasting scars from its vicious thorns!
Harvest for cordage in late springtime or early summer, after the vines have grown large but before they start to flower. Put on some thick leather gloves and remove the leaves and thorns with a sharp knife.
Then cut the vine low to the root so you get as much fiber as you can. Strip the outer bark off, then ret it and hatchel it into usable fibers.
Dogbane’s (Apocynum cannabinum) strong fibers were treasured by indigenous North American peoples for thousands of years. The fibers make a particularly strong cord when twisted or woven, and won’t stretch—even when wet.
You can either harvest dogbane stalks in springtime while they’re still green and pliant, or in late fall after one or two frosts. Then ret and hatchel them accordingly.
Note that dogbane is also considered “toxic,” so please wear protective gear and wash your hands thoroughly after working with it.
16. Common Rush
Many people use rushes (Juncus effuses) for roof thatching and basket weaving, but the stalks are also decent for making cordage. Much like with many other species listed here, you can create stronger ropes by weaving or twisting multiple lengths of single cord together.
Jute (Corchorus olitorius) is native to tropical and subtropical regions in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa. It can be processed into a moderately strong cord, though it’s best to twist or plait multiple ropes of it for extra strength and durability.
Jute cord is better suited to coiling or weaving into baskets and floor coverings than for dragging and pulling anything heavy.
Many types of thistle can be used to make cordage, but bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) is exceptionally handy. Whichever species you use, you’ll need to cut the stem at the base and remove the head. Then, pull the stringy fibers by hand and let them dry.
Twist them together once they’re dry to form twine or rope.
Plants With Bark Good For Cordage
When it comes to making cordage from bark, it’s not the outer, nubbly rough stuff that you’ll be magically transforming into rope. Unless you’re a really rustic Rumpelstiltskin and you have a penchant for that kind of thing.
Instead, it’s the inner bark—the secondary phloem—that is processed for rope-making.
If you have an elm (Ulmus spp.) tree, then you have a good source to make fiber.
Harvest 1/4-1/2 inch diameter branches between late spring and mid-summer. Then strip off all the leaves and twigs before pulling the bark off. Use a sharp knife to cut notches at one end and pull said bark away in long strips. Then ret and hatchel it.
Elm has traditionally been harvested in this manner and allowed to re-grow. This method is known as “coppicing.”
Lots of people don’t realize that many trees we call cedars in North America aren’t true cedars (they’re in the Pinaceae or pine family), which are plants in the Cedrus genus. In North America, you’ll see the Deodar cedar (C. deodara) and Cedar of Lebanon (C. libani) growing as ornamentals. They’re native to the Mediterranean, but many people grow them here.
Harvest two-inch diameter branches in springtime or summer, and follow the same steps as you would for elm. The difference here is that you’re using the inner bark, rather than the outer ones.
You can use the unprocessed fibers for quick binding purposes, but you’ll need to soak and process them to refine them into cordage.
Basswood (Tilia americana) is native to the eastern half of the US.
Harvest bark from dead, fallen, 1/4-inch diameter basswood branches rather than live ones. The bark will come off in long, slender fibers that are ready to use as they are. Then simply twist and ply them as desired, making cordage in whatever gauge is needed.
The inner bark from willow branches (Salix spp.) is absolutely ideal for cordage. Harvest branches in springtime or summer, and scrape off the dark outer bark with a sharp knife. Then ret and hatchel it before twisting, plying, or braiding into rope.
While you’re at it, save some of those precious willow twigs to make homemade aspirin! You’ll need it after harvesting and processing branches for any length of time.
There are a few plants out there that don’t fall under the categories above. Cotton is a classic example.
Cotton (Gossypium sp.) doesn’t fall under the aforementioned headings because the fibers made from it are spun from its bolls. These are the fibrous casings that protect the plants’ seeds. Long fibers are separated from the bolls and are then twisted (spun) into strings or threads. These can then either be woven into fabrics or braided and/or twisted into ropes.