Hey, remember our article on the best plants for making cordage? In that article, we touched upon species you can transform into cords. Now, we’re going to teach you exactly how to do it. DIY rope is essential for self-sufficiency, and a great skill to have overall.
Read on for a step-by-step guide to transforming the plants like milkweed, cattails, palms, honeysuckle, and willow into super-useful, multi-purpose cordage.
Is it Difficult to Make DIY Rope?
No, it’s not difficult per se, but it is time-consuming. If you have the option to buy your rope instead, it’s fine to go that route. That said, there’s something about making your own cordage that’s immensely satisfying.
It also ensures that nothing on your land ever goes to waste.
If you’re really keen on being as self-sufficient as possible, then learning how to make this stuff really is ideal for your personal repertoire.
Step 1: Gather Your Plant Matter
As we referenced in our article on cordage plants, there are many different species that can be transformed into rope. Cattails and milkweed are two of my favorites, but you can use whatever’s abundant growing near you.
Gather about three times as much as you think you’ll need. The best time to gather plants for this purpose is in autumn or early spring, as the stalk colors are easier to identify. Old stalks that are grey and crumbly won’t yield usable fibers.
In contrast, greener, newer stalks will be a pain in the backside to transform into a fiber.
This is our Goldilocks moment, as one-year-old stems and long leaves (such as cattails) are just right.
Take a sturdy knife with you when you’re harvesting. If you’re gathering stems/stalks, aim to cut them off just above soil level, rather than pulling up any rhizomes. The same goes for gathering cattail or yucca leaves. Cut as close to the stalk as possible so you keep the fiber lengths intact.
Step 2: Bash ‘Em
Plant matter is made up of two major components: starch and fiber. We want to soak our plants in water long enough that the starches will break down so we can get the fibers out easily.
Lay your plant matter out in front of you, and grab a big, sturdy rock. (This is the best part of DIY rope making).
Bash the stems along their lengths to crack through the tough outer bark. If you don’t, the water you’ll be soaking them in won’t be able to seep all the way through into the center. Just channel all your life frustrations into the task at hand, and bash away.
Step 3: Soak ‘Em
Now it’s time to put those stalks (or leaves) in water. Where you choose to do this will depend upon what types of waterways you have available to you. Some people like to use bogs or ponds for their retted fibers. Others like slow-moving streams or creeks.
If you don’t have any of these nearby, you can default to your bathtub or buckets. Just take note that you won’t be able to have a bath for a week or two, and you’ll need to give that tub a good, solid cleaning afterward. If you have the option to soak your fibers outside, definitely go that route.
One technique we’ve used when there hasn’t been a body of water nearby is a “wet pit.”
Basically, we dug a shallow hole in the ground and lined it with tarps. Then we placed the plant matter inside it, added water, and then covered it with some more tarps. It was a rather janky solution but ended up working quite well.
Soak your plantstuff for anywhere from 8 to 21 days, checking progress daily. You’ll know the fibers are ready to harvest when they separate easily from the stalks.
When you under-ret, they’ll cling on tightly and will be difficult to separate. In contrast, if you leave them in the water too long, the fibers will start to decompose. I’ve found that for most species, 12-14 days seems to be the magic middle ground.
That said, some plant matter is tougher and needs longer to soak. For example, check out this image as an example of Caesar weed (Urena lobata) and how its fibers looked over the course of its retting process.
Step 4: Free the Fibers
Once the starchy plant matter has broken down, the fibers are relatively easy to remove. Give them a good rinse under running water before pulling them apart. This will help to eliminate excess goo from their decomposing surroundings, and will prevent you from getting stinky fingers as you work.
Pull the fibers apart gently, or use a large comb to help separate them. Unsurprisingly, the sturdy metal combs that I use to process animal fibers work well for DIY rope plant fibers too.
Step 5: Rinse Again, and Hang to Dry
Once the fibers are all separated, give them another good rinse. Seriously, the sticky goo can cling on pretty tightly, so rub them between your fingers under running water to get it off.
Now you’ll need to hang it to dry for several days. I use my attic for this purpose, as it’s dry, gets a good cross-breeze, and won’t be disturbed by any people or animals. Some people like to dry their fibers outside instead. This can work, provided that there isn’t any rain expected.
Aim for a branch, broomstick, or washing line that’s secured well. Then drape your damp fibers over it so their weight is hanging quite evenly. If you’re worried about them potentially blowing away, secure them onto the line with some twist ties.
Make sure that your fibers are almost completely dry when you work with them. If you try to twist and ply damp fibers, they’ll loosen and unravel on you later. That said, completely dry fibers can be more difficult to work with.
The best technique I’ve come across so far is to work with well-dried fibers but dip my fingertips in water as I twist them. This way, there’s no lingering dampness inside them, but the tiny dabs of moisture make them easier to manipulate.
Step 6: Get Twisty
Now that your fibers are ready, it’s time to twist them into rope.
If you ever made knotted friendship bracelets, you’ll likely remember that you needed to secure one end somewhere while you worked. The same goes for creating DIY rope. Get yourself some waste cord and braid it about one inch long with two of your retted fiber strands.
Make a good knot in it, and then secure it somewhere. I like to use a tree if I’m working outside, or one of my stairway banisters if doing this indoors.
Next, take your two strands and ply them together. This part is a bit finicky and will require a bit of practice to get right.
The best technique to ensure that your rope will be strong, and won’t unravel, is to do a “reverse twist”. This involves twisting one of the strands in the opposite direction that you’re plying. Check out the video linked below for an easy visual guide:
As you can imagine, you’ll need to keep adding more plant matter as you go along. The best way to do this is to ensure that you’re adding in one piece of fiber at a time. If you try to add two at the same time, you’ll create a weak point in your DIY rope.
Plan your additions so that they overlap at alternating increments. If you’re having difficulty envisioning this, check out the illustration here. As you can see, the new fibers are spliced in at the strongest (mid) point of the preceding one.
Step 7: Use As Is, or Ply/Braid into Heavier Rope
What happens next will depend entirely on how you plan to use your cordage. For example, thinner cords are great for tying up tomatoes, but they won’t help you pull a canoe.
If you’re using this for heavier tasks, then you’ll need to ply several cords together. You’ll do this in the opposite direction to how they’re twisted, to make a thick, coiled rope. This will prevent unraveling and will create a sturdy, heavy-duty material that you’ll be able to reuse for quite some time.
Alternatively, if you don’t feel confident in your plying skills, you can braid/plait the cordage instead. This can even be done incrementally to create super-thick ropes. For example, let’s say you braid three of your cords together. That’ll create a slightly thicker cord. But what if you repeated that several times, and then braided those cords together? And then repeated it again?
You can continue braiding or plying as many cords together as you like to make the rope thickness that you need.
Handy Ways to Use Your DIY Rope
I can tell you some of the ways that we’ve used our own cordage around the property, but this isn’t a comprehensive list by any means.
So far, we’ve used it to:
- Hold structures together while they were being built
- Lead a goat off our porch, and back to its owner (I can’t make this up)
- Cordon off various areas so animals couldn’t wander in
- Secure ladders while work was being done on the house
- Offer additional support to heavy-fruiting plants (squashes, melons, etc.)
- Tether basket fish traps to trees on the shore
There are obviously countless other uses, but these are just the ones I’ve encountered thus far. As you can see, DIY rope making really is a great skill to have.
Whether you’re doing it as part of a homeschooling curriculum, or just to expand your own self-sufficient repertoire, it’s definitely worth trying out. And hey, if it turns out that you don’t like it, there’s probably a hardware store down the road for pre-made jute rope instead.