Rope Making With Flax & Hemp

Written by kevin ann reinhart
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Rope Making With Flax & Hemp
Rope was traditionally made with flax or hemp. (rope image by Ekaterina Sidorenko from Fotolia.com)

Today's ropes are commonly made of man-made fibres such as nylon and polypropylene. Although stronger than the ropes made of natural fibre and rot resistant, modern ropes tend to deteriorate in bright sunlight and melt at a lower temperature than their natural counterparts. A market still exists for rope made of hemp (Cannabis sativus) and flax (Linum usitatissimum).

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Rope Making History

The earliest depictions of rope use have been found in Spanish cave paintings that are over 20,000 years old. Museums feature Egyptian ropes from 2600 B.C. and ropes carried by Roman soldiers. The Incas in Peru fashioned rope bridges across mountain ravines and used knotted ropes for counting and calculating. Seagoing vessels during the age of sail used great quantities of rope for rigging as well as to facilitate deck safety and docking.

Flax and Hemp

Flax fibres are naturally soft with a satiny sheen while hemp fibres are much coarser. Both plant fibres are strong and flexible, heat and sun damage resistant and have good resistance to abrasion and wear. Microorganisms found in water will eventually rot ropes made of flax and hemp but the process is a gradual one. The Roman historian Pliny mentions the use of flax in rope making while hemp has been used as a rope material for 12,000 years.

Rope Making With Flax & Hemp
Sailing vessels used rope made of tar-soaked strands of hemp. (sailing ship masts image by Jorge Moro from Fotolia.com)

Hemp in America

In 1611, the colonists at Jamestown, Virginia, were formally ordered to raise hemp in the colony. Hemp was later introduced in Massachusetts to support the shipbuilding industry, which began in the village of Salem in 1629. Baled hemp and flax were brought to large open fields that served as the ropemaking location in the earliest days. The bales were cut open and the hemp or flax was soaked (retted) and beaten (scutched) to clean the fibres. The fibres were then run through boards covered in metal spikes (hatchels) to pull the fibres into long, straight threads in preparation for spinning.

Spinning and Strand Forming

The threads formed from the flax or hemp were then spun together into yarn. The earliest spinning was done by hand. The spinner would hold the fibres around his waist and walk backwards as the spinning wheel rotated, gently pulling on the fibres until they spun together. Similarly, six or more yarns were twisted together to form a strand. The yarns were attached to hooks on a forming machine. As the hooks rotated, the yarns were twisted into strands.

From Strands to Rope (the Rope Walk)

Three or four strands were twisted together to make a rope. The strands were attached to three hooks that revolved on a stationary jack, twisting the strands in opposite directions. A grooved cone, called a top, was placed between the strands as they were twisting to keep the twist tight and even. On the other end, a single revolving hook (Traveller) moved slowly toward the jack as the strands were twisted into the shorter rope. Rope walks originated in medieval Britain so the yarns could be stretched to make longer ropes. By 1850, spinning mills and rope factories powered by steam were common in both Britain and America.

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