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Natural Cordage Materials, Part 2

Steve Lee
(go to Part 1)

Natural fiber cordage can be made from three main types of materials: the stalks and leaves of plants, the bark of trees, and the hide and sinew of animals. Part 2 will deal with BARK CORDAGE and CORDAGE FROM ANIMALS.

The bark of many trees, either alive or dead, can be used to make cordage or rope; however, in the interest of conservation and respect for our tree brothers, bark from live trees should only be used to a survival situation.

Long strips of bark from dead trees can be easily stripped off and beaten with a club to loosen the inner fibers which can be pulled off in long strips. They are then rolled between the palms as with plant fibers (see Part 1, vol. 1, number 1). Removing the bark from live trees is somewhat more difficult and must usually be done in the spring and early summer while the flow of sap is still strong. At this time make a deep two or three inch wide horizontal cut into the bark near the ground. Grasp the bark at this point and pull, ripping loose a long narrowing strip which will detach itself well beyond your reach. It is then advisable to soak this for up to 10 days to facilitate easy removal of the inner fibers. For example, fibers from basswood will be very stiff when dry and must be soaked to make them soft and pliable. If desired, these may be made permanently soft and flexible by boiling in lye water for 24 hours. Lye water is made by placing a large amount of ashes in water and boiling for ten minutes.

The following is a list of trees with excellent fibers: basswood is the strongest, slippery elm, hickory, leatherwood, white oak, osage orange, red cedar, yellow locust, cherry, black walnut, aspen. These are but a few of the trees from which cordage fibers can be obtained.

Excellent cordage can be made from animals. Rawhide, called "bishaganab" by the Chippewas and "shaganoppi" by some northwest tribes, was used throughout North America as lashing for tools and structures. Long narrow strips were cut in a spiral from deer and buffalo hides which had been scraped clean of all flesh and hair. These strips were then cut to the desired length and soaked to soften them for use. They were then stretched tightly around the object to be lashed and allowed to dry, forming exceedingly strong iron-like bands.

The early settlers used the hides of small animals such as the woodchuck to make tough pliable thongs for general use which they called "whangs". The wet rawhide thongs were made permanently flexible by soaking them in animal fat or neetsfoot oil.

The strongest and most versatile fiber obtained from animals is sinew; this being a tendon which connects bone to muscle. The largest tendons are located on both sides of the spinal column running parallel to it. Smaller tendons from the calves of the hind legs can also be used. These tendons were removed from their outer sheath and then cleaned, leaving a bundle of long fibrous ribbons which were then allowed to dry. In this state the fibers could then be separated and used as thread or combined in bundles and spliced together to form long cords for such things as bow strings.

It has been said that sinew is the strongest fiber found in nature because a single piece the thickness of thread can support the weight of a grown man without breaking. To use sinew for wrapping, just wet the stiff threads, making them soft, and then wrap; there is no need for knots because sinew contains natural g1ues that will hold very tightly and securely.

We can thank the Great Spirit and the Earth Mother each time we reap the benefits of her boundless supply of cordage material which is so necessary to our existence when living in harmony with nature.

From The Tracker magazine, February 1982, published by the Tracker School.
For more articles from The Tracker magazine, visit the Tracker Trail website