Making Cordage

Making Cordage

In bushcraft we spend a lot of time working with cordage - what you would call string - since nearly everything we do requires a bit of cordage. Therefore Farafoot tends to get through a lot of it, both the artificial types like the bushcraft guide’s favourite, ‘paracord’ and natural types such as plant, tree bark and root cordage.

Whether working with natural cordage materials such as nettle, hemp, jute, rattan or tree bark, we are in all cases working with the ‘bast fibre’ of the plant. This is the located in the phloem part of the plant, which can also be described as the ‘inner bark’ and acts as a structural reinforcement for the plant, which explains the need for the strong fibres.

Cordage from Tree Bark


At Farafoot Bushcraft, we work a lot with the bast from Crack Willow, mostly because we have a lot of it around these parts in Shropshire, particularly along the banks of the River Severn, where it is almost the sole tree species in places and it is quite easy to strip the bark from the timber.

Lime Tree Bark - A Traditional Source for Cordage


Another traditional alternative is the bast from Lime tree bark, which is where the Lime tree derives its name – ‘Lime’ has the same root as the English word ‘line’ through the middle English word ‘linden’, which is an alternative name of the tree and is also used as an adjective to describe something made from Lime-wood. In America the tree is sometimes called basswood i.e derived from the combination of the two words ‘bast’ and wood.    

Whatever the plant species, the process is roughly similar, in order to remove the bast from the bark of crack willow we firstly strip the bark off the timber by simply slitting the bark down the middle of the selected timber and then peeling it off carefully as one piece.

Cordage Making and Water Retting


Then we use a process called water retting, which involves soaking the bark in stagnate or slow moving water for as long as a month or until the cellular tissues and pectins surrounding the bast-fibres have been dissolved or rotted away by decay-producing micro-organisms.

Usually, this brings with it a certain smell associated with decay, which can be ‘heady’, but as with many bushcraft activities, you get used to it. The length of time this process takes, will depend of the bast fibres you are trying to extract, for instance hemp will take between a week to two weeks but that tree bark will take up to a month. You will also need to be careful whilst water retting, since under retting will make the fibres difficult to extract and over retting will cause the fibres to decay too much and therefore break. Another option is dew retting, which is to lay the material out on grassy ground and allow the combination of the dew, sunlight and bacteria to begin a fermentation process. This process takes longer and it is more commonly done with smaller plant species like hemp, rather than tree bark, but it is an easier process to manage for beginners.

Once the process is completed, sometimes the plant material is dried to allow curing to aid the removal of the fibres, particularly with plant fibres such as hemp. However, with bark fibres, we find it much easier to remove the fibres when still wet and then dried.

Drying is an important process for any plant fibres before being used for cordage, as there is significant shrinkage of the fibres whilst it dries, which would cause any cordage to fail is it was used whilst still wet.