Introduction: Make Rope Out of Dead Plants -- With No Tools

Picture of Make Rope Out of Dead Plants -- With No Tools

I will teach you to make extremely strong rope out of common, dead plants with no need for tools. First, I'll walk you through the process of isolating some high-quality fiber from dead plants. (I demonstrate with dogbane, but milkweed is a fine substitute.) Then I'll show you the reverse wrap, which can turn any decent fiber into a sturdy cord.

In a wilderness survival situation, this skill will allow you to make fishing lines, spears and arrows, and snares, as well as construct certain types of shelters. Even certain firemaking techniques (e.g. bow drill) rely on having strong cordage.

Just like fire, a good rope is a tool in and of itself.

Step 1: Get Some Fiber (dogbane, Here)

Picture of Get Some Fiber (dogbane, Here)

All you need for this instructable is some plant fiber. Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum -- cannabinum means fiber-plant) is an excellent source, though milkweed and other plants will work just as well, or better. Related to milkweed, dogbane is likewise poisonous if ingested. Additionally, some people may react adversely to the latex sap. But handling dead stems should be fine for most folks. If you are prone to allergies or have easily irritated skin, I recommend finding a different source of fiber, such as milkweed or bark.

Other fiber sources

Dead plants

The best natural fiber sources are dead plants, though animal fur is supposedly an option. (I once saw a lady spinning thread directly off of an angora rabbit.)

Milkweed is very soft, and less allergenic. I haven't worked with it, personally, but I have seen the finished product, which looks very similar to synthetic string. The stalks should be harvested when they are dead and grey.

The inner bark from some trees is another excellent source, if you can collect enough. The trick is to find fallen branches, or dead trees with hanging bark. The best fiber trees are cedar, white basswood, tulip tree. Tulip tree (sometimes mistakenly called "poplar" or "tulip poplar") is quite common and frequently sheds branches. Tree-based fiber is strong, but coarse.

A note about cedar: You don't want the fibrous strands running along the outside of the bark -- the inside bark is where the good stuff is.

Urban sources

Plastic bags. They're everywhere! Shred them "lengthwise", that is, in the direction of the polymer. (Make note of which direction they rip most easily.)

Back to dogbane

Dogbane grows readily in waste areas and disturbed soil, and seems to prefer partial shade. For this project, I biked over to an abandoned road that was intended for a subdivision. Plants are creeping across the roadway, the asphalt is breaking up from freeze-thaw stress and earthstar mushrooms, and there are healthy stands of dogbane, vetch, and other waste-area plants.

You'll recognize the plants by their 4-foot tall dark brown stalks and their dangling seedpods. Initially, the seedpods are paired tubes that come together at their ends but bow away from each other at the middle. As the pods decay, the tubes peel open, slowly releasing the fluff-carried seeds to the wind. (Remember, dogbane is related to milkweed.) Incidentally, this fluff is an excellent fire-starting material -- but that's a different instructable.

Step 2: Harvest Your Fiber

Picture of Harvest Your Fiber

The best stalks are tall (for efficiency), brown (gray is too old), and have high branches (to reduce the number of pesky branch nodes). Gray stalks are from one to two years ago, and the fiber may have degraded by now. Recently dead stalks are more difficult to clean, since the bark has not decayed as much. The happy medium seems to be one-year-old stalks. At the time I write this, new shoots are coming up, so last year's stalks are perfect.

Nothing eats the dead stalks, so feel free to take as many as you like. Be gentle, though -- they are still attached to the living rhizome, from which future stalks will grow. The lower end is brittle enough to snap with a quick side-to-side motion.

Break off the branches and top, but carefully; both tend to take fiber with them. (I define the "top" as the upper section beyond the point where the stem has narrowed by about a third. More intuitively, this is the point after which there are too many branches and not enough fiber.)

Step 3: Break Out the Core Wood

Picture of Break Out the Core Wood
Flatten a stalk longitudinally to break the core "wood", and separate it into two roughly equal halves.

The wood is delightfully easy to remove. Starting at the thick end of one of the halves, snap off inch-long section of wood. To avoid peeling, pull up one end, then the other, until the strip is removed. Discard these. (You may notice that each half splits again into two quarters -- this is natural.)

For the purposes of this instructable, you'll only need to remove the wood from both halves of a single stalk. A 4-foot stalk may reduce to a 2-foot cord, but you can always add more to it later.

Using a 3-foot stalk (after discarding the top), this step took 6 minutes.

Step 4: Tenderize and Clean

Picture of Tenderize and Clean
You now have two ribbons, one side of each covered in a flaky, dark brown outer bark. While the outer bark is only a bit annoying, the curly ribbon shape makes the fiber quite difficult to work with. Also, there are likely bits of branch nodes and small pieces of wood hiding in there. We can kill three birds with one stone by tenderizing the fiber, which is as simply as grinding it between your thumb and forefinger.

You'll note that while this does cause the fiber to separate somewhat (a necessary evil), it is still quite crosslinked.

With my three-foot-tall stalk, this step took 9 minutes, and my hands were a little sore. (This is the most annoying step.)

At this point, you have two strands, and each narrows along its length. To get a constant width, reverse one strand and lay it along the other. Rub them together a little bit so they stay roughly connected.

Now the fun part starts.

Step 5: Philosophy of Cordage

Picture of Philosophy of Cordage
  • Splice only one strand at a time. (Only one strand should end at a time.)
  • Dry fiber can be wrapped more tightly than wet fiber. So make sure your fiber is dry. Wet-made cordage will fall apart when it dries.
  • A finished cord can be used as a strand in a larger cord. That's how they make those awesome rope bridges in the Andes -- out of grass.
  • Wrap tight, wrap sturdy. There's no way to fix a loose cord, aside from unwinding the whole thing.

Step 6: Reverse Wrap

Picture of Reverse Wrap
This is a highly tactile activity, so instructions can only go so far. Bear with me as I explain the reverse wrap from several different perspectives. Refer frequently to the diagram and video, but also experiment with different techniques.

Start your strand

About a quarter of the way along the strand, twist a short segment in opposite directions to form a tight loop. (Twist away from you on the right hand side, towards you on the left.) Pinch this loop with your left thumb and forefinger.

There are now two strands, one closer to you and one farther away.You are ready to start.


For each iteration:
1. With your right thumb and forefinger a centimeter from your left, twist the farther strand "away" (clockwise if you are looking from the right). It should be twisted tightly, but not starting to loop. This step is called "twist away".
2. Use your (right) middle finger to clamp the closer strand to your (right) forefinger. Rotate your wrist 180 degrees back towards you, swapping the strands. This step is called "take back".
3. Nudge the Y-junction between the strands with your right forefinger a bit to keep the wrap tight.

Repeat many times!

How it works

Have you ever taken a wall-mounted hand-cranked pencil sharpener apart? (Of course you have.) The two grinders are precisely like the two strands in a reverse wrap. The friction they exert on a pencil represents the friction between the two strands, which keeps them from unwinding.

Alternative techniques

  • If you want to do a quick'n'dirty wrap, twist a long section of fiber until it starts to loop and kink. Allow one kink to grow and twist. (The first time you do this, have another person help you by gently twisting the forming rope.)

Time required for wrapping

Unlike the previous steps, this one is variable according to your needs. Here I have used the entire three-foot bundle for the starting cord, but I would ordinarily separate the bundle into several 3-foot sections to be spliced in later. This results in a much thinner, longer cord. If you divide the stalk into 2 3-foot sections, the cord will be half the width and twice the length, but will take something like *four* times the amount of time. (Twice as many twists per inch, twice as long.)

Show your work!

Upload pictures of your finished work into the comments.

Step 7: Contributed Notes

There are a bunch of neat suggestions and tips in the comments, and I'd like to highlight some here.

  • Purocuyu says that rolling the fiber on your thigh works if you wear jeans, but recommends putting a patch of scrap denim over your leg anyway -- this technique can wear through cloth pretty quickly.(Wade Tarzia mentioned this method. It's a variant on the "twist and kink" mentioned in the section "Alternative techniques".)
  • Purocuyu has had success with yucca, which is great news, since the stuff grows like a weed in some areas. I've heard of retting yucca leaves to extract the fiber, but this commenter says to try scraping the leaf body off of the fiber using a sharp-edged implement.
  • Wade Tarzia notes that there is historical precedent for using fiber from coconut husks. (Another good source, because coconut fiber should be plentiful where it exists at all.)
  • Several commenters have noted that strips of cotton from old t-shirts work well.


jlake8 (author)2017-07-01

Would you be able to provide an estimate of the weight per foot (or meter) of the finished rope?

IsaiahC3 (author)2017-03-21

Very good instructions. This is always something I wanted to do but never knew how to start without twine. I made mine out of a Lego store bag. Now I have yellow rope

muhammed hüseyink made it! (author)2016-10-19

İ made it with dead leaves :)) And than wrap them together again to make much bigger rope :)) This is very funny to make.I tied my avacado tree with it.Thank you...

MakefireOutOfIce made it! (author)2016-07-27

I made it out of fresh grass as it was the only resource accessible to me. I am currently drying some to make the cord/rope out of dry fivers. Very helpful thanks.

SirLiRamsey (author)2014-12-24

I've used poplar bark and even tall grass from lakesides for cordage. The bark is strong, the grass is for small stuff only

For the grass could you make several strands then braid them together for strength?

meowwl (author)2016-07-26

I've done something similar with nettle fibers...Disclaimer, nettles don't bother me at all, so don't blame me if you get stung! Actually crushing the plant is the cure for the stings. They smell particularly green too. I've also made cordage from the inner bark of a cottonwood tree, and it comes out surprisingly supple...I could almost see knitting or crocheting clothing from it.

richard.couch.77 made it! (author)2016-05-08

great tutorial! and a useful skill

RainT4 (author)2015-12-20

you can also make rope and other things from your own hair, provided you are letting it grow out. A lot of tribes use their own hair in jewelry making and rope making because it is so durable, strong, and attractive looking (shiny and smooth if weaved correctly).

RainT4 (author)RainT42015-12-20

you do not need to cut your hair, just make a simple wooden comb with 5 spikes, brush your hair regularly, then collect all of the hair that falls out and put onto a spindle. it accumulates very quickly.

Rayne2021 (author)2014-10-27

How do you finish it?

cat1986 (author)2014-08-14

Educational thanks for sharing

bikerviper (author)2014-06-08

How do you splice?

DanYHKim (author)2013-11-29

I have been known to tear paper napkins into strips, twist them, and then reverse-twist the strands into a short cord. It's something to do when I am kinda bored.

ggksc (author)2013-09-01

Very informative in(de)structable.
Thank you very much!
The Images/Vids provided, cleared up something that had me confused with the whole process for a long time.

I made a quick 2 strand cord using plastic (carrier) bags.
Plastic strips were approx 2inches thick (before twisting).
I spliced in one extra plastic strip to add a touch more length, and to test my splicing abilities.

<img src=""/>
** Appologies, the 'Add Images' button doesn't seem to want to work for me.
    You can copy/paste the url into your browser if you like, but it's just a little picture of my 2strand plastic cord, with my lighter for visual scale.

Once the 2strand 'carrier-bag' cord was done done, it measured in at:
762mm (2'6") in length
and average of 4mm (1/8") thick .
I tied a quick slip-knot in it and tested its strength.
It held 6 Kilos (my 2 smallest dumbbells) and did not break for 5 minutes of suspension.
I will try more weight at a later date, wanted to show the idea to a friend before demolishing.

Not bad at all for 10 minutes of twisting carrier-bags!
I'm going to spend a week in the woods now and try out the different fibres I can find.
Who'd have thought rope-making could be this addictive.

Thanks again for the wealth of information!
+1 Kudos
All the best,
Paul, GKSC

mark1779 (author)2013-07-21

you should try this with hemp ^.^

Jamman01 (author)2013-06-14

awesome! i'm gunna make me wun uf dese

Mr_Altitude (author)2013-05-03

I've made rope from dogbane before. It was surprisingly strong. I made a bracelet from it.

jediwhiz3 (author)2012-02-18

Cool! I have made this with yucca before (live in Colorado) and it is UNBELIEVABLY strong!

superdave5481 (author)jediwhiz32012-11-16

Yucca has been used for thousands of years. Hemp has also been used likewise in many different countries. I believe that yucca and hemp are some the strongest natural fibers you could use. Something great I saw and need to look at again for details is either the yucca or agave that has the needle on the end of their growth also has thread attached if carefully removed that is exceptionally strong and can be used for a great many things.

It's agave that has the needle and thread.

By the way, I just got back from the Denver/Golden area and notices the yucca growing everywhere. Actually I was dragged into one by my paraglider.

kimia13 (author)2012-10-10

i think there is no dogbane in my location! i should probably drive for day to get to the north of country to find dogbane!

Agentfern (author)2012-10-05

A while ago i started a project that involved making plastic bags into "yarn" and then knitting with it. I cut the plastic bags into loops and then put those together by looping them through each other. It didn't really work because the finished yarn was sort of like your plant fibres before you made them into cord. It kept breaking and I gave up. When I read your instructable I just went "Aha!". After twisting some of it, it is much stronger and looks pretty, too. Using loops simplifies splicing because you can easily add more loops when you need to. It hurts my hands, though. Do you think you could make a hand crank out of a pencil sharpener?

joen (author)2009-04-25

Great instructable! I noticed in step 1 under urban sources you suggested plastic bags. Since I had more than a couple I thought I would try it and I have pictures of the results. As you can see I started by making several 2 stranded cords. I then combined 3 two-stranded cords to make a 3 stranded cord. Second picture. then I combined 3 three-stranded cords to make a threefold rope. Your instructable made it easy to work out the details. Pictured with the rope is the only tool I used. Thanks again!

Drakekay (author)joen2012-09-10

I would love to know how much tensile strength is in this plastic rope?!!?!?! :D Does it have any durability, or does it just tend to stretch and break apart?

joen (author)Drakekay2012-09-11

I made some rope and used it to tie down my trash can and to make a rope hook to keep open the trash can while it was being filled. I was amazed at how long it lasted in the open Arizona sun. I was expecting it to come apart from UV damage after a few months but it lasted over a year and a half. It is fairly strong and not that stretchy. Again, I haven't tested it to the point of failure but it is good for most light rope needs.

I have since enhanced the process using spindles and spreaders so that you can make rope as long as you want without having to twist long strands. You can even make it in your room. If there is interest I can make an instructable on how to do it.

thanks for your interest.

jediwhiz3 (author)joen2012-02-18

How strong is the finished plastic cord?

joen (author)jediwhiz32012-02-18

I haven't tried to see how strong it is but it seems to be quite strong. I made some spindles to make the rope making process simpler and the ropes that I have made with them seem quite strong. I use them as general purpose tie off ropes where I tie off my trash bin to keep it from blowing over in the wind and it seems to hold up OK but not great in the outside sun light. When I make rope with twine or survey line it is quite strong. Can you make good usable rope with plastic bags? Yes you can! Is it strong enough? That depends on what you are using it for. I haven't tested it to its limit yet but I haven't pulled apart any of my ropes yet. I am not strong enough to pull them apart by hand. I know that doesn't answer your question but it is the only one I have.

phyzome (author)joen2009-04-27

Beautiful! I have trouble making cord out of cord, because I'm so used to wrapping one direction, and you have to reverse direction at each level. Maybe I can switch hands to pull it off. Any suggestions?

When I spin cordage into cordage, I use the reverse reverse rap. As you can tell by the name, you're reverse raping backwards. It's a little painful and confusing at first, but after a while you adjust.

joen (author)phyzome2009-04-27

No not really. It was your instructable that I learned to do this from. I have seen some roll on the thigh methods of making cordage on Utube but you are undoubtably all over that already. I made the above rope to learn the process of making rope with hands and no tools. With no natural fibers to play with I chose plastic bags. Of necessety I learned to reverse wrap like you showed both ways from the start. Plastic bags aren"t perfect to make rope with but they are a cheap and convenient way to learn if you don't have ready access to natural plant fibers. You're light years ahead of me already. I can't tell you anything you don't already know. Thanks for getting me started on a fasinating hobby.

phyzome (author)joen2009-04-29

"You're light years ahead of me already. I can't tell you anything you don't already know." Nonsense! I don't know anything about this beyond what I posted and what other commenters have written. You've succeeded at making cordage out of cordage, which I haven't. On Instructables, there's no real difference between "teacher" and "student".

joen (author)phyzome2009-04-29

Thank you for the kind words. I was surprised you said that you hadn't made cordage out of cordage given your excellent Instructable. In case you are wondering, you just do the reverse wrap backwards. After making cordage the normal way (top strand twist away turn both strands back toward), you take three strands of already made cordage and then take the bottom strand and twisted toward you and then take the top and bottom strands and turned them away and on top of the third strand and then repeat. You are twisting each strand tighter before you turn both away. At least that is how it works with plastic bags. I still haven't had a chance to do it with natural fibers to see if there is a difference. Hope that made sence.

appux (author)joen2009-04-28

I'd be curious to hear about it if you use your plastic bag ropes for anything, and how well they hold up!

joen (author)appux2009-04-28

Actually I only did this last week and this is all I have done. I am using it mostly as a learning tool to learn how to do it. I may have some uses later for some light hanging displays but I don't intend to hang anything heavy with it. Also I understand that grocery bag plastic degrades in the sun so I don't intend using it outside. Eventually I want to make "real" rope with "real" plant fiber and when that time comes,I want to be ready.

AtomRat (author)2012-09-10

Hi there! Thanks for sharing these tips, I will find this very useful at times and have used it briefly over at

If this was done on a ridiculous scale, say, like a large ship rope, can the reverse twist technique be used to join several braids of rope into one very large diameter and long rope? Or would the whole lot just be braided, or even twisted ( I have seen old rope twisting devices that were hand cranked ) .. i hope that makes sense.

heathbar64 (author)2012-04-21

So when I first saw this ible, I got a grocery bag and started practicing. went well but had a hard time with the splices. Later, I had a basket full of plastic grass like is used in easter baskets. I got better at the splices and made a 6' length of pretty good twine. then while gathering firewood, I tried some of the stringy stuff from inside the bark. it was pretty weak string. I don't know if my fibre was old and rotton or what. anyway, now I have practiced some I'm back to revue the details. I find it very therapudic to make cordage. Kinda a mindless handwork.

heathbar64 (author)2012-01-13

Facinating! I alway wondered how that was done. your instructions for twisting is very clear to me, but I' think the hard part is in finding the fiber. I would like to see a video of making a splice.

dak415173 (author)2011-12-03

you said your fibers were 3 feet and when twisted together were only 2 feet but what if i want somthng longer then that how would i connect two sections together

davee52uk (author)2011-08-19

I require something a bit thinner. I want to tie up plants, like tomatoes with something which is also biodegradable, so that at the end of the growing season I can just throw the plant into the compost bin.

At the moment I have to spend ages removing cable etc that I have used to tie the plant up.

Any suggestions ?

Incidentally as a church bellringer I use hemp ropes which are much better than any man-made material.

phyzome (author)davee52uk2011-08-20

My dad always used some kind of very coarse twine (maybe jute?) for this. It composted pretty well.

rileius (author)2011-08-19

Once you get through all of your cordage you can fold the rope over itself and do the reverse wrap step again, except you twist towards you and put forward

beehard44 (author)2011-08-19

i think this is how they make abaca rope

sxu1 (author)2011-06-27

Can you make a video for this step because I don't really understand it?

luneydude (author)sxu12011-07-17

im a texas cowboy and this is somethin i do all the time this instructable is okay for a survival situtation but if your just makin rope to use round your house or somethin out on a farm or whatever your usin it for (i use it to hunt deere, i laso them and then tackle them and stab them) any dead plant will work but you want good rope and maybe your feelin like bein old fashion one day and makin rope like texas rangers did before wayback when they were still shootin six shooters and single loaders and around the time of sam houston then use any dead plant and wax it up real good with candle wax....wind up your fibers then wax it up real good with candle wax and then when the wax dies take a match and cinch the ends of the rope and then if you want to put nots on the end put more wax and bend the rope into the not and hold it like that till te wax dries up

g-tech (author)2011-07-05

this cordage can be used for many things, a good suggestion would be a primitive sling!

FunkNattidelic (author)2008-03-27

I don't live around a forest or park so i can't get plants like that BUT i did have a plastic bag in my bedroom / " evil genius " lab and it looks pretty interesting. I like this instructable. Maybe someone could make long enough cords from plastic bags to strap the raft that you make out of garbage ( not sure what that instructable is called...) than it would be fully made out of garbage !!

phyzome (author)FunkNattidelic2008-03-28

Hey, that sounds pretty sweet! A word of caution: Plastic is designed to break down under ultraviolet light. You'd want to check the strength of the straps very carefully each time before taking the raft out for a spin.

joen (author)phyzome2011-07-04

Hi I wrote you about June 2009 about using plastic bags to learn to make rope. First of all I think you are absolutely right about checking the strength of plastic bag rope left out in the sun. However I have since made a lot of rope with plastic bags and found something odd. I used some out side and left it out in the Arizona desert sun for over a year expecting it to deteriorate within six months. So far I have seen very little deterioration. I am just as surprised as anybody.
Still, get plenty of experiance with plastic bag rope before you trust it with anything important (like life or limb)

About This Instructable




More by phyzome:Make rope out of dead plants -- with no tools
Add instructable to: