Introduction: 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)

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

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

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

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

  • 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

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.
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