Rope and Cordage Basics

Have you ever walked into a hardware store and noticed that there are a lot of different types of rope? There are so many, in fact, that it can be overwhelming to most people if you don’t know what you’re looking for. So let’s go through the basic types of ropes and cordage here and discuss when you would or would not use each.

Natural Fibers: Hemp, Sisal, Coir, Manila, Cotton

Stores still carry rope made from natural fibers, although they are becoming more and more rare. They’re often more expensive than other rope because it’s hard to collect all these natural materials. Plus, they’re never as strong. 

Common types include hemp, sisal, coir, manila, and cotton. Hemp comes from Cannabis plants, sisal from an agave, coir from coconut fibers, manila from a type of banana plant known as abaca, and cotton from the cotton plant. 

These are the types of rope made traditionally via our ancestral explorers. There wasn’t anything else available. The problem is that most of them break down more rapidly in sunlight and rot in high moisture areas so you wouldn’t want to trust your life dangling from them. But, for decorative purposes, these are ideal!

Nylon

Nylon is a type of plastic. It’s actually more of a collection of related polymers instead of just one. Dacron, which is a name brand, was the first patented type of nylon. With some heat they can be strung out into long fibers. These fibers can then be turned into rope.

Nylon rope is super strong as well as stretchy. That means it holds energy well and can be used in things like anchor lines, dock lines, and mooring lines.  The main problem is that if in the rare situation they do break, they’ll whip back with a lot of energy – making for a dangerous situation.

Polyester

Polyester is a synthetic premium fiber. Unlike nylon, it is low stretch and maintains its strength when wet. This makes it ideal for boating applications like rigging and winch lines.

Polypropylene

Polypropylene rope floats in water, which is ideal if you’re using it in a boating application. Your basic ski rope is made out of polypropylene. It’s also somewhat stretchy. That makes it good for applications where you want the rope to take some of the load. However, it does degrade overtime in the UV light from the sun, so be aware that in time your line could break.

Braiding type

You can also have many types of braids in the rope. There are a lot of different types from two-strand that you might make basic natural cordage from to three strand and even more when you get into the complex multi-braids. 

Climbing ropes are often Kernmantle ropes. That means they have multiple inner fibers in the core and a braided outer sheath. Premium paracord used in survival situations is a kernmantle rope with an outer sheath for durability and 7 3-strand nylon cords inside for strength.

You can make your own rope in the wild!

It’s important to know that you can actually make your own rope in the wild. All you need is a bunch of plant fibers and a way to weave them together. The longer the fibers the better. Here, I want to discuss the most basic braid, the reverse wrap. 

Start by twisting both ropes in opposite directions. At some point in your twisting, the rope will want to fold back on itself into a loop. This is the beginning of the rope and will serve as one end of our new cordage. You’ll continue the twisting of both ends in the same direction as they start twisting around each other. 

At this stage, I need to stop though and explain that as simple as this is, it’s really hard to explain in words what you’re doing.

Plants that make great Natural Cordage

There are fibers in all plants. Some are better for making cordage than others though. You can experiment with all sorts of different fibers to find one that works for you.

The following plants and their close relatives make great natural cordage if you can find them. Okra, paper mulberry, stinging nettle, milkweed, ramie, linden, kudzu, wisteria, jute, flax, cedar-bark, brambles, willow bark, spruce roots, cattails, dogbane, basswood, reed, kelp.

Here is a rough video of me making rope from twisting sisal twine.

About The Author
Rob Nelson

Rob Nelson

Rob has worked as a biologist and wildlife educator since 2001 with the goal of reconnecting people with nature. While in grad school in Hawaii he studied ecology and as a side job he spent years working part time leading nature tours – teaching about the wildlife, the land, and the natural history that made the islands so unique. These were the first sparks that would lead to what is now StoneAgeMan.