Natural cordage is both vital to survival skills and a satisfying and rewarding process in itself. For those wanting to develop their wilderness skills, the process of making natural cordage is an essential step to the further construction of fishing line and bowstrings for hunting, for lashing poles for shelters and bundles and thousand other uses that can make the difference between a pleasant bushcraft experience and a miserable one. Whilst foraging is often seen as simply the art of gleaning food from nature, bushcraft skills such as producing cordage from the natural environment allow for a far wider range of foraging experiences, as well as providing the opportunity to develop an amazing ability to make a cord or string from unlikely appearing materials.
Brambles and grasses offer a good range of cordage possibilities, although the preferred plant-based cordage in the UK is probably nettle, partly because they are so readily available for so much of the year and partly because nettle offers a superior cordage owing to the length of fibre available and the ease of working with the nettle fibre. Nettle makes a cord or braid that can be used effectively for most purposes and can even be woven to make a durable if coarse fabric – as is proved by the fact that World War I knapsacks were woven from nettle fibre!
Remember that if you’re working with nettles you need to avoid the stinging hairs which are found on the underside of the leaves and the stem. You can rub these off the plant completely while wearing gloves, then tear off the leaves.
Crush the stem along its length using your fingers, but don’t use a stone as this can damage the fibres. Using your fingernail or a knife, slide into the end of the stem and open it up like a book so it can be laid flat.
Scrape out the inner fibres to leave the outer fibres of the nettle which will serve as your cordage. This can be used straight away, or you can thin the stem down by tearing or slicing it lengthways to create a narrower fibre.
Allow your cordage to dry either in the sun or by putting it near a camp fire – this is vital as nettle, in particular, shrinks when dried and you need that process to happen before you use it.
Nettle cordage may then need to be soaked to prevent it becoming brittle, and to strengthen it further you can twist your nettle fibre. Simply find the half-way point of your cordage and fold it in two. By twisting one half of the stem with your free hand and then allowing it to twine itself round the other half of the stem you’ll massively increase the tensile strength of your cordage.
Complete stems from a range of trees can be used as withies – the most successful trees for this purpose are hazel, willow, birch, elm, poplar, and ash – however any tree that produces thin pliable stems can be used; where such stems are short, withies can be woven together to make a relatively pliable withy which is good for lashing or adding structural stability to structures.
Inner bark, known as bast, is a more substantial product but requires a greater range of skills and more time. The plus side of tree based cordage is that it lasts longer and is much more durable. Begin by locating a suitable tree: goat willow (aka pussy willow), crack willow, oak, elm and lime are great trees for bast cordage. Lime was in fact the the chosen fibre for cordage and was used across Europe until hemp became more readily available in the 15th century. Even roots can be used to make bindings – Scots Pine is superb for this purpose, but of course you need to take care that you’re not going to damage the tree if you grub to extract some of the smaller, younger roots.
If you’re going for bast-based fibres you’ll have the best raw materials for cordage but to actually produce the finest cordage you need to use a softening method such as beating, boiling, heating, retting or smoking.
Begin by stripping the bark from your chosen tree stems by slitting the bark down the centre and peeling it off carefully. Then prepare the bark using one of the methods describe above – retting and smoking in particular require more expertise and hands-on demonstration than we can cover effectively online, so why not book one of our Dorset bushcraft courses and discover the best techniques for yourself?