Militia Rope Making Activity

During your seven years of service at Colony Ross, the Militia have the option of making rope. All materials and instructions will be provided to you by your ELP Instructor once you’re on site.

Requirements – You will need a minimum of three people to operate the rope machine. Making rope takes about half hour at Colony Ross.

Instructions –

  • Tie the end of the rope to the hook on the left at the rope machine.
  • Go with the twine to the swivel back and forth at least 2 threads per hook.
  • Tie the other end back at the hook where you have started.
  • Cut the twine.
  • One person will stand behind the swivel end to guide the weight tied to the swivel hook.
  • The second person will stand behind the rope machine and turn the handle slowly in the counterclockwise direction.
  • The third person will hold the fork at the swivel end. When the 3 strands start to get tight they will twist at the swivel end.
  • Push the rope fork along keeping an even light pressure on it.
  • Move the fork up the strands as the person behind the machine keeps on slowly turning the handle until the rope fork has reached the hooks.
  • Remove the rope fork, hold onto the rope and remove the rope from the swivel.
  • Remove the rope from the 3 hooks and tie the end with a half hitch knot and you are done.

The Craft of Rope Making Rope was one of man’s earliest tools.  History records rope making as far back as 7,000 years ago, and is one of America’s oldest industries. The materials that man used to make rope varied and depended on the locality and use of the rope. Rope has been made out of many things — hide, hair, plant fibers, tree bark, cotton wire, silk, simple vines to name just a few. Twisting or braiding strands of these materials together made them stronger than single untwisted cords. The first methods of rope making were similar to weaving plant fibers into mats and baskets. Fibers are spun into twine, and twine is used to make rope. The rope making operation is “laying.”  In laying, the twine is led from a block (paddle) for the desired length to the laying machine (rope maker) and back to the block. This is repeated until the desired thickness is achieved. Rope was — and is — used to build, hoist, haul, cross obstacles, support, tie, fish, hunt, snare food, fight, furnish, clothe, and transport. Today there are hundreds of different types of ropes for a great variety of uses.

Since the ancient times, virtually every city and town in the world had an industry making rope.  Russia, however, was the world’s largest producer and best-quality manufacturer, supplying 80% of the Western world’s cordage from 1740 to 1940.

At Colony Ross we know that there was a “machine for making cordage” listed in the Inventory and Bill of Sale from the Russian American Company to John A. Sutter, the buyer of the settlement. There are also several sheds and barns listed in the Inventory; one of which may have been used as a ropewalk.


World History of Rope Throughout history people have twisted strips of hide, sinew, hair, vines, and plant fibers into rope, long before they learned to spin and weave.  Rope making was a universal skill known in all tribes and civilizations. Braided ropes were used in Asia before 4000 BC. Ropes were used to decorate pottery in southeastern Europe in 3000 BC. The Mayans used rope to move the large blocks of stone they needed for building their marvelous temples. The ancient Egyptians developed rope making techniques in 2500 BC which they still use today.  Some Native American tribes chewed hide and sinew into strands that could be used for rope. Rope making in Ancient India was so unique that only a special class of people made ropes. Homer frequently mentions rope in his “Odyssey.” The Romans even fabricated rope out of thin copper wire. In the 14th century England, first guilds of rope makers were established. Medieval monks made ropes to ring monastery bells and to use as belts.  But it was the age of sailing ships that turned rope making into a vital industry. Phoenician ships were held together by rope. Columbus had 15 miles of rope on his ship. Records indicate the Emperor of China had rope made from ladies hair. In North America hemp was planted along the watering holes of the western trails so that future pioneers could harvest it. Pioneers carried a rope machine when they came west for this purpose.

Rope making was commonplace. Every community of any size had its ropewalk — places where ropes could be made by laborers who “walked” out the twists in the strands. The first American ropewalk was founded in Salem, Massachusetts in 1635.

Rope making was a common colonial pursuit by 1700. Most ropewalks during this time were along the coast or in port towns because the greatest need for rope was in the fishing and sailing industries. Walks were often 900 feet or more. South England boasted a 2,000 foot ropewalk.  Philadelphia had several competing ropewalks. Although smaller ropewalks served the rural areas, farmers made some ropes for their own use out of flax; but they were of a lesser quality than those made in colonial ropewalks. The first ropewalk in the west was established by Hiram and Alfred Tubbs in San Francisco.  Ropewalks were found indoors and out and on sailing ships. Later large, narrow sheds were built that were over 1,000 feet long and 30 feet wide. Three or four rope makers worked side by side in these ropewalks. These sheds were not heated in winter, but remained open during bad weather. The long wooden sheds, filled  with dry fibrous material, were moved to locations outside of town. This was an added hardship for those who worked there. Rope makers had to be skilled artisans to produce quality ropes under these conditions. The entire rope making process was influenced by the ability and experience of the rope maker. Although machines gradually replaced skilled rope makers, traditional techniques survived until after the Civil War.


Rope Making Glossary –

Abaca The plant from which the fiber for “manila rope” is taken. Grown mostly in the Philippines.

Against The Sun –  In the counterclockwise or left-handed direction

Agave – The succulent from which sisal rope is made.  Varieties of this plant grow in the Philippines, the East Indies, Africa and Central and South America

Binder Twine –  Light twine used in packaging

Baler Twine –  Heavy twine used for baling straw or hay

Bitter End – The last or end of a rope or cable.  Reaching the “bitter end” meant you had nothing left to work with

Braid – To interweave cord or rope

Coil – A spiral rope or to lay a rope down in a circular fashion

Cord – A small line made of several yarns, less than 1 inch in diameter. Also called “small stuff”

Cordage – A general term for all rope, cord, and line

Cow’s Tail – The frayed end of a rope

Fiber – The smallest threads used to make the yarns for cords and ropes

Hemp – A plant from the Cannabis family which produces a soft fiber. Hemp is softer warmer, more water absorbent and durable than cotton.  Ninety percent of all ships’ sail from 5th century BC until late 19th century were made from hemp. The word “canvas” is the Dutch pronunciation of the Greek word “Kannabis”’ In addition to canvas sails, virtually all of the rigging, anchor ropes, cargo nets, fishing nets, flags, shrouds and oakum, paper, canvas, textiles and fabrics used for clothing were made from the stalk of Cannabis plant

Jute –  A plant with a soft fiber used for ropes, cords, burlap, and clothing. Grown
mostly in India

Line –  A common name (especially aboard ship) for various types of cordage

Manila – Rope made from abaca fiber

Mecate – A Mexican hair rope

Rope – Any line of more than 1” in circumference

Rope Machine – A mechanical device used to manufacture rope

Sisal – The fibrous material from the leaves of the agave plant. Commonly used to make rope

Whip – To lash the end of a rope to prevent it from unraveling or fraying

With the Sun – In the clockwise or right-handed direction

Yarn – Any number or individual threads or fibers twisted together