One of the things I have always loved about books is how they can send one down rabbit holes from which new things are learned. Take, for instance, 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (As We Know It). The book itself as a tool for learning any of the 100 skills is completely useless. It is, basically, a glorified annotated list with a provocative title. However, one of the skills, making cordage, caught my attention.
Cordage is rope. And the page about cordage mentioned it could be made from milkweed. Say what? I have an abundance of milkweed in my garden, can I make cordage from it? Down the rabbit hole I went.
And yes, yes I can make cordage from the milkweed in my garden. I can also use the nettle from my garden, which apparently can be made into a kind of yarn and crocheted into dish scrubbers. Mind blown.
It was too late to gather nettles, I had already chopped them down for winter long ago. I still had milkweed standing in my garden though. The stalks are supposed to be brown, if they are black they are a no go. The black is mold and the beginning of decomposition. So one evening as I ventured out to put the Dashwoods to bed, I gave a good look at the milkweed stalks. Most of them were black. All was not lost however, as four were dark tan verging on black but I figured since this was going to be an experiment and I am not making rope that is going to rig sails or tie up loads but merely a thick twine for use in the garden, these four borderline stalks would be fine.
I waded out into the snow and cut them down. It was cold and dark was settling in and the stalks were wet so I scurried into the house with them and put them in the basement to dry.
It’s been a couple weeks. The stalks are dry. Time to give this cordage thing a try. The instructions at Wilderness College turned out to be perfect.Lesson one. I brought the milkweed up from the basement, white silk and seeds puffing off and going everywhere. Next time, cut the seed pods off before bringing the stalks into the house to dry. Here is a useful side bit of knowledge though, milkweed silk makes an excellent fire starter.
Lesson two. Even without the seed puffs flying all around the house, this turned out to be a very messy process. This is something that should be done outdoors in late fall or early spring.
Lesson three. It is definitely a skill that will take practice, both processing the material and making the cordage. I did one stalk and it took me an hour start to finish for a little over a foot of twine. It appears that those who are good at it take about 10 minutes start to finish for the same result I got.
So here is what I did on the floor by the sliding glass door to the deck. I had a piece of scrap wood and a five-pound hand weight. After I cut off the seed pods and dead leaves and side branches, I laid the milkweed stalk down on the scrap wood and used the weight to crush the stalk. I think went a bit overboard on the crushing since it is meant to only split the stem so you can open the stalk.
When I opened the stalk I expected the string to be running through the middle and was confused to find a hard barky pith. It turns out the string is sandwiched between the thin outer skin covering and inside pith. Hunh. The dry pith would probably make great kindling to feed the fire you start with the milkweed silk. But since I am not starting a fire in my house, it ended up just adding to the mess as I worked my way down the stalk, breaking it into pieces and peeling it away from the fiber.
Those who know what they are doing can apparently split the stalk in half and end up with two lengths of fiber. Since I did not know what I was doing I ended up with three longer lengths of fiber and some shorter pieces.
After extracting the fiber, it must be “buffed.” Buffing amounts to rubbing the fiber up and down its length between the palms of your hands to remove any remnants of pith and outer skin. It also softens and “fluffs” the fiber making it easier to work with. I put on garden gloves for the buffing process so as not to hurt my surprisingly uncallused hands (surprising given all the gardening and what not that I do). While I buffed the long strands of fiber I added the shorter strands in and the rubbing kind of stuck them together.Now the fiber is ready to turn into cordage. This part was really easy and fun. The hardest part was figuring out the direction to wrap the two twisted pieces together so that they didn’t unravel when I let them go. This is a fascinating thing that holds true for plied yarn as well. The strands are twisted in one direction and the ply goes in the opposite direction. So when you let go, it doesn’t unwind because the individual twisted strands work against the plied strands and hold each other together. Make sense? If it doesn’t that’s okay. When I let go of my plied twine I fully expected to see it untwist because I just couldn’t see how it might work. But it does work!
I stood there looking at my length of twine in amazement. Then I did a little dance around the house with it. Then I showed James who took it from me and gave it a few good tugs to see how strong it was. Really strong! I giggled and marveled and danced around some more.
I should do another stalk and splice the fiber to this one!
I looked at the mess on the floor from just the one stalk and suddenly felt really tired. Yeah, I think I will wait until spring to do the other three stalks outside where I won’t have to clean up afterwards.
I wrapped my beautiful twine into a small coil and put it in my garden basket. Then I cleaned up my mess and took it out to the compost bin. Then I sat down on the couch, full of the delight of learning a new skill and making my own twine, and picked up Ross Gay’s wonderful The Book of Delights that I have been enjoying immensely.