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The history of rope making

thick rope knot

What is rope making?

Rope making is the process of twisting lots of fibres together to make one strong rope. A rope’s job is to remain wound together, even when contorted or knotted, otherwise it would not have enough tensile strength to pull heavy objects or keep its stability. 

How to make ropes

Nowadays, the rope making process is largely industrialised, with ropes created by machines. But essentially, there are four parts to rope production:

  1. Prepare the fibres by twisting. 
  1. Spin the fibres, or bunch them, into yarn.
  1. These yarns are then twisted – in a process called forming – into strands.
  1. Next up is laying – where multiple strands are twisted together, to form a complete rope.

What material is used to make ropes?

Most fibres can be used to make a rope, but depending on the type used to make the strands, and ultimately the rope, some will inevitably be stronger than others. The strongest type of natural rope, for example, is a manila rope, whereas for synthetic rope you should go for nylon or polypropylene. Synthetic ropes such as these are strong, lightweight and are great value for money. 

The different rope making techniques

The material of a rope can differ, and so can the technique of braiding or twisting a rope. We have listed a few types of rope making techniques below:

  • Twisted rope: To form a twisted rope, fibres are spun into yarns and then twisted into strands. These separate strands are then twisted together to create a rope.
  • Braided rope: This type of rope is created by braiding yarn together to form a tube-like structure. The benefit of this is that they have better flexibility than a twisted rope.

Plaited rope: A plaited rope is relatively simple and is similar to a twisted rope, except the strands are plaited instead.

A brief history of rope making

The history of rope is actually a lot more intricate than you might think. So without further ado, let’s dive in.

When were ropes invented?

Rope making has been an essential part of history, and dates back to prehistoric times around 28,000 years ago. Originally, ropes were made from twisting plant fibres, or anything individuals could source locally, together – and it’s not so different today. Rope making spread to many civilizations, but first became popular with the Egyptians – then moving onto the Chinese dynasties and the rest of the world. 

The ancient Egyptians were the first to create rope making tools, and ropes became essential for moving materials to use for building the pyramids and monuments. Some tombs actually show this process in their wall paintings – these are called reliefs. Other parts of the world realised the usefulness of ropes in industry and daily life, becoming a massive global industry. 

How was traditional rope made?

Rope was traditionally made in a ropewalk – this referred to the rope factories. These buildings were long, low, and often completely outdoors. Later, ropewalks were either roofed or housed inside. Unlike most other industrial factories, ropewalks were placed outside of cities because of the high fire risk they posed. Due to the extremely long lengths of rope that needed to be made, these factories were often around a quarter of a mile long – sometimes even longer. In a ropewalk, long fibres would be laid down and twisted together to make one strong rope. The strength of the rope comes from these fibres being wound together multiple times over. Usually, ropewalks were operated by hand or hand-operated tools, but this later developed. 

Chatham Dockyard in Kent has the only traditional working ropewalk, and rope has been made there for around 400 years. It also contains a ropery museum for people to check out the history of rope making in even more depth.

How rope making has evolved

The industrial revolution pushed for steam-powered machines, progressing into electric use. Some electricity powered ropewalks hung around until the mid 20th century. As a rope making method, the ropewalk was efficient but slow and things began to change.

The desire for stronger, thicker ropes began with the increase in sea trading. The use of ropes on ships was essential and the ropewalks couldn’t keep up with the demand. Natural materials – that were usually used for rope making – could no longer be used due to them shrinking when they got wet. Manila is the material of choice for rope usage on boats – it’s strong and doesn’t stretch. 

This is where we see a move towards rope making as we know it today, and away from slower processes like ropewalks. These days, ropes are mass produced quickly and in large quantities to keep up with the ever growing rope industry. 

Feeling inspired by the rich history of rope making? If you’re interested in buying some ropes, rather than making them yourself, then we can help. Or maybe you’re unsure what type of rope you need, in that case – contact us today to satisfy all of your rope needs. 

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