Monday, February 18, 2013

Cattail Cordage

every part of the plant is useful. It is found in ponds and slow moving water. Water being the key ingredient and something we have very little of. Most of our standing water is man made reservoirs and ponds of a very small size. To give you an idea of just how little water we have, our wells on average are 300 feet or deeper. Irrigation, well, that is something other parts of the Wyoming have but we only dream of.

 Most of these watering holes are without cattails but we happen to have a man made pond on the edge of town with a few. Right now the roots are not accessible being frozen solid underneath a thick foot or more of ice. But come summer, we are definitely going to try eating the roots and repeat the experiment of making cordage. Oh wait a minute, I forgot to tell you, yes, the subject today is cordage from cattail leaves. 

Teaching Cub Scouts, my new don't have time to do but was talked in to pursuit, has led me to further explore knot tying. Of course my brain didn't stop there and I had to wonder what could we make cordage from in our area in a survival situation? Because face it, you can't do much of anything without rope. That is why survivalist replace shoelaces with parachute cord and tie parachute cord on to about everything in their survival gear.

I know squirrel moment here but have you seen those cool bracelets made of paracord with fishing line, weights, and hooks attached? Our son took it one step further and included a ferro rod as a latch. I've got to try that. And don't believe that drilling a hole through a ferro rod creates lots of sparks. My husband did so yesterday with no such excitement. This fishing gear, fire starter bracelet, would make a great addition to our Bug Out Bags. Toni has named hers Bob and she and I  are thinking about making a paracord belt for to add to ours. Not that we'd go around with them but we'd attach them to our bags and put them on when we bugged out.
But going even more basic than buying cordage is making your own. I've had a taste of this since I was a kid. My brother, use to buy basic hemp material and con me into helping him make pigin strings, since it was less expensive than buying the already made ones. A pigin string is a short thinner rope that you tie three legs of a calf down with to keep him under control and on the ground.
 My brother and I spent a fair amount of time doing just that as we were assigned to treat pink eye and other diseases that occasionally roamed through the large herd of cattle my dad managed. In a herd of five hundred calves they aren't all called Bobby and come when called, standing dossily while you give shots and probe in their eyes. Nope, if they have pink eye, they are half blinded and kick out at the slightest movement making dodge a survival sport. When medicating a calf without someone to hold them still, the pigin string became a handy tool. Since we did this from grade school on up, we also had to be held down in a fashion and treated for pink eye too, as hygiene is not a huge priority when you are young. Yes, I know pink eye intimately on several levels.
But cordage has more uses than this, just look around you, especially if you are on a farm, ranch, or homestead. If we didn't have a handy dandy hardware store available then what? We'd have to gather cordage material from the wild and prepare it and for most of us, that is something new. So far I've found cattail (the narrow leaf variety), yucca plant, milk weed, and I'm looking at different types of tree bark for cordage material in our area. Everything else I've found mentioned so far doesn't grow here and truthfully, yucca and milk weed are up north a couple hours so they don't either. I told you, we are on the BARREN plains.

As far as nettles, I'm still researching. Do we have them or not? Not here where Kirk and I live of course but up north again. I'm kind of hoping so because I'm hearing what a wonderful plant, weed, and  pest it is depending on your take on it. But to the herbalist it has cordage, medicinal, and food value.  
 Though some say dried out and grey is the color you look for in cordage material, I'm going with Ray Mears and other sites that state summer to be the best foraging time to pick and dry the material especially after making cordage from dried out winter starved cattail leaves. Then again maybe that doesn't hold true for all materials for another site said Milk Weed is best picked after the leaves fall. How is one to know? What works great in one area of the country may not hold true in another. Winter here means not a speck of green but in Kentucky there is lots of green in comparison, so I figure doing is the only true way of knowing.

Expecially since survialist avoid the open plains to do their shows. Seriously, Ray Mears came to Wyoming and showed walking across the grasslands followed by a horse and then did his show in the forrest. I'm not the only frustrated plains dweller for my husband follows Camping Survival on Facebook and they mentioned the same thing, calling for information on survival tactics on the plains. Frustration was the only response I saw.

I'm learning that preparing means not only reading and gathering but doing for especially on the plains there isn't much to guide us along the way. Hence, this summer we are going to try cattail roots and make cordage once more when the leaves are green and dried, to see what difference that makes. Then once more in the fall since we've already done winter. We will expand to Milk Weed and Yucca plants too when we can make the trip up north to gather them. We do hope to move to another area of Wyoming sometime to up our survival possibilities.
I'll admit I have a decided advantage to making cordage being a spinner because isn't spinning fibers into yarn simply making cordage? Softer yes, but none the less cord. I've use a broad spectrum of materials from a beef steers fluffy spring wooly cast offs to our Norwegian Forest cat's fur. Of course I've spun cotton, raimee, flax, mohair, quivet, a variety of wools ( Merino being my favorite) and even camel down and alpaca which send me into a state of bliss. Each requires minor adjustments in the way you handle them such as angora rabbit fur which I found wants to fly everywhere including up your nose but basically the method is the same no matter what material you use.
 So a cattail leaf is no different. It has a long fiber making that part easy but in its winter stage, it is very brittle despite a brief soaking in warm water. I did find ripping the leaf in half lengthwise to make the task simplier. Also pinching the leaf in half lenthwise gives it more supple. The narrower strands of braid I figure can then be further braided with other such strands to form a stronger rope. 

I'm not going into details on just how to braid cattails since there are scads of U-Tube videos on the subject. There just weren't many on how to splice in a new leaf to keep going but that too wasn't much different than what I do making yarn on the spinning wheel. Could I make this cattail cordage on the spinning wheel, not sure, I doubt it. I don't think it will at any stage have the suppleness required.
My biggest issue with this experiment was the breakage.
This is the whole cattail leaf made into cordage on the top and the bottom is the split cattail leaf. I see I should have twisted it a bit tighter. Remember that when you twist sharply away from you, the material unwinds a little to twist back on itself. There simply isn't a substitute for practice. The Cub Scouts and I did learn that this task is much easier to do with two people versus one.

There is another method of making cordage. I'd guess it would make the cordage last longer as you remove the cellulose from the plant which leaves strings. This I'm sure would lend itself to the spinning wheel. From what I can see and read, the method is basically the same as the process of turning flax into linen. This soaking, beating, and stripping is also on many U-tubes and will be what I'm wanting to try with Milk Weed and Yucca plants.

Tree bark cordage is also made in this fashion and we have a nice willow tree out back so this summer that is also on the list. Ray Mears on one of his shows makes a weak lye solution of hardwood ashes for soaking tree bark that was first lightly beaten. This would speed up the separation of the cellulose from the stringy inner material for he does this whole process in a few hours. Other instructors simply soak the materials until it smells rotten, which is a few days. If time constraits are part of the survival bargain, I can see one method being more helpful than the other. Which produces a better product, don't know.

Also does the renting process make a cordage that lasts much longer than simply using the whole leaf? I can't help but think yes, or why wouldn't they use the whole flax stem instead of renting it to make linen. This refining process I think would make a smoother and more flexible product also.

One critical need for cordage in a survival situation is for a bowdrill to start a fire. Our son has been using paracord for learning this technique. Would natural cordage make a difference? I know cattail cordage is not suitable for this but milk weed cordage is said to do well. And if we are thinking survivalist, then we have to think bow strings too. Hm.... my brain is a whirling now.

One of my problems in researching this subject is that most of the cordage information is from survivalist, not long term self-sufficiency-ists.  Okay, there isn't such a word but you get the gist. I'm looking into long term solutions. I can't help it, my brain goes there. I don't have a I've survived for 72-hours so someone has to bale me out now or I'll die attitude. I know this is the bag the government recomends and I agree people should have one because that is about as far as most people are willing to go without a hand out. But I'm not too confident in the government baling me out right now. It can't bale itself out. So I'm thinking more on the line of a survival bug out bag. or sticking tight and making do.

Now of course you can't talk about cordage and not mention rawhide and leather which lasts even longer than cordage made from plant fibers.  Besides, I love the look and smell of leather. And rawhide, well it is just classy. I admit, these two materials are calling to me, "Try me, try me!" but first I'm going to work with paracord to learn some basic braids. Then I can use that knowledge to do natural materials whether they be plant, leather or rawhide.

A little research info -- a plant fiber string, in most cases, would have to be twice the diameter of the sinew string to be of the same strength.

Now for that Internet site I mentioned in the beginning and an excerpt from it. Did this last draft have a website mentioned? Oh well, here is one.
"The stem sections of many different plants hold useful cordage fibers. Plants such as nettle, dogbane, velvet leaf, milkweed, prairie flax, thistle, and fireweed are valued for their quality fibers. I have processed many hundreds of feet of stinging nettle, dogbane, and milkweed cordage. These stems are hollow or have a pith core. They are collected in the fall after the last leaves have fallen off, usually after the first frost. The stems are left to dry in a warm place and then they are checked for brittleness. I then split them lengthwise, usually into four sections. These sections are easier to work with. Each section is carefully snapped every few inches, beginning at the bottom. As I snap each small section, I carefully peel the fiber bearing bark loose. Hopefully, I'll end up with a section of bark the full length of the stem. Short sections of bark are still useful as the fibers can be spliced onto longer sections of cordage. As I twist the sections into cordage, the dry brittle bark falls off leaving nice silky fiber. Sometimes the cord has to be twisted back and forth several times to loosen stubborn bark fragments. Some folks use a knife to scrape the bark off the stem before sectioning it but I prefer to just let it fall off while twisting. If you're not careful, you can scrape too deep and ruin the fiber."

I hope this spurs you to make a little cordage of your own. Remember, reading about a subject is great but if you really want an understanding of  it -- you have to do it. So stay tuned, this subject isn't finished. I'm not only seeing cordage in a survival sense but wouldn't a bracelet of milkweed be interesting. Of course a braided rawhide or leather one with mammoth ivory pendent would be divine. My daughters would love it for a Christmas present. Oh my, a thought just struck me.  What about our yaks long hair? I love horsehair braiding. A yak hair bracelet, now that would be cool!!

 Hm... the possibilities are limited only by the mind's imagination and mine is overly busy.

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