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Natural Fiber Rope Making

Courtesy of The Original Jesus Boat Store of the Jesus Boat Museum, Nof Ginosar

Natural Fiber Rope Making

By Patricia Turner

Patricia Turner describes how she became involved with the Kinneret Boat aka Jesus Boat model project and her role in creating the natural fiber ropes for the model.

Working as a membership secretary for INA, I am hearing, seeing and experiencing a “new world” – one that I wanted to learn about when I was a young girl and now am getting a chance to explore. One day, I walked into Dr. Shelley Wachsmann’s office and noticed a small clay pot, wrapped in ropes, on his desk. When I remarked about the rope, Shelley told me that Bill Charlton was researching rope for his master thesis; I headed home that evening and made a small length of rope. The next day I showed it to Shelley and Bill, who were thrilled and asked me if I would be willing to make the rope for the Kinneret boat model. (The original vessel, on which the model is patterned, dates to first centuries B.C. – A.D. in Israel.) I immediately agreed to do so, and the project grew with enthusiasm.

Fibers for rope making can be gathered from a large variety of sources: vines, tall grasses, fibrous roots, inner bark of trees, and fibrous leaves. A good rope-making material must have four qualities: 1) reasonably long fibers, 2) strength, 3) pliability, and 4) holding or bite which allows the fibers to grip one another.

The same basic techniques that I used on the model’s ropes have been used since ancient Egypt to present day in many third world countries. In Oman, short ropes are made by one person using both hands and toes; for a long rope, it often requires four people or more to twist the different strands.

The material I used was yucca leaves from the Agavaceae, a family of plants indigenous to southwestern United States and Mexico. I split the 2.1/2’ – 3’ foot leaves twice, and scraped off the waxy cuticle and outer layer with a knife to expose the fibers. Then, as the leaf dried, I loosened the remaining pulp from the fibers by rubbing them between my hands and by gently hammering them. Then I separated out single fibers and cleaned them each separately, with my fingernails. All this required much time and patience.

To make a single lay (strand) of rope, I gathered approximately 10-15 single fibers together, twisting them slowly between my fingers in a clockwise manner. I was careful to do this evenly and uniformly. Additional fibers were continually added to the center of the twist, thus extending the length of the lay. The longer the fibers, the stronger the rope.

To lay up a 3-lay cord, I attached three strands-all the same diameter, length, tightness, and direction of twist-to one of the three hooks on a rope-spinning machine made by my husband, Jack. At the opposite end, I tied the strands together and used a three-slotted, cork-sized, piece of wood to keep them separated and tensioned. To tighten the strands, I turned the crank in the direction of the twist. Usually, the direction of the twist is dictated by the natural twist of the fiber used, causing the cord to be formed near the small cork.

The person who twists the lays must see to it that they are twisting evenly, but separately. At the cork, one hand holds the cork to keep the tension, while the other hand holds the loose-turning material. It is essential to feel the fibers twisting together; this helps maintain a uniform twist and evenness. After the cord is finished, it is laid out, straightened, then coiled in a spiral fashion for storage.

I enjoyed immensely doing this rope-making project. The scrubbing of the fibers was exasperating, yet the wholes project was a great learning experience. I particularly enjoyed the feeling of comradery and warmth of the professors, staff, and graduate students. Like the coiled rope. There is a common thread in all of the INA people-team spirit, generosity, support and gentleness. I’m glad I am a part of a great happening!


Patricia Turner 

Institute of Nautical Archaeology

PO Drawer HG
College Station, TX 77841-5137


Jones, Gigi Crocker.1991. The Crafts, p. 175 in Musandam by Paola M. Costa. Immel Publishing, London.

Graves, Richard. 1978. Bushcraft, a serious guide to survival and camping. Warner Books, New York, pp. 2-8.

Mackay, Ernest. 1916. Note on a tomb (No. 260) at Drab Abuil. Naga, Thebes. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, III, p. 125.

Seymour, John. 1984. The Forgotten Crafts. Alfred Knopf, New York, p. 117.


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