Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Over the weekend, unexpectedly, I took a ropes course. Not in the way you’re probably thinking; the “ropes course” consisted of me winning a war against a yucca leaf. A friend of mine who is a Girl Scout taught me how to make yucca ropes.
Making rope out of grass, bamboo or yucca is, as you can imagine, a much older and more environmentally friendly practice than making rope from synthetic materials, and the finished product is much more attractive. Nor is it any weaker than commercial rope: I once met a woman in Historical Jamestown who told me her husband had used grass rope to tow a car.
The friend who taught me to make yucca rope has a yucca plant in her yard, its pale green leaves spiking up into the air like swords. We needed to remove some of those leaves for use in our ropes. Unfortunately for us, yucca leaves, despite their many other virtues, are so rough they can give you splinters if you rub them the wrong way, and are hardly dented no matter how viciously you clamp down with pliers. Once we’d finally separated two leaves from the plant, we set them on a flat surface in the shade and started work.
I expected us to cut the leaves into strips, but it turns out you use the fibers inside of the leaf for yucca rope. We scratched the outsides of our leaves away with metal rulers. It was difficult work at first because of the crease of the leaf, but not too hard to get the hang of. As we worked, juice ran out of the leaves, letting off a powerfully green scent.
Since my friend had gotten a head start on the scraping and was better at it than I, she moved on to the next step of the process first. Her spear-sharp leaf had been replaced by a handful of off-white threads. She dipped them in a pitcher of water and held them under to the count of thirty, then attacked them with the ruler again. Wet, the fibers cooperated better, turning so white so fast they made their appearance before soaking look dark. The substance being scraped off now resembled basil pesto.
When she was satisfied with the whiteness of her fibers, we went inside, she to twist her fibers into rope, me to finish my leaf. While my friend worked on her rope, I got so frustrated with my leaf that she took pity on me and helped with the scraping for a while. At last my leaf came apart into a group of pale strands, rather like cooked spaghetti, except greener. I soaked and scraped them until they were white, and started braiding them into rope.
I had made a grass rope before and was no stranger to the technique, although I wasn’t astoundingly skilled. Mine ended up a bit uneven because I’d twisted the fibers rather loosely, but my friend’s had the smooth, almost acrylic look that I’d seen from other masters of the technique. In spite of my poorer execution, though, both ropes looked interesting.
We let our ropes dry, then began the next-to-last step: burning loose fibers off our ropes. I watched in fascination as my friend held her rope up to a lit candle and touched a loose end to the flame. A golden spark traveled along the thread until the rope extinguished it.
When we had both finished that step, we embarked on the last step of the procedure: coating the ropes with beeswax to prevent mold. This entailed dipping the end of an unlit candle in the flame of the lit candle and rubbing the wax onto the rope.
Once our ropes were finished, we made them into jewelry; she made an anklet, I a necklace.
Given the faint green that my rope had settled into, and the white seashell I had chosen to thread onto it, I felt rather like Ariel wearing it, but I didn’t mind. It was very satisfying to have finished it, and I was proud of what I had created. It still smelled sweet, that unique beeswax aroma. It was a bit scratchy, but I could ignore it, and it left no marks on my neck at the end of the day. The colors worked with just about everything. Best of all, it was completely natural, unless there was synthetic coloring in the beeswax.
You don’t need to be a Girl Scout to make yucca rope. It’s versatile, as are its cousins grass and bamboo rope, and can be used in anything from making jewelry to towing cars. It’s easy to make, taking no more than two or three hours, and won’t hurt the earth at all.
Cut a yucca leaf and remove its outer layer, soaking the fibers this process will produce as necessary. Separate your fibers into two parts. Twist the parts together at one end (not both). Form a loop with the twisted part. Twist the next centimeter or so down and cross them. Repeat as necessary until you have, basically, a rope braid. Working very carefully with a lit candle, burn off any loose ends your rope may have. (They’ll look like stray hairs.) Slightly melt some beeswax and rub the melted part on your rope until it is entirely coated. The result makes good jewelry.
Take a piece of grass 1-2 feet long. Cut it into very thin strips. Separate the strips into halves. Twist the parts together at one end (not both). Form a loop with the twisted part. Twist the next centimeter or so down and cross them. Repeat as necessary until you have, basically, a rope braid. Tie a knot at the end. Let dry. When made correctly and in large enough quantities, the result is often usable for rope ladders and in towing cars.
I have no experience with bamboo rope. Ask a Girl Scout.
Photos courtesy of Evie S.