A very large rope with a man's hand for scale.

A man’s hand dwarfed by the brawny girth of rope.

Rope is the wheel of the ocean. Man has used it to bind together and control materials for millennia, from raftsmen navigating the rabid waters of the Nile to nomadic whale hunters rolling over the dark fathoms of the sea. It is a tool that predates all but the most rudimentary instruments of survival — the sharpened stone, the blunt hand tool — and like these objects, versions of it are found in nature: the vine, the twisted branches of plants, even the muscle fiber beneath your skin.

Rope was there when massive materials were hoisted up to build ancient cities like Baalbek, it was what first tethered Europeans to the New World. Think of that fateful line slinking in the pristine West Indian water, or coarsely tearing up the hands of a desert slave. The cord they severed between you and your mother when you were born, or the line they carefully looped around the throat of John Brown.

Physically strong by nature, rope’s interlocking fibers make a cord that is then braided or twisted in opposite directions over two or more versions of itself. The structure gives it a lightness and tensile strength that cannot be replicated, one that seems to have been drawn on the same board as our muscle, even our DNA.

Man weaving rope with his family

A man, five small children and a dog pose pensively with some rope for a nautical-themed family portrait.

The strength of each individual fiber is made stronger from being coiled around a linear structure. The resulting unified mass is stronger than its individual parts. Technological advances in materials, starting with Nylon in the 1930s and careening into the polymers and carbon fibers of today, have meant that the best ropes available are largely unbreakable, which is to say we’ve come a long way since the Incas were weaving together grass to make the Bridge of San Luis Rey. Poor Ernesto, the seafaring hopeful of the story, never had a chance to feel the large hemp locks of a ship; he plummeted to his death instead when the lesser line of the footbridge snapped.

Vintage photo of Mount Hermon men playing a game of tug-of-war, 1890. (Image from the Northfield Mount Hermon archives)

University men suited up to play a rousing game of tug-of-war, 1890. (Image from the Northfield Mount Hermon archives)

Prevalent as it was in the ancient world, rope has yet to fall by the wayside. In fact, the age-old structure is replacing newer, previously hailed materials. Racing catamarans are the latest weaponry in the America’s Cup races. Unlike the bulky, cumbersome yachts of old, these boats are lightweight, high-speed racers, and rope comprises more and more of the boat — parts that were previously made of something else. Rope is replacing the metal in the wires and the fiberglass in the blocks. The very ground on which the sailors stand, under which the ocean passes as if in a trance, is made up of rope tied into countless knots.

 Vintage diagram of Boy Scouts trading cards with rope instructions.  (Image via Off Grid Survival)

Ogden cigarettes collaborate with the Boy Scouts to teach smokers how to weave eye splices. (Image via Off Grid Survival)

Rope is still being made from manila, sisal, hemp, jute, cotton and other natural materials and there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be: they’re readily available, affordable and useful. For most uses, these plant fibers still provide a reliable, workable structure.

Sports like high-speed sail racing demand more from their lines due to the rigors the sailors subject them to: constant, full-tilt use under the destructive forces of sunlight and water. The competitive nature of the sport and the wealth associated with it means that no expense is spared. Braid-on-braid cords are space age, chemically-bonded, intricately woven aramid (popularly known as Kevlar) or high modulus polyethylene coated with Zylon.

Man hangs from rope in India. (Photo by Didier Ruef)

A man leisurely dangling from a rope in front of a barge in Gujarat, India. (Photo by Didier Ruef)

That’s all well and good when you’re cranking a winch in high wind, the ocean spraying your comrades and threatening to take you all in, but what about the rest of us?  It turns out there are a few things about rope that every man, woman and child should know.

Vintage print of man standing next to spool of rope. (Image via Bartlett Year 1 Architecture)

A giant spool of rope. (Image via Bartlett Year 1 Architecture)

First is the bowline (pronounced bo-lin) knot. This favorite of sailors is quick to tie, very strong, easy to form a loop with, and easy to undo by breaking its back and loosening the structure.  It’s great if you need to tie something heavy up quick, or form a loop that won’t budge.

Vintage photograph of two men competing to climb a rope. (Image via The Art of Manliness)

The rope climb: perhaps one of America’s most mortifying gym exercises. (Image via The Art of Manliness)

Next is the eye splice. Knots are great, but tend to weaken the rope’s load bearing capacity by 40% by putting all the pressure on one spot in the rope instead of spreading it out along the line. For more permanent structures, or when losing control of the rope would mean sudden danger or death, such as on a mooring a boat, hoisting a piano, and mounting heavy things on the wall, use a splice. They’re stronger, harder to undo, and more capable of holding a load without breaking.  Practice on some cheap, three-braid nylon rope from the hardware store.

Also, steer clear of any rope that’s frayed, damaged from excessive heat or sun, or been in such a damp and dark spot that it’s molded.

Will Rogers and his Western rope lasso. (Image via Angry Elvis, via Rogers Historical Museum)

Cowboy Will Rogers has only the best of wishes for Tom Morgan. (Image via Angry Elvis, via Rogers Historical Museum)

When used within reason, rope generally doesn’t break but is cut by the friction caused by resting on an edge. Consider it the next time you tie your shoe, or pull down the shade, or come across some in the garage. Grip it with both hands and pull on it as if you’d pull it apart. Take a closer look. Between your fingers, even woven under the skin of your hands, is the stuff that holds everything together in a world that ceaselessly threatens to rip itself apart.

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  1. Keleven
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:33 AM | Permalink

    Love your blog, but John Wilkes Booth was burned alive in a barn, not hung from a noose.

  2. Daniel Lang
    Posted July 15, 2011 at 2:29 AM | Permalink

    Blasted! Ever since I visited the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. as an 11 year old boy I thought he was hung, but it turns out I was staring at the hoods they put on the heads of the co-conspirators in the assassination. It seems he wasn't quite burned alive either, but chased through a burning barn and then shot and killed. Or they said he was killed to unify the nation, and escaped to Nebraska, where he lives to this day. Or perhaps he died of arsenic poisoning in 1903…Whatever happened, thank you for your attention in this matter!

  3. Josie Rock
    Posted July 15, 2011 at 2:51 AM | Permalink

    I love this bog about rope and the images I like the most, the one with the boys the portrait is beautiful and Will Rogers. Very nice work.

  4. Cynthia
    Posted July 15, 2011 at 3:40 AM | Permalink

    wow, rope. Thanks for the article. Yeats poem link was a good touch and that family portrait picture is pretty great.

  5. ed lang
    Posted July 19, 2011 at 7:30 AM | Permalink

    Dan–great "yarns" on rope.One of my favorite experiences with rope

    was when I made that rope swing on our large oak tree.Mom, Dad,

    and your three brothers had many " swings " on that rope.Though the

    oak tree was felled by the breath of wind, our " ROPE SWING "

    fun/fond memories will forever be " BOUND ".

  6. Pops
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 11:17 AM | Permalink

    Like your style. I read and re-read the entire article and cannot find any reference to John Wilkes Booth – did I miss something?

  7. Daniel Lang
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 8:52 AM | Permalink

    Hey Pops- (Not you, Dad)–

    Originally the second paragraph ended with a reference to John Wilkes Booth, which someone kindly pointed out was erroneous. While happy to have the mistake patched up, it was disappointing to say the least because, A. that bastard should have been hung (what were those soldiers thinking?); B. I liked the ring of "John Wilkes Booth" much more; and C. it made me re-examine everything else I saw on that fateful trip to the Smithsonian when I was 11 years old and thought I saw the hood they put on one Mr. Booth. Alas!

    Thanks for the feedback and sorry for that confusion.

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