Making cordage was an essential element in the early human toolkit, along with flint knapping and firemaking. The ability to produce cordage led to the invention of snares, nets and the construction of everything from packs to shelters. Strong cordage can be made from sinew, rawhide, tanned skins or horse hair, but vegetable fibers are readily available and easy to collect from forest and field. The inner bark of trees such as basswood (linden), elms and red mulberry can be used, but I prefer the bark of the tulip poplar or tulip tree available in the southern Appalachians where I live.
Where available, tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) was the tree of choice for building log cabins in the 18th and 19th centuries. It grows straight and tall and has no lower limbs at maturity. The wood is relatively easy to work, and it is rot- and insect-resistant.
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Many historic sites throughout the southern Appalachians feature hundred-year-old and older tulip poplar cabins that could be lived in today. In addition, the inner bark of this tree can be used to create strong and durable cordage quickly.
I collect downed tulip poplar limbs after winter and spring storms. With a little aging and moisture, the bark strips easily to produce long fibers. Soaking the fibers in warm water makes the bark flexible and easy to work. Start by stripping three long fibers. While seated, hold the fibers in one hand and roll them across your thigh to produce a tight twist of twine. Bending the twine in the middle, twist one strand until a curl develops.
Starting from the curl, twist one strand of the twine tightly with your thumb and index finger and place it across the other. Repeat with the other strand and continue until you have the desired length of cord. Remember to keep it tight. Additional fibers can be connected to the ends of the twine by laying fibers on the ends and rolling them across your thigh, thereby producing longer cordage. If there are any loose fibers they can be burned away by passing a match quickly along the cord.
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Given an adequate supply of bark, there is no limit to the length of cord you can make. Thin, strong strips of bark can produce a simple line for cane pole fishing while stronger, thicker bark can produce rope for heavier tasks. The ability to make cordage from scratch is an easy skill to master and a real confidence builder in the outdoors.
To craft a berry-picking gourd, start by cutting a hole in the upper third of a pear-shaped gourd that is about a foot tall. Next, tie a tight net of cordage to fit the base of the gourd. Drill a hole in the top of the gourd, then slip a section of cord about 4 feet long in from the outside. Tie a large knot in the end of the cord on the inside of the gourd. Tie the other end to the top of the net on the back of the gourd and you will have a berry holder that hangs across your chest, freeing both hands to pick berries. I coated mine with beeswax.
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This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Winter 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.