What are ROPES doing in Weavers Hand? by Ann Norman

Don't just think of cowboys, mountaineers, sailors... For a start, my ropes are not braided the way most modern ropes are, often round a core of strong synthetic material. They have the traditional , twist and counter twist structure which has great beauty, strength and simplicity, but which has been neglected in favour of, for instance, the more complex structures of Kumihimo and finger looping braids. This simplicity means that designing ropes is a relatively straightforward matter, something that appeals to my non complex brain!

What ropes do I make?

These vary from the thinnest "rope" imaginable, to thick, heavy cabled rope for stately homes, theatres, churches, stairs, barriers, etc. The thinnest rope was made of lurex (with great difficulty because I could hardly see the threads) for a clever sailor and fellow-member of the IGKT (International Guild of Knot Tyers). He specialises in miniature complex knotting, often using a magnifying glass, and made a tiny pair of cuff links with it, intended for the Guinness Book of Records.

I use mostly wools of many sorts, (I have a strong affinity with wool, which involves having rare breed sheep pets living in the garden), but also a range of other fibres: linen, cotton, chenille, as well as the more traditional hemp and sisal. Most are natural fibers, but some rayons and other synthetics. I've even made a rope from toilet paper, pretty in a pastel way, which is much stronger than you would imagine - it was used by some sea cadets to pull a bus (good job it didn't rain!).

Some ropes are best left plain, some are dyed, and some are interestingly patterned; the end use will dictate which of these is best. Lately, they mostly seem to end up as plain, strong, dyed colours, which I enjoy manipulating in various ways.

What do I use them for?

I make, and use, them for all sorts of things - dog leads, shoe laces, light pulls, juggling balls (monkey's fist knot), jewelery (using a variety of decorative knots), curtain tie backs with tassels, weaving, and now of course (since it suddenly and devastatingly bit me), ply splitting! See Ann's work in the Ply-split Gallery.

Illustrating Peter Collingwood's new book has aroused a great enthusiasm for ply splitting (PS). How could it be otherwise, with the irresistible lure of the technique (Peter says it's "poking ropes through ropes") and my big piles of ropes just lying around, waiting to be poked?. It's interesting that my approach to PS seems to be very different from Linda Hendrickson's. She sees delightful curvy neck pieces, while I see rugs, bags, baskets with COLOUR! writ large. PS seems to be able to cater to very many different approaches.

How did I get into ropes?

After I wove some curtains for a castle in Oxfordshire, my husband was asked by Lady Saye and Sele, who lives there, if I made ropes (which were needed for privacy barriers, as the castle opens to the public). He gave my standard answer to that sort of question - "yes" (and think later!). I managed to dredge up some scraps of knowledge learnt at infant school (which involved twisting threads with pencils) and got busy with a hand drill (not electric) and a door handle, and some of the dyed yarns left over from the curtains. After a lot of fiddling about, I produced some (to my eyes) beautiful cabled ropes for various castle doorways and stairs.

As I was struggling with the drill and the tension and the impending catastrophe of an escaping drill hook committing hara kiri against the glass in the patio door, my inventor-minded father arrived and said that what I needed was a rope machine... We visited Bridport Museum, Dorset, which had been the centre of the rope making industry in England, and where the curator demonstrated making a rope on a big old iron machine (with our co-opted help). He also mentioned that making a rope this way needed four people; the effect of this comment on my father, was like holding a red rag to a bull!

On the journey home, he worked out an ingenious technique that could be managed by one person, and then made an amazing 4 hook machine from bits and pieces lying around (he never buys anything if he can avoid it). A drive belt of string, an elastic band, gears made from old spinning bobbins, a plastic yarn cone, wood from a childhood bed ...

Despite my grave misgivings, this Heath Robinson contraption worked like a dream, making it possible, with a ropewalk length of 20 metres, to make ropes of 14 metres, on my own. It has now been superseded by another machine powered by a standard electric drill, and with a foot pedal, leaving me with a useful extra hand to work things. The rope walk stretches out into the garden, so making ropes isn't easy when it rains, snows, blows hard, is foggy or gets dark!

I intend to put the details of all this in a future book on ropemaking, and would be very interested to exchange information with anyone who has knowledge or experience of ropemaking or working with ropes. Do please get in touch.

Go to the Ply-Split Gallery to see Ann's ply-splitting using her ropes.

Comments or questions?
updated January 4, 1998
©1997 Ann Norman

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