In the pursuit of beauty….

A sample of just a few of the different strings.

I have to be honest, my recent obsession with cordage started innocently with the pursuit of beauty in mind (not very bushcraft I understand). After recently weaving and twinning a small basket, it got me thinking about how I could supplement my store-bought cottons for more decorative natural items that I had made. This naturally led me into investigating how our ancestors would have done this, and of course the age-old question, would they have crafted something to look beautiful as well as practical?

I have a love for anything naturally handcrafted and there is a beauty and uniqueness in all handmade products, with many talented craftspeople out there. So, were these embellishment needed? or were they a way to perfect and challenge the craft persons skill? Would a group or clan take items to a gathering that took more time to create to show off their individual skills?

Humans are drawn to shiny objects that often serve little practical purpose, so it stands to reason that decorative objects would appeal to more people and command a higher price. With natural fibres it is difficult to archeologically confirm this theory as items made of natural materials decompose faster than metals and pottery. However, there are some imprints of early baskets that have been found to suggest that decorative items were made. This opened up many questions for me. Was this linked to each groups customs, traditions and available materials? Would local and ancestral knowledge have defined a groups identity or was this just simply the way that these baskets had been made for years, cause for the variety of differences in decoration and techniques alone. Was it possible for these items to have been crafted with both decorative and functionality in mind? These questions intrigue me and push my own skills forward to make practical yet decorative items and more research into this subject.

Picture of the basket where I wanted to replace the store-bought items for natural materials.
Picture of the basket where I wanted to replace the store-bought items for natural materials.

Cordage is such a useful item; from making traps, fishing line, bowstrings, backpack straps and bow drills to name just a few. Although I have been on a quest to achieve different colours and textures, obviously the cordage I made was being used for a practical purpose so had to be durable enough to add into an item. Most bushcrafters have given cordage a go, and I am guessing that in the UK most have probably tried nettles. So, I started with nettle and the slippery slope began.  Nettle produces a robust green string which softens as it is used; what is not to love, but what I was after was more colour and texture…. something that would add the wow factor!

So, I collected many different items: stems, leaves, bark and vegetables…. that’s right vegetables. I processed many different things, some by picking and drying, some by retting, and some by boiling. I corded and corded and corded, I picked dried and repeated. I stank the house out by drying leeks, perfected my drying system (so as to not offend the rest of my family by smell or the lack of ability to dry clothes) and I learnt a lot.

A picture of some of the dried plants
A picture of some of the dried plants.

As I kept cording each plant, I got to grips with which plant structure would make a strong finished cord, how to improve inconstancies in each string I made, what was shiny, what was sticky, and what cords were trickier. Hairy, hollowed stems, and bark alike fell under the cordage process. I turned from the woodland plants to ones within my own garden (Lily, crocosmia, and red hot pokers to name just a few) and I found myself planting grasses just so that I could see what they might look like in a few years time – plus black grass might make an awesome coloured string! Eventually I turned to the veggie draw to try pineapple leaves, leeks and rhubarb. The more I have explored, the more I have learnt and the more plants I now look at to see if they will cord. What are the properties of the finished string, which are strong, which have too much flex, which break easily…..and of course which are beautiful.

A sample of just a few of the different strings.
A sample of just a few of the different strings.

What I have learnt from this experience has been a fabulous journey and I know it will shape some of my future string choices for much more practical applications. My quest for the replacement string is by no way complete, but for now I can’t wait to try some of the many different textures and colours within my future craft projects. As an added bonus I am now always on the lookout for future string projects and have just walked past honeysuckle on this evenings walk, and we have sweetcorn with husks for dinner, oh the cordage possibilities are endless.

If your interested in starting your personal journey into natural cordage, Woodland Ways offer a dedicated cordage weekend here:

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