The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Rope making

 

The making of rope by twisting or braiding strands of fibre together.

 

Status Currently viable (see ‘Other information’ for further details)
Craft category  Textiles; Straw; Plant fibre
Historic area of significance  UK
Area currently practised  UK
Origin in the UK
Minimum no. of craftspeople required
Current no. of trainees  1-5
Current no. of skilled craftspeople
Current total no. of craftspeople

 

History

Rope may made of natural fibres (e.g. hemp, manila hemp, linen, cotton, coir, jute, straw, sisal etc.) or synthetic fibres (e.g. polypropylene, nylon, polyester, polyethylene, acrylic etc.). Historically, the type of fibre used depended on what was locally available.

The earliest ropes were made by twisting and braiding lengths of plant fibre. The ancient Egyptians were the first to develop special tools to make ropes. From the thirteenth century in Western Europe, rope was constructed in ropewalks – very long buildings where strands the full length of the rope were spread out and then twisted together to form rope.

In the UK, rope making was conducted on an industrial scale but each community would also have had a local ropemaker, and most farms would have made their own rope. The materials were always more expensive than the labour.

Today there are three kinds of rope makers:

  • Part-time makers who mostly make rope as demonstrators at country shows etc. Some are very tiny operations and some are larger and more professional such as HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool. They mostly make rope for show, but might sell what they make.
  • Museums and heritage organisations who do serious rope making, like Chatham Dockyard in Kent or Treak Cliffe Cavern in Derbyshire.
  • Companies who genuinely make their living through rope making, such as Outhwaites, Ellis Ropes Ltd., Avon Ropes Ltd.

There are also a handful of people who make rope on their own at home and sell what they make, but not as a public business.

 

Techniques

  • Laid rope/twisted rope: Fibres are gathered and spun into yarns which are then formed into strands by twisting. Three or more strands are then twisted together to lay the rope. The twist of the yarn is opposite to that of the strand, and that in turn is opposite to that of the rope. They may be Z-twisted (right hand twist) or S-twisted (left hand twist). This is the traditional method of making rope.
  • Braided rope: Braided rope consists of a braided (tubular) jacket over strands of fibre.
  • Plaited rope: Twisted strands are braided together.

A description of the process of making a laid rope on a ropewalk can be found on the website of the Master Ropermakers at Chatham Dockyard.

 

Local forms

 

Sub-crafts

  • Bell rope making: The making of ropes for church bell towers.

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Supply of raw materials: The availability and cost of yarn has a significant impact on a competitive business market where it is essential to buy good quality yarns. Materials are imported so the prices vary. Natural fibres suffer from harvest fluctuations; synthetic fibres depend on oil prices. While wool is currently fairly readily available, getting good quality flax and hemp yarn is a challenge.
  • Market issues: It is very hard to make a profit out of bell rope making but there is a need and there is a global market. Even when churches have been repurposed, they usually retain their bells which are still rung occasionally and therefore require ropes.
  • Diversification: Diversification of products and services, such as becoming a tourist attraction, has helped businesses to survive
  • Skills issues: The practical skills involved in general rope making are very simple – it is possible to learn the basic skills in a day and become reasonably competent in a week. However, it takes much longer to learn the ins and outs, what works and what doesn’t for each context, and to learn the details of the products and understand the types of yarn to use etc.
  • Skills issues: The practical skills involved in bell rope making take a while to master and get the standard right so that the rope will last for many years.

 

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

  • Ellis Ropes Ltd. – based in Loughborough. Specialise in church bell ropes.
  • John Taylor and Co. – based in Loughborough. Bell foundry which also makes church bell ropes.
  • Peter Minchin Bell Ropes – based in Herefordshire. Specialise in church bell ropes.
  • Mendip Ropemakers Ltd. – based in Somerset. Specialise in church bell ropes.
  • Avon Ropes – based in Surrey. Specialise in church bell ropes.
  • Outhwaites Ltd. – based in Hawes, North Yorkshire. A smaller scale local rope walk. Make ropes primarily as a tourist attraction.
  • HMS Trincomalee – based in Hartlepool. Make ropes primarily as a tourist attraction.
  • Treak Cliff Cavern – based in Derbyshire. Make ropes primarily as a tourist attraction.
  • Master Ropemakers – Historic Dockyard Chatham, Kent. The last remaining industrial rope works making rope on a rope walk, and as near as possible on a commercial basis.

 

Other information

Status: While rope making has been classified as ‘least concern’, on a commercial basis, it should be considered endangered.

 

References