The making of rope by twisting or braiding strands of fibre together.
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Unknown. Passementerie weavers and braiders doing split ply work will make their own cordage.
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
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 a number of different kinds of rope makers:
- Companies who mass produce rope and rope products using automated machinery.
- Braided and Twisted manmade ropes from companies such as Marlow Ropes Ltd, English Braids Ltd.,
- Braided and Twisted manmade and natural fibre ropes from James Lever 1856 Ltd.
- Twisted manmade ropes from Master Ropemakers Ltd
- Braided manmade fibre ropes from Outhwaites Ltd.
- Companies who continue the heritage craft of ropemaking on a traditional rope walk.
- English style church bell rope making using natural and manmade fibres, such as Ellis Ropes Ltd., Avon Ropes Ltd., and Mendip Ropemakers Ltd.
- Ropemaking using natural and manmade fibres, Ian Outram, Outhwaites Ltd, Bristol Rope & Twine Co. Ltd, Master Ropemakers Ltd (also as part of their Chatham Dockyard heritage museum).
- Museums and heritage organisations who undertake serious rope making, like Chatham Dockyard in Kent or Treak Cliffe Cavern in Derbyshire.
- Part-time makers who mostly make rope using the heritage craft of ropemaking on a traditional rope walk as a demonstration as part of museum, exhibits or at country shows etc. Some are very tiny operations and some are larger and more professional such as HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool, Bewdley Museum, Worcestershire, Thomas Taylor, and Peak Cavern, Derbyshire. They mostly make rope for show, but might sell what they make.
- Companies that manufacture decorative rope cordage using the heritage craft of ropemaking on a traditional rope walk as part their business are:
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.
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).
There are various methods to produce laid or twisted ropes.
- The traditional heritage method of making rope utilises a rope walk with the yarns laid out by the ropemaker between the ropemaking machinery along the length of the rope walk. When the ropemaking machinery twists the rope, the ropemaker controls the closing of the rope. The length of rope is limited by the length of the rope walk. The construction of a church bell rope means it has to be produced on a traditional ropewalk.
- The mass production automated method does not require a rope walk and can make very long lengths of rope on a very small footprint. The machine is controlled and runs automatically to produce many metres of rope and has removed the need for the heritage craft of a ropemaker.
- Braided rope: Braided rope consists of a braided (tubular) jacket over strands of fibre. Braiding machines are generally fully automated.
- 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 Ropemakers at Chatham Dockyard.
- Church Bell rope making: The making of ropes for English style full circle church bells.
- Decorative rope cordage and furnishing trimmings
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: Mass production of ropes keeps the product market prices of rope very low and competitive on an international level. It’s not commercially viable to make rope on a traditional rope walk.
- Market issues (Church Bell Ropes): It is very hard to make a profit out of church bell rope making but there is a need and there is a very small global market. With the decline of the church attendence, a lot of bells are falling silent and demand for church bell ropes is also dwindling. 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 church bell rope making take a while to master and get the standard right so that the rope will last for many years and meet the quality expectations.
Availability of tools and equipment: The machinery used to make church bell ropes is not commonly available. It has to be manufactured bespoke for the purpose. Trying to get into doing it, or expanding is very very time consuming and costly as everything needs to be made bespoke and not off of the shelf.
Lack of support for the sector: There are no support organisations promoting the craft of bell rope making – if there was, it would mean more people would start up reducing the demand for the companies already making products – it isn’t something I would encourage. I would encourage the organisations to promote the ringing and training people to ring church bells as it provides a customer base for future generations.
Space and building issues: Requiring a long thin building to house a rope walk is not commonly available today as any long building also has width which isn’t needed.
Craftspeople currently known
- Ellis Ropes Ltd, Loughborough – specialise in church bell ropes.
- Mendip Ropemakers Ltd, Somerset – specialise in church bell ropes.
- Avon Ropes Ltd, Bristol – specialise in church bell ropes.
- HMS Trincomalee, Hartlepool – make ropes primarily as a tourist attraction.
- Treak Cliff Cavern, Derbyshire – make ropes primarily as a tourist attraction.
- Master Ropemakers as part of the Historic Dockyard Chatham, Kent. Use their quarter mile long rope walk and machinery from the Victorian era, as well as on more modern equipment to make rope. The last remaining industrial rope works making rope on a rope walk, and as near as possible on a commercial basis.
- Thomas Taylor, Chesterfield – historical ropemaker.
- Ian Outram, Ropework UK – makes bespoke ropes and rope products.
- Askrigg Ropes
- Kefi Textiles – Andrew and Heather started making rope and cord making commercially in 2022 after the closure of Outhwaites where they both worked. Kefi preserve the craft of hand-laid ropemaking with traditional methods as well as machine work.
- Bristol Rope – large distributor and importer of rope, but also have a rope walk and produce bespoke ropes to order
- Wyedean Weaving Company Ltd – makes cords for decorative military uses.
- Brian Turner Trimmings Ltd – high quality furnishing trimmings including cordage.
Outhwaites Ltd ceased production in August 2022. The skills and knowledge within the company is being continued by both Askrigg Ropes (traditional makers) and Kefi Textiles (modern manufacturing).
Peter Minchin used to produce bell ropes, he passed away in 2019 and his heritage rope making machinery was acquired by Philip Pratt at Avon Ropes Ltd and has been restored for having a go sessions at exhibitions.