Learning the Ropes – The manufacturing process of growing rope from Flax

Posted: 17 November 2016.
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Over 2016 I have been looking into the whole manufacturing process of Flax rope; from the growing of the seed to twisting into full lengths.

Rope was usually made from lime bast, the inner bark of the Small Leaf Lime tree. It was also made from horses’ tails and the hides of seals and walrus. Plant fibres, like Hemp and flax (and nettle) are common materials for rope as well as synthetic plastic ropes.

From my previous experience with using hemp rope as a medium for sculptures I was drawn towards studying fibrous ropes that were manufactured in the UK. I found out that Flax was grown extensively in the UK which led me to discovering Dawe’s Twineworks in West Coker, Yeovil which was used to produce linen for sailing ships 400 years ago.

Twineworks at West Coker 1

Dawe’s Twineworks West Coker

The linen produced here was from the flax plant and it was grown on the hills around West Coker. Flax has long fibres inside the plant which gives the rope strength when it is twisted.

OSR Projects had an artist-in-residence programme over the course of 2016 and the artist Jo Ball asked the public to grow flax in their home for the year. I took up this opportunity to learn how to grow this tall, fibrous plant in my allotment.

Flax

Flax growing in my allotment

I began to sow the plant in May 2016 and it didn’t take long until it was flowering in blue and the base was turning yellow. This was an indication that the flax was ready for harvesting. By September it was ready to be pulled up from the ground, root and all! I took it into the studio and then hung it up to show visitors for Art Trek.

17-2016-09-12 17.38.48

Harvest Flax from my allotment in the studio

I wanted to know more about the processing of Flax into rope so I booked a day workshop in October with a company called Flaxland based in The Cotswold’s. Two very nice people, Simon and Ann, showed me this exciting process from growing, retting, breaking, combing, scutching and hackling ready for spinning.

breaking,scutching and hackling flax

Breaking the Flax

Combing Flax

Combing the Flax

Have a look at this video Flaxland created for a full description of this process.

Whilst the Flax was growing in my garden I was busy in the studio building a rope making machine which is a piece of equipment that twists three strands of twine together. It is three strands because of the three hooks you see in the image.

Rope Making Machine

Rope Making Machine 

The rope making machine is all made from 21mm Birch Plywood which was cut using a scroll saw. The three cogs inside the machine rotate around a larger cog that moves the hooks around. When twine is on these hooks it gets twisted in one direction, then its starts to twist in the other direction to give you three ply rope. The darker rope you see in the picture below is 6 mm marlin rope that made an interesting plaiting effect.

Rope from Rope Making Machine

Rope Twisted from Rope Making Machine

 

Learning how rope was made and now being able to make my own rope I have developed a new understanding of this medium and the ways in which it can further my practice as a rope artist.

 

Links

You can find out how Jo Ball got on last year by looking at her blog by visiting:

https://patchesofbluesky.wordpress.com/

OSR Projects – See the artist in residence artwork for the Ropewalkers project here:

https://osrprojects.net/archive-projects/ropewalkers-commission-brief/

Learn more about Flax growing with Ann and Simon from Flaxland:

http://www.flaxland.co.uk/

Visit the rope walk in West Coker here:

http://www.westcoker.net/home-page/ropewalk/