The Raw Materials of Ropemaking

Natural fibres, derived from the sinewy parts of plant stalks and leaves, have been used to make rope since ancient times. Flax, sisal and jute are still used in Hawes. Hemp was formerly used a great deal but is now virtually unobtainable.

Some older readers may remember their local ropemaker preparing yarn for ropemaking. Individual threads were twisted together on a hand-powered machine which resembled a large spinning wheel. The last wheel to be used in Hawes can now be seen in the Dales Countryside Museum near the ropeworks.

Following the preparation of yarn, the rope was twisted in the traditional way. A necessary additional step with some ropes was to give them a smoother, less hairy appearance by treating them with size (starch) to stick down the surface fibres. Mr. George Robinson of Slaidburn remembers the Outhwaites sizing cow ties "to take the whiskers off them". This process is no longer used. The introduction of man-made fibres has given the Hawes ropemakers a greater choice of raw materials. Their properties of durability, water-resistance and strength are useful for agricultural ropes which get hard outdoor use and for many modern specialist cords and braids.

However, high quality cotton is still used for ropes which must be especially soft to the touch - for example, calving ropes and halters for young animals. Wool is used only for the coloured sallies of church bell ropes and in a few luxury ropes. A similar soft-textured effect can be achieved with staple-fibre polypropylene yarn - for example in bannister ropes and barrier ropes. Waste or surplus yarn from the textile industry is used to make low-cost ropes, as when carpet yarns are combined to make mufti-coloured skipping ropes.