Rope and Rope Care 101

Here are some rundowns on rope types.

In general, there is twisted rope and braided rope.  Almost all jute, hemp or other natural ropes are twisted ropes.  There are some braided hemp ropes but those are hard to find and they’re very abrasive on the rigger’s fingers.  Cotton is another natural fiber you’ll find braided, but check closely as it’s often a cotton/polyester blend.  Braided ropes are more common with synthetic fibers, though many synthetic ropes are twisted – it’s probably 50/50 in that regards for synthetic ropes.

Most folks find that synthetic ropes are more likely to cause rope burn compared to natural fibers.  Personally I like the feel of a natural fiber on my skin – it’s warmer, looks better, doesn’t feel cold or clammy like a synthetic rope can.  There are pluses and minues to both, but I feel the natural fibers wins in the long run.

Jute and hemp are the top two rope choices for natural fibers.  Jute is probably used by more top riggers compared to hemp.  It’s a lighter and livelier fiber, and holds it’s shape better which is important if you’re doing photography work: the strands with jute will show contrasting shadows better than a similar hemp rope.  Help does tend to be a stronger fiber though, which is important to some, but I’ve never had a jute failure.

Oh, and how about some rope terminology?  All my rope is twisted up from 2 or more strands.  Most rope is 3-strand construction – that is if you start to dissect my rope and untwist it – you’ll get three bundles which make up the rope.  Those bundles are the strands.  Each strand is made up of a number of yarns.  The two versions of my 6mm rope are made up with 9 and 15 yarns per strands (which is 27 and 45 yarns per rope respectively.)

Now down to the nitty gritty – the yarn.  The yarn is the smallest unit in the rope – it’s how I get the jute when it arrives on the spool.   I have two yarns I use, a double-ply and a single-ply yarn.  Lets start with the single-ply yarn.  Think of a piece of conventional yarn or thread – if you look at it it should spin in one direction only. You should be able to unwind it to a small cluster of fibers.  At which point it all starts to fall apart.  Double-ply yarn is simply two pieces of single-ply yarn spun together.  They’re spun in such a way that they hold the component yarns together making the rope a bit more stable.  At a magnifying glass level when a single-ply rope makes a bend the yarns are stretched and loosened – rope made from single-ply yarns can have the yarns stretch ever so slightly.  Over time this can lead to rope with a strand that sticks out from the rope – it’s called high stranding.  You have to work the “bump” out of this one strand much like pushing the bubble out from under your cell-phone protector.  This is the one thing with single-ply rope you have to allow for – occasional maintenance.  Double-ply rope doesn’t have that issue to the same degree.  The yarns are locked together in pairs keeping the component yarns more stable.

The single ply rope also tends to handle just a bit better in your hands since all the yarns move as one.  The difference between my double-ply when and the single-ply in that regards is subtle at best.

Rope Care?  I don’t recommend washing it unless it gets very dirty.  Jute will puff up when wet, and it causes the rope to shrink.  Stretch it out along a fence and hang a pop bottle or such from it to keep it under tension.  As it dries, it stretches out and you might have to move one of the ends to keep it under tension.  If you don’t stretch jute while it dries, it will become loose and misshapen.  If you dye your rope, you’ll have to use this technique to dry it.

If your rope seems too stiff – try baking it in a preheated oven at 200F for 15 minutes.  It helps ease the fibers into their twisted state.  Some folks boil their rope, I only do that when dyeing it, but it’s a valid option but just requires more work.

Some folks oil their natural fiber ropes lightly to help lubricate the fibers and keep the fuzzies down.  All my rope can be used as is, but if you like to experiment, go for it! Just keep in mind, that it’s hard to remove oil from a rope!  Don’t use any vegetable based oils as they can oxidize and go rancid which will leave you with stinky rope.  I recommend mineral oil applied with a damp cloth as you pull the rope through; some old jeans work well for this.  Best to take the less is more approach, since you can add more oil if you need it, but much harder to remove excessive oil.  Another recommended oil is Tsubaki Oil (traditional with the Japanese but expensive,) and Jojoba oil (but I don’t know how this holds up to oxidation long term.)  Some folks also use an oil and beeswax paste – it’s all personal preference.  I use the mineral oil/beeswax paste myself, and apply it fairly lightly.