Rope – The Great Compromise
By Knot Knormal
Rope is one of those innocuous things that, to the uninitiated, seems like a commodity item. To a rope enthusiast, nothing could be further from the truth. Rope is probably one of the very earliest tools mankind has made, and we’re still passionate about the right rope.
For our purposes here, I’m going to talk about natural fiber ropes and more specifically jute. Before I can talk about that, I’m going to briefly talk about synthetic ropes – I have no qualms with folks using a synthetic rope, use whatever you like – I am not one to judge you. But in regards to shibari or kinbaku style of roping, there is little doubt that natural fiber ropes are best for the job. They simply hold against the skin and against itself better, which is very important in Eastern style roping.
Jute and Hemp are the number one natural fiber ropes for folks doing our kind of play. There are several reasons folks prefer natural fibers, including but not limited to; avoiding plastics or petrochemicals, color, feel, smell, aesthetics, etc. The flip side is, natural fiber ropes might not be as strong, and they tend to be harder to clean compared to synthetic ropes and you can’t run to Home Depot for a new set. A word of caution, folks with grass allergies, might have issue with jute or hemp.
Hemp tends to be stronger than jute because the fibers are longer – which means less “joints” in the rope. Less joints means more of the strength of the rope is reliant on the fibers themselves, and not the friction between the fibers. Jute fibers are either brown or white (or golden) – the brown jute is a shorter fiber and thus weaker than the white or golden jute fibers. You’ve probably seen brown jute fibers in use as cheap hardware store twines. Longer white jute fibers are more commonly used in the textile industry, and can be used from anything from burlap sacks, webbing, backing fibers for Indian rugs, or bondage rope.
Jute yarns come from the factory on spools in either a 1-ply or a 2-ply construction. A 1-ply yarn is a bunch of the jute fibers all spun in the same direction into a yarn. A 2-ply yarn is two of the 1-ply yarns spun together in effect making a fine twine. A bondage rope is typically made of 3 strands – each one of those strands has multiple yarns in it. For example a 6mm 1-ply jute rope might have have 12 yarns in each of the 3 strand for a total of 36 yarns in the full rope.
In my experience a 1-ply based rope tends to feel slightly little less stiff than a 2-ply rope with the same construction – I believe this is because with a 1-ply rope, all the yarns are going in the same direction, moving as one. The 2-ply has yarns spun against themselves and half the yarns are countering the movement. 2-ply yarns tends to wear better, and I believe that’s because of the way the yarn wraps around itself – it gives the yarn support in a way that the 1-ply doesn’t get. Compromises.
When a rope is spun up, the direction of the spinning indicates which way the rope will lay – meaning the strands will twist to the left or right. More likely you will hear the lay referred to as an “S-lay” or a “Z-lay” – if you look at the middle portion of the letters S and Z – that will represent the direction of the lay on the rope. Many folks don’t realize that the rope can feel and handle differently depending on which lay you go with – this is because of the underlying yarns. Before I decide to spin a rope up either in S or Z lay, I look at the yarn that I’m using and look at which way it is twisted. I’ve found spinning a group of yarns in the same direction of the twist of the yarn’s twist, creates a rope with more tooth, and sometimes feels a little stiffer. Alternately, if I spin the strands in the opposite direction of the yarn’s twist, I get a faster, smoother rope. Compromises.
And speaking of faster – how tightly or not the rope is spun will give the greatest effect on the feel of the rope. The Japanese tend to use a rope with a longer/looser lay – that is the strands aren’t making a full revolution around the rope as quickly as most rope you see in the west. A rope with a longer/looser lay will be faster and easier to handle, causing less resistance for the Nawa pulling it through, and it will compress more and make for smaller less bulky knots and frictions. The downside, is a looser rope is also more likely to have strands come apart in a tie or look unsightly, and requires more upkeep as the yarns can pop up out of the strands because the rope is not as tighly spun. A rope that is spun tightly is stiffer handling, but is more abrasion resistant, lasts much longer and needs next to no maintenance over it’s life. Knots and frictions tend to be bulkier as it doesn’t compress as much compared to a rope with a looser lay. Compromises.
L-R: 2ply S-laid 6mm, 2ply yarn, 1ply yarn, 1ply tigher S-laid 6mm.
How to decide 1-ply vs. 2-ply, tight vs. loose? That is The Great Compromise! (Queue Rolling Stones’ “You can’t always get what you want”) If you want a fast lively rope, chances are it will wear out sooner and need more care. If you want a long lasting rope, it will tend to be a little stiffer and harder to handle, but you won’t have to baby it. But you really can’t get a very loose rope that’ll last forever. Now this isn’t to say that all rope is polarizing in it’s construction . You don’t have to have to settle for something that is overly loose, or overly long lasting. How high is high? How loose is loose? There is very often a middle ground.
In the market for rope? Ask around of folks who’ve used or put their hands on some, then do your due diligence and get samples and play with it – see what works for you. Just because others love brand X, doesn’t mean it will be right for your skill level, or style of tying. Many of the home-based rope makers can craft something that’s loose, tight, or somewhere in between, in addition to a choice of S or Z lay and can tailor the yarn count for custom sizes. Talk to your prospective ropemaker and give them feedback – you’ll be much happier in the long run.
Lastly, I’ll mention conditioning your rope. You’ve spent all this time trying to find out what will fit you best. Now you’ve got it home, and maybe it’s a little scratchier than you’d like, or it’s shedding like a Collie in August. Or maybe you noticed, “Man this jute is lightweight!” You might want to consider conditioning it with some oil or beeswax, or a mix thereof. Be sure you do not use an oil that will oxidize and leave you with stinky rope – avoid vegetable based oils. The oils that I know will work are mineral oil, jojoba oil, and tsubaki oil (also known as camelia oil.) I’ve found the addition of oil makes the rope feel a bit smoother, and adds mass to the rope which makes throwing or clearing the tails easier. But as much as the oil helps my rope, I don’t like the oily feel on my hands, so I add beeswax on top and it seems to bring a little tooth back into the rope as well. Some folks use a beeswax mix blended with oils, and some rub raw beeswax onto the rope. It’s up to you, and I recommend experimenting to find what you like.
So this simple thing, rope, is more complex than you might have realized – there are so many options and varieties in rope, and how it’s made that while seeming complicated, actually gives more options for the buyer. With so many good sellers, materials and custom makers out there, we are quite possibly in a golden age of bondage rope. No Compromises.
Knot Knormal is an enthusiastic and ever learning rope tangler who enjoys making jute and (b)itchin’ coconut rope in his spare time. KnotKnormal.com