One of the stops and demonstrations at the Ozark Medieval Fortress is the Rope Makers Hut. Ropes were important to the construction of the castle in everything from small tool repair to measurement using the 13-knot rope to operating the tread wheel crane for lifting. They were also used in daily life of the people for such things as belts, animal lead ropes, bucket handles, binding wheat sheaves, tying herbs, clotheslines and on and on. In the Middle Ages, the people of Scandinavia frequently braided leather to make their rope, similar to what the Native Americans did. For most of Europe, twisting fibers to make rope was the norm.
Ropes go back to the ancient world as far back as we know. The Egyptians developed the rope making tool and used water reed fibers to make their ropes. Hemp, which is perhaps one of the most ideal fibers, was first used in China but other fibers were used. Flax, which is the fiber used for clothes, was also used for rope. They also used grass, hair and other fibrous plants. In the Medieval small communities invariably had a rope maker and the shop would be similar to that at the Ozark Medieval Fortress. In the cities, they made long buildings (up to 300 yards long) called “rope walks” to be able to make ropes for the ships that needed them without splices.
Fibers are dried and twisted to form a yarn. The thin yarn is then twisted with other yarn to form a strand. Strands are then twisted to form the rope. Thin rope can be twisted to form heavier rope. The twist of the strand is opposite the twist of the yarn, while the final rope is twisted opposite that of the strand. It is the opposing twists that give the rope its internal binding and strength. A twist to the left was called an “S” twist, and to the right a “Z” twist.
The rope maker used a lot of fiber to make even a modest sized rope. Rope makers were both men and women and often the entire family participated. It was common also to barter for or purchase fiber and hemp was in demand. At the Ozark Medieval Fortress current law keeps us from having hemp to make our ropes, so we use jute or sisal yarn that is purchased locally. The rope making machinery is a joint effort of the blacksmith and carpenters. Rope making does not require special skill nor is it dangerous and guests are encouraged to try their hand at it.
Like the ancient Egyptians, the rope making machine of the Middle Ages had two parts: a base with multiple cranks and a base with a single crank. The bases are separated to the length of the rope being made. Using a machine with multiple cranks allows the rope maker to go right from yarn to rope. Each crank gets multiple yarns, which twist into strands as it is twisted into the rope.
To make a rope, start by tying the yarn to the single master crank. Run the yarn through one of the multiple cranks, back to the master crank. Repeat back to a different crank on the multiple side and back again to the master. It is most common to use three of the four multiple cranks. A rope is stronger if all four cranks are used. A moveable cross helps keep the yarn in alignment. When the multiple cranks are turned to the right (with the sun), it twists the strands. When the single, master crank is turned to the right, it is actually in the opposite direction from the other side and twists the strands into the rope. It is that simple. The trick, however, is to make the twists even and snug but not so tight that the rope breaks. Easier said than done! There are no motors and the entire process, though simple, takes a lot of time. As a result, people of the Medieval appreciated even the basic blessing of a rope.