Cordage (rope and string) can be made from many different fibres including plants, animal skin, gut and sinews. Each material has specific requirements for extracting and preparing the fibres, but there are only two basic ways for using the fibres to make a cord: braiding (or plaiting) and twining.

San / Bushman making string

Braiding was usually done with flat, split materials such as the inner bark of the Grewia.sp, or a local Southern African plant called "Mother's in-law's tongue" (Sansevieria) or palm leaves. The instructions in this page will deal only with twining, specifically with two ply (S-twist, Z ply, also called right handed) cordage.

Sansevieria (Mother In-law tongue) used for making rope by the San people

After preparing a bundle of fibre half the thickness of the finished cord, place your hands six to twelve inches apart and about one third of the way from one end. Twisting the fibres clockwise with both hands, wind the bundle tight (making single-ply cordage).

Bring your hands closer together and keep twisting. The kink should rotate on its own in a counter clockwise direction. Twist until two or three rotations occur. This is the start of a two ply cord. At this time you can attach the end to something (or someone) which can rotate (free-end) and keep twisting with both hands turning clockwise OR you can attach the end to something solid (fixed-end) and begin twisting and counter-rotating (see below).

Finger-twisting finer material is usually done completely in the hand, with the finished string being wound on a bobbin or netting needle as you go. Your left hand acts to control tension while your right hand does the twisting. Then place the Y (the point where the two ply’s come together) between your left thumb and fore finger. Take the lower of the two ply strands and twist it tightly clockwise until it begins to kink. Lock the twist in by closing your remaining three fingers over the strand. Then, while holding the first twisted ply securely, twist the second ply with your right thumb and forefinger. As you twist, you should feel the completed string begin to twist counter-clockwise.

Follow this motion with your left thumb and forefinger while maintaining even tension and a symmetrical Y. Next move your left thumb up to the fork in the Y as before and repeat steps 1 and 2 until you need to add more fibre.

If you began your cord off-centre, then one side will run out of fibre first. As you get to within about 3 inches of the end of this short ply, prepare another bundle of fibres the same size as you began with, but taper the end of the bundle for about 4 inches.

Lay this bundle parallel to the bundle being replaced, and sticking out about an inch beyond the Y. Continue twisting as before. You should also add in if one ply becomes thinner than the other, or if both plies become thinner than they started. In these cases add just enough fibre to bring them back to correct size. Ideally, your cord should stay the same size throughout, although aboriginal cordage did vary about fifty percent in nets. Bow strings and fish lines under heavy pull should be very even.

It is also possible to add to both sides at the same time by bending a bundle of fibre in half and placing the Y of the bundle into the V of the Y, but it is harder to keep from making a lump at this point. After your string is finished, you can cut or burn (carefully) off the overlap ends to make your string less fuzzy.

NOTE: dry surfaces tend to slip, so you should keep your hands and the fibre damp while you are working. Squeeze out excess water or your string will be loose when it dries.

Finger-twisting methods are best used when a relatively small amount of string is being made and/or has to be very tight and even, and when very stiff or coarse materials are being used. When making mass quantities of cordage, it is much faster and easier on the hands to use the leg (thigh) rolling method. The principle is the same, S-twist, Z-ply, but the twist is applied by rolling on the leg, rather than twisting between the thumb and finger. You can continue to work without getting cramps in your hand muscles, and you can (with practice) work faster (about ten feet per hour).

The critical element in making this method work is having the right surface on which to roll.

Traditionally the bare left thigh is used. If you do not want to expose your skin, or if your legs are hairy, you can use pants, but these should be tight around your leg, so they won't bunch up as you roll, and they should have a rough enough surface to give traction. Keeping them damp is also critical. I keep a bucket of water next to me while work. Before you begin, prepare as much fibre as you will be using during that session. Once you get into the rhythm of the work, you won't want to stop and clean material.

Roll both plies away from you with the palm of your right hand (pre-roll each separately). Your left hand holds the Y and follows the movement.

Bring the two plies together by moving the left hand forward and back. If the two plies did not get tightly rolled the first time, carefully pick up both plies and repeat step one first. When the plies are tight and touching, bring the right palm back towards you, counter-rotating the two plies into two-ply cordage.

Before repeating step one, it is necessary to untangle the loose ends of fibre, separate into two plies, and move the left hand up to the new Y.

Making string or rope with animal gut:

Generally, the strings for bows are made from animal gut. Animal gut is stronger and more durable than strings made from plant materials.

The long small intestine from an animal is used. First it is smoked over an open fire, to cure the outside membrane of the intestine. It need to be very lightly smoked, and not cooked.

After giving it a light smoke cure, it get wind-dried for a day in the sun, and then the internal fatty tissue is squeezed out by hand. Again it is placed in a safe place to dry out. After drying out, the dried gut got soaked in urine till it become soft again. While wet, it is twisted in two and rolled tightly together. Then it is stretch. By fastening the gut onto a weak bow, or hanging it from a branch with a bit of weight fastened onto the one end.

Again it is left to dry. Once dried, the gut is rubbed well with fat, that will help with the strengthening of the fibres and give it flexibility. Now it is ready for a bow, or a snare.