Group E Lab Data – Week 6


Similar to the wool week, most the data collected this week was qualitative as opposed to quantitive. I’ll do my best to recap group observations and reactions to various parts of the lab. There are 3 main components I’ll be discussing: Processing fibers, making cordage, and basket weaving. With regards to cordage, my group primarily focused on working with basswood so there may be slightly fewer observations on dogbane of cattail.

Processing Fibers

Basswood: The ease of processing basswood varied a lot depending on the actual piece of wood you were working with. For some pieces, it was easy to tear off long strips of fiber about a quarter of an in width by hand alone. For others it was impossible separate the fibers by hand as they would either tear immediately or would have no loose fibers to start peeling in the first place. For the pieces of wood that were impossible to process by hand, 3 minutes of intense hammering was able to break up the fibers. After hammering, the once stubborn pieces of wood were even easier to process than the original easy to process pieces. In general, pounding the basswood made the fibers much more uniform and easy to separate. Hammering the basswood was hard work and it makes sense why the preference was to soak the basswood in sea water for months. After pounding the basswood with a hammer, a handful of fibers (see below) were able to be peeled from the wood in about 5 minutes.

Cattail: Cattail was extremely easy to process. The leaves of the plant came off easily by hand with no tools necessary. Soaking the leaves, as the instructions suggested, did make splitting the cattail easier but this step wasn’t necessary as you could easily peel the cattail by hand. It was easy to make very long fibers with a uniform thickness of about 0.125 – 0.25 inches. The final fibers did seem very brittle and would have to be soaked before twisting into cord.

Dogbane: Dogbane was very slow and difficult to process. The extra time and energy needed to first shave off the bark with a knife and then crush the sticks between your fingers made processing dogbane arduous. The resulting fibers from a single stick of dogwood were very fine and few relative to cattail and basswood. This made the process very slow going. It was also hard to get longer strands of dogwood.

The end result of processing a single piece of dogbane for about 5 minutes


  • Cattail was by far the easiest and quickest material to process as it could entirely done by hand.
  • Basswood was the next easiest to process. Some wood had to be pounded out with a hammer. In general you could get long and uniform fibers.
  • Dogbane was the most difficult and slowest material to process. Each piece of wood had to have its bark scraped off and be crushed before the fibers were accessible adding to the time delay. Each piece of wood also had a relatively low yield and its fibers were much thinner than the fibers produced by cattail and basswood.

Making Cordage

Basswood: Due to the time constraint and the goal of creating a usable length of cord, my group focused exclusively on creating cord with basswood. Twisting the basswood fibers together was a relatively easy and quick process. The width of the cord was dependent on the width of the fiber being twisted. Generally, the fibers were very strong and we didn’t have to worry about them snapping while being twisted. If a fiber had been soaking too long it would get a little “mushy” and become fragile and difficult to work with. We found that the width of our cords also shrunk a bit after drying out.

The slowest and most complicated part of the process was joining new pieces of fiber to the cord. I found that I almost got into a rhythm when twisting fibers into cordage and having to stop to add a new piece of fiber is really disrupting. Bad joins can also leave a lot of frayed material the join spot making the rope both ugly and giving it a weak point. When stress testing a smaller piece of cordage, it always snapped at the join locations. If you are also joining together fibers that are not the same width, the thickness of your cord will change which is undesirable. For all these reasons it seems like there would be a huge benefit to making very long fibers that would make joins less frequent.

An example of a bad join

In the end, one of our group members was able to produce a piece of cordage that was 3 feet and 2 inches long in about 30 minutes. The thicker pieces of basswood cordage were surprisingly strong. I had to pull very hard to snap a small, continuous piece of cordage.

General observations:

  • Cattail cordage seemed to be the weakest of the 3 materials. However, It did seem like the easiest type of cord to make. This seems to indicate that cattail cordage would be suitable for tasks that don’t require it to hold a lot of weight. For instance, the cattail cord seems like it would work great at bundling straw together and things like that
  • Dogbane seemed to be the slowest and most difficult to produce due to the thinness of the fibers. A completed dogbane cord, however, was extremely fine and thin. Dogbane cordage seemed fairly weak but only because the completed dogbane cords were so thin.
  • The basswood fibers seemed to result in the strongest cordage of the lab. Basswood seems to be most suitable for tasks that require the cordage to hold a heavier load. For easier tasks, I think the extra processing time and slightly slower twisting time would make basswood inferior to cattail.
  • Making cordage was a very different experience than making wool. Twisting the fibers had to be done manually and required the continuous use of both hands. Wool, on the other hand, could be twisted/spun much faster and easier thanks to the drop spindle and gravity. Thus, making a length of cordage would be much slower than making an equivalent amount of yarn.
  • Since making cordage required both hands at all times, I think that making cordage would have been a distinct task people would have to set time aside for. This is distinct from spinning which is a task women did throughout their day as an on-going activity while doing other chores or tasks.
  • Like spinning, there is a very communal aspect to making cordage and it would be possible to make cordage while in a social setting and chatting.
  • Since making cordage doesn’t allow for as much multi-tasking as spinning wool, I would guess that this is a task that may have been done by both men and women, although this claim is mostly unfounded.
From left to right: Cattail, Basswood, Dogbane

Basket Weaving

The basket weaving process was fairly straightforward. Like making cordage, this was a great communal task and it was easy to have conversations while weaving. People learned to basket weave extremely fast with some people even creating more intricate designs and shapes. In a timed test, one person completed 3 basket layers in 2 minutes while another completed 5 basket layers in two minutes. Some people were also able to complete their entire baskets in under an hour. This seems to indicate an easy and long learning curve, similar to spinning. One note is that your reeds could snap if they get too dry while you are working with them. This creates a small sense of urgency when weaving since you will have to re-wet your reeds if they dry out too much.

I found basket weaving to be pretty different than weaving with yarn on a loom. With basket weaving you aren’t constrained by a loom and can easily take your work with you from place to place. Basket weaving is also a 3-dimensional activity that requires you to form the overall shape of you basket in addition to weaving the reads.

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