Our group started at the fiber processing station. We gravitated towards the tan cattails and spent the next 1.5 hours making cordage out of them. Austin collected the cattails from the arboretum this week, but our group could imagine people making cordage in the winter out of cattails collected in the fall. Our first challenge was deciding how much to peel off the stalks. The dry stalks were smooth and brittle. We peeled off a few layers and were surprised to see and feel multiple textures within the narrow stalks. Observing the base revealed a cardboard-like structure: there were thin layers of leaves connected by spongey, aerated layers. The inside was surprisingly soft; although it appeared that the dry little ribbons would be abrasive to the touch, they slid gently through our fingertips.
We soaked the leaves in lukewarm water for five minutes before our initial rope making attempts. We had to break the strips so they would fit in the bucket of water. This length constraint made rope making more difficult because we had to splice the fibers together more often. We were not consistent with our fiber splitting so we had some that were 1 cm wide and others that were approximately ¼ of a cm wide. In hindsight, our final products would have been more effective if we had aimed to make all of them 1 cm wide. The thin fibers tended to split, and produced rope that was only a few millimeters in diameter, which may not be strong enough to keep our shelter together! When we pulled on the thin ropes to see their length, a few started breaking. We had better luck with the thicker cattails that soaked for longer. We all got the hang of the twisting motions within fifteen minutes. If we had evenly sized pieces of fiber our ropes would look a lot more uniform.
Since our group was enthralled with the cattails, we only spent five minutes with the other fibers. The dogbane bark was satisfying and easy to scrape and made a nice snap. The basswood was harder to break and required physical effort to pound. That being said, the rope was definitely stronger than the cattail rope and easier to twist as well. At the end of an hour and fifteen minutes of rope making, all but one of us had made at least a 3 foot piece of cattail rope. It seems there is a tradeoff between the speed of processing and the quality of the final product. The cattail rope was not the strongest fiber but it had the quickest processing time.
Weaving the baskets after we had made rope allowed us to see our cordage’s potential, though we used premade rope. We started the process by cutting long strands into 11 ten inch spokes. We used the cutting boards at first and then quickly realized it was more efficient to bend the strand and cut through the bend in the air. This led to more uneven lengths than the first cutting method. The weaving itself was straightforward. No one struggled after completing the first loop around the base. The process was slow (4 inches of a small basket in over an hour) but enjoyable. We were able to chat because the weaving did not require our full attention. The spokes became brittle as they dried, so we occasionally soaked the basket upside down in the bucket to soften them. Each of our baskets came out a different shape at the end, some were straight, others widened into bowls, and some narrowed like pots. This unintentional variation reveals the skill involved in basket weaving.
Compared to Wool
Twisting the fibers into cord was reminiscent of spinning. Each requires careful attention to the thickness of the processed material—unskilled laborers produced uneven threads. In terms of access to materials, domestic animals require tending, but reeds and bark can be harvested from the wild. Working with wool was nicer on the hands and required less strength (no pounding involved). Weaving cloth required more concentration than basket weaving, as evidenced by the amount of talking during both activities. Weaving textiles also requires a more complicated set up with the loom. For both types of weaving, the larger thread sped up the process.