According to Merriam Webster, rope is “a large stout cord of strands of fibers or wire twisted or braided together.” If it isn’t made from strands twisted or braided together, then it isn’t properly “rope.”
Rope is also referred to as cordage. Cordage below 3/16″ in diameter——twine and clothesline being examples—isn’t considered true rope. Cordage above 3/16″ in diameter is. Before the invention of plastic, materials used to make rope ranged from plant sources, (palm trees, hemp, ﬂax, grasses, cotton) to silk, animal hides, hair, and intestines.
Twisted rope, also known as “laid rope,” is made in three steps:
1) Fibers are twisted into yarn;
2) Lengths of yarn are twisted together in the opposite direction into strands; and
3) The strands are twisted in the opposite direction into rope.
These opposite-direction twists create tension, which holds rope together and adds to its strength. Twisted rope generally uses a few strands—three is very common—and the strands can be quite thick.
Braided rope is made by braiding (rather than twisting) thin strands together. There are many different patterns, each having distinct advantages of strength, durability, and flexibility. It’s common to use from 8 to 32 strands in a single rope.
The oldest evidence of rope-making dates to roughly 17,000 years ago. The decayed remains of a rope about 1/4″ in diameter, made from two twisted strands of an unknown plant fiber, were found in one of the famous cave paintings in Lascaux, France.
By about 10,000 years ago, the rope was being used by people in most parts of the world. Like the wheel, it became one of the vital tools in the advancement of civilization.
Some examples of rope tools that drastically changed the lives of ancient people: lassoes and snares for hunting, nets for fishing, cattle-harness lines for pulling plows, rope-and-pulley systems that allowed for the hoisting of heavy objects, and the many rope tools used in shipping, such as sail rigging and mooring lines.
Ancient Egyptian drawings show people using simple tools to make twisted rope. Further drawings show that ropes were used extensively in the building of the pyramids. In 2005 archeologists digging in caves on Egypt’s Red Sea coast discovered dozens of neat coils of well—preserved grass-fiber rope, each about an inch in diameter and 100 feet long. They had been stored in the caves by sailors more than 4,000 years ago.
At least 500 years ago, the Incas made rope bridges as part of their road system through the Andes. By the 12th century, European rope makers used ropewalks—long narrow buildings, some several hundred feet long—where strands could be fully laid out. This allowed the rope makers to avoid unwanted twisting and knotting as the ropes were being made. The first American ropewalk was built in 1635 in Salem, Massachusetts.
Rope is also made from metal. You’ve probably seen “wire rope,” or “cable,” on suspension bridges. More than half of all rope manufactured today is used in shipping—related industries. On boats and ships, ropes are called “lines.”
According to the Tug of War International Federation – official tug of war competitions use only rope made from Manila hemp. (It’s actually made from the leaves of the abaca, a type of banana plant native to the Philippines). Primary reason: Manila rope is resistant to both stretching and snapping.
Largest rope ever: the rice-straw ropes (against TWIF rules!) made for the annual “Great Tug of War” in Okinawa. The rope for the 2012 event was 4.5 feet thick, 656 feet long, and weighed more than 80,000 pounds. It took several thousand people to move it.