by Kevin Estela May 22, 2019
Continuing with the theme of desert-related posts to this blog, this month’s topic is cordage making with a widely available desert plant, Yucca. This survival skill is challenging and takes practice to be proficient. Personally, I am more amazed by those who have mastered how to make great cordage than those who can get a friction fire going. It’s only when your fingers get sore from repeating the cordage-making movements do you really come to appreciate pre-made cordage like decoy line, 550 paracord, and Kevlar thread. It is a pretty amazing sensation when you are able to harvest a plant from the land and turn it into something useful. It makes your sense of self-reliance much stronger as you become more resourceful.
Identification and Harvesting
There are many species of yucca featuring a rosette of sword-shaped leaves. Yucca is known as a desert plant but it is found in many different parts of the United States. I’ve found it on the New England shoreline in Long Island and parts of Connecticut for instance. The leaves have stringy hairs that peel off from the edges. The Yucca leaf has a pointed tip that can be quite painful to walk into if you aren’t careful. Depending on the time of year, a stalk could grow out of the center with white flowers. While this stalk is not used for cordage making, it can be used for bow-drill or hand-drill fire starting.
Harvesting is simple and straightforward with a good knife. Just make sure to look between the leaves of the yucca for any local residents like spiders that can inhabit it. When you locate yucca leaves that are about 1” wide, cut as low as you can to the base of the leaf near the stem. A single yucca leaf about 18” long and an inch wide will yield quite a good amount of finished cordage about ¼” thick.
Yucca is a succulent leaf with a lot of water content. One of the first steps to process yucca into cordage is pounding the moisture content out of the leaves. You can either whip it against a rock or use a log or rock to hammer on the leaves until the pulp is broken down leaving the fibers behind. You can also split the yucca leaves down the center and continue to split them in half over and over and then pound the juices out. The goal of stripping the fibers down and pounding out the excess moisture is to make the fibers the most workable. You can drive the tip of your knife into a log and pull the leaf along the edge carefully or you can simply use your fingernails. If you leave the moisture content in the yucca, braid it as is, and let it dry out on its own, you will notice the braid will actually loosen up.
Making Cordage (simple twisting or reverse wrapping)
To make cordage out of your prepared fibers, you have a couple options depending how you intend to use it. By simply grabbing a small handful of fibers and twisting them, you can create a short length of cord as long as you don’t let the tension on the twist go. This foot long length is good for simple binding tasks and the knot or hitch you use to secure it will keep the twists from unraveling. If you wish to prepare cordage in advance and store it in a way, you can always twist it around a small wooden dowel to “spool” out from later. Keep in mind, yucca cordage is best applied when there is still some moisture content left in it. As it dries, it will become less supple and more brittle.
The second option for creating cordage out of yucca fibers is reverse wrapping. This is the method of twisting two strands against one another where the twists hold the cordage in place and prevent unwrapping. The benefit of reverse wrapping over basic twisting is the ability to extend the length of cordage created by splicing in additional yucca. In theory, the length of cord you create will only be limited by the amount of resources you have or the amount of cordage you can make before finger fatigue sets in. There are plenty of resources online to show in greater depth how to reverse wrap but for now, think about twisting one strand away from you, then grabbing both strands, and twisting both strands back toward you. Each time you twist both back, you put the one on the bottom on the top and repeat this cycle over and over. When you create our splices, make sure you don’t splice both strands at the same spot along your cord. This will help make the sections you lengthened less noticeable and stronger.
Using Natural Cordage
The cordage you make can be used in place of the cordage you pack into the field. I don’t like cutting pre-made commercially-available cordage and having the ability to make what I need in the field is very gratifying. Compared to 550 paracord, tarred decoy line, or Kevlar thread, yucca cordage is simply not as strong. However, I don’t need the tensile strength of synthetic lines for simple tasks like hanging a small LED lantern in my tent, lashing kindling together to carry it more easily, or to make a fish stringer to haul my catch back to camp. Natural cordage can be left behind in nature without the guilt of knowing it will not decompose for years. Some outdoorsmen and women will use natural cordage just to pass the time. Afterall, the task is simple enough and rewarding to accomplish when you have nothing else to do and when your mind wants to wander.
The process described here applies to this desert plant but it can be applied to any that has fibers suitable for cordage. Each time you revisit the process, you should challenge yourself to become better and make cordage that is more tightly woven and smoother. There is no doubt cordage is a difficult skill to master but you can practice it every time you head into the field.
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