There are five types of natural rope, namely the following:

  1. Manila. Manila is a golden brown colour and is made up of strands from a type of banana plant (the abaca) which grows in the Philippines, Borneo and central America. When mature the abaca plant grows to a height of three to ten metres. It is then felled and the fibres from the leaf sheaths is stripped off. It is very durable but does not stretch very much. Neither does it float. When wet it swells and loses ¼ of its strength. For these reasons it should not be used where it runs through blocks. When not being used manila cordage should be coiled away, off the deck otherwise it will rot. It should also be kept away from chemicals. Fortunately it is not affected by sunlight and any knots made will not slip.

    The Abaca plant.

  2. Sisal. Sisal is made from the leaves of the sisal plant which is grown mainly in East Africa, Brazil, Haiti and Java. South Africa also produces a small quantity. Its strength when new is 20% less than manila. When wet it swells and sinks. It has excellent resistance to sunlight but little stretch or resistance to wear. It has good knot-holding ability. Like manila it must be stored away dry to avoid mildew and chemicals cause it to deteriorate. Because it is not as reliable as manila, it should never be used where lives are at stake.

    Agave sisalana

  3. Hemp. Originally hemp was obtained from the Middle East, but today it is grown all over the world, ie in Italy, the USA, Russia, China, New Zealand and India. Italian hemp is the strongest natural fibre used in rope making, while the Indian variety is the weakest. Although the plant is from the cannabis family, this variety cannot be smoked. It is the strongest and heaviest of the natural fibres. It is more flexible than manila and its wearing qualities are about the same. It is softer than the other ropes, has a hard smooth surface and is pale grey in colour. In the old days hemp was used in the rigging of sailing ships, but it had to be tarred to make it waterproof as it tended to store moisture while appearing to be dry on the outside. As a result it tended to rot away and parted suddenly. It was replaced by manila.

    Hemp plant.

  4. Cotton. Cotton used in rope tends to be very soft and is used mainly for fancy rope work and in the older type windows as sash cord. It has a good resistance to abrasion and does not stretch very much.

    Cotton plant.

  5. Coir. Coir is made from the fibres of the husks of the coconut and comes mainly from India and Sri Lanka. India supplies approximately 60% of the world’s coir rope. It is very hairy and is dark brown in colour. Coir rope is very flexible, springy and light and it also floats. It can stretch and absorb water without weakening. It is impervious to damage by salt water and it is approximately half the weight of manila. On the down side it is the weakest of all natural ropes (approximately one fifth the strength of manila) and rots very quickly if stowed away wet. It does not wear very well or stand up to bad weather. It is made up to a maximum diameter of 25 mm.

    Coconut fibres being sorted.