“It’s relatively invisible until you start looking for it."
March 6, 2018 11:33 AM   Subscribe

The Long, Knotty, World-Spanning Story of String (SL Hakai Magazine, also available in audio format on the page).
posted by mandolin conspiracy (10 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
That first picture of the Egyptian rope astounded me, the whole article was a joy, thank you.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 12:11 PM on March 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Those wonderfully preserved ancient ropes are super cool. Especially in how rope-making has some obvious right-answers that haven't changed in lots of years. The rest of the article was interesting to me, but in a wierdly defensive way it gave extremely short shrift to the domestic/potentially feminine-coded history of thread in culture (clothing, household textiles) as if its actual thesis is "See how manly thread is!" Ancient ropes, but not 9000-year-old woven fragments. Even the tidbit about thread in religion - at the Shinto sites - is notable for ignoring the companion examples of ecclesiastical embroidery throughout history.
posted by janell at 1:15 PM on March 6, 2018 [6 favorites]

needs a "stringtheory" tag
posted by murphy slaw at 2:25 PM on March 6, 2018

Heh. "String theory" was a finalist for Title of Post. Tag added.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 3:29 PM on March 6, 2018

This is a neat read!

I do wish they'd been more inclusive too though, a better-written nod to spinning and weaving would have been nice acknowledgement that cordage didn't (and couldn't) evolve alone – another word for string is "thread," which needs to be spun, and this bit is just plain wrong in trying to shoehorn everything into a string-and-cord view: "A mast and sail, which is really just a tightly knit sheet of string..." No, sails are most definitely not knit, because if they were they wouldn't get anywhere. Knit fabrics stretch and have holes, you see. Sails are woven. Very tightly woven. Quite a lot of research has been done on that – just one example here.

It kinda-sorta gets there at the end, but yes, it's written in such a way that it sounds like cord is where it's at, when really cord is but one aspect. Which is cool! The article could have kept its focus and been much richer if more attention were paid to context by the writer, and acknowledgement made of other archaeology and research contributions.
posted by fraula at 1:48 AM on March 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yeah I also came here to note the domestic angle. Further to fraula's link, consider that any woven sail made before sometime in the 1800s would have been woven out of yarn made with a spindle that looked about like these, basically a rock and a stick.

In fact it looks like the same was true for the first step in the making of actual rope, at least in the neighboring-ish Faroe Islands. A widget like this for twisting many spun strands together into a rope, and if you read on to page 57 you see that the single strands would have been spun on a spindle like this, a rock and a stick and a hook. (Forgive that garbage Pinterest link, its creator is someone I know to be knowledgeable on the subject.)
posted by clavicle at 7:46 AM on March 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's not impossible that animal fibre cord predates plant fibre cord.

Sheep then, and several other animals including the bison then and now, shed their wool periodically. It gets long and turns into dreadlocks and then it catches on twigs and thorns and rocks and pulls out where it can be collected in greasy rolls. If your primitive ancestor lived on a moor where wild sheep graze the easiest way to get wool would be to go around gleaning it from the vegetation after it got pulled off in the spring. They might want this fibre for the oil in it or for the fleece but as soon as they examined it or tried to pick it apart it would become apparent that it was a long skinny mass of wool fibres held together by twisting. If your ancestor tried to take it apart without matting it worse, they would almost certainly end up lengthening the mass. It's easier to separate the hairs by pulling them downward.

Modern sheep do not shed - they have been bred for this, but back in the day they left curls of wool behind them in the summer.

It is also easier to make a string out of animal fibre that is found on a surface - Imagine, if you will, that your dog has been sleeping during the spring and summer in one location and shedding where she sleeps. There will be a layer of hair on the surface. If you try to scrape it off the surface either to clean the surface or to collect it, it will roll up. You almost automatically get a cord, albeit a very soft one that pulls apart easily. If your dog has the right kind of kinky fur the cord will be very nearly usable - and if you twist three rolls of this fur-cord together by rubbing the across a surface, you do have a barely usable piece of string.

Plant fibres, however, usually need to be softened before they can be spun. Flax has to be retted, a process involving soaking and then beating it. Of course a damp nest of straw, rained on and walked on could reach a state similar to retted flax fibre, but it is not as ready-to-go as the wool. Not that the wool is in clean condition when you pick it off a bush. It can be a hard clay sausage from the dirt in it, when it is in really bad shape. But both the plant fibre and the animal fibre would need to be cleaned if the plant fibre were naturally retted by rain and being trodden on. Only the animal fibre would be partially spun already. The straw fibre on the other hand, might well be partially woven so that portions of it maintained something of a mat shape when it was first picked up.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:24 AM on March 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

fraula: No, sails are most definitely not knit, because if they were they wouldn't get anywhere. Knit fabrics stretch and have holes, you see. Sails are woven. Very tightly woven. Quite a lot of research has been done on that – just one example here.

That paper was really interesting!

The sample SK1/4, (Skuldulev 1 oppsett 4) shows that a high air permeability of 111 cm/sec can be ‘tuned’ down to 4 cm/sec by the two stage process of horse fat and ochre followed by beef tallow. The results for Skuldelev 1 oppset 2 and Skuldelev 1 oppset 5, both show the effect of each of the two stages. The first application lowered the air flow from 68–85 cc/sec down to 18 cc/sec, and the beef tallow application reduced it further, to close to zero if required, dependant on the quantity of beef tallow applied.

So they kind of had to experiment with slathering...fat onto the wool sails to figure out what made them more effective/less wind permeable.

Also! Previously: No wool, no vikings
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:17 PM on March 7, 2018

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