Raw Jute Rope - preparing and maintenance by Peter Slemrian

Posted on Mon, 18 August 2014

Why I share this guide? Because I get to see a LOT of rope across the world. Too much of what I see is in terrible condition. Some years ago I wrote a how-to guide for a dear friend in Stockholm, but maybe others will find it useful as well to drastically improve the condition and the feel, and the total life span of their ropes as I did after studying and experimenting through 20 years and many kilometres to develop a process that works best for me.

Some advice... To make premium jute ropes in the Japanese nawashi (craftsman) tradition, there is NO quick and easy way . It takes a lot of time, focus and precision. But sure worth the efforts, also money-wise because correctly treated ropes WILL get a drastically extended life span if you don't accept compromises.

An example: If your rope releases dust, it is dry, or drying out, hence the fibres start to break, the rope weakens quickly, and the dust and fluff ends up in your nose and lungs (atchju!). But, there's much more to it. There is no easy, quick way. It is a craft. One needs to be willing to to study and practice. With patience.

I want to warmly thank Hajime Kinoko, Arisue Go, Dr. Phil, Moonlight Shadow, Dada, Scot_DK, and other rope masters for having kindly shared many great tips, and for having inspired me to develop this process that I use today!

Well, actually it's two different processes, depending on your TYPE of rope, in general two categories, if it's spun by single ply yarn, or double ply twine (all yarns are twisted in pairs to keep a neutral twist and to avoid high stranding etc. Big difference! But first...

Raw jute rope often has a distinct sharp smell of remaining jute batch oils (also known as JBO), but some manufacturers even use kerosene (yes, A1 jet fuel, simply because it's cheaper and easy to get!), or other type/s of toxic petrochemical batch oil/ spin oil. The raw jute rope may contain as much as 10-25 grams of moist per 10 meters of rope (up to 20% of its weight, whereas some of this may be water moisture, but also the remains of the jute fibre softening agent). Not only does it smell terribly bad. You probably do not want ANY of this toxic petrochemical softening agent to remain in the rope as it may cause pretty bad allergic reactions, or worse. However, remaining batch oil / spin oil can be removed efficiently by hot steam and then by hot air evaporation. But, the process is not without risk, and it takes time, steady focus and patience. With due experience, preparing and finishing a set of like 10 x 8 meter ropes takes an entire day. I recommend using proper hand gloves, proper mask, proper ventilation, and a good massage the day after :D

About the remaining toxic jute fibre softening agent. It is being added during the jute yarn production, and after harvesting and sun drying the plants to prepare and mature it for spinning the otherwise very stiff, raw jute fibres into thin yarn, and it serves as lubricant (spin oil) when spinning the thin yarns into a sufficiently tight and consistent jute rope that don't get jammed in the spinning machines. Usually, 10-20% of its weight is a mix of that softening agent and some water moisture sucked in due to the high humidity in the jute plant producing regions.

About preparing, and dyeing (optional) raw jute ropes, usually I do like this:

1) Polishing the rope through a carabiner by first twisting the rope 3 times around itself, then running it through the carabiner like 6-10 times each way, couple of meters at a time (appx. an arms length) to release the quite vast amount of microfibers, dirt and dust stored inside the rope. This process should be done outside, usually I am wearing a dust mask.

1,1) - Single ply rope) I boil the jute rope for 2 x 10 minutes and shift the water in between. There are two ways to restore the rope's original twist and diameter.

Option 1) I stretch the rope between two poles and add appx. 30 kg tension until it's dry to avoid getting a too thick, too slack, slow, and fluffy (and spoiled) rope. Drying while stretching the single ply rope will regain its original length, diameter and keep its tight twist. Drying and stretching single ply jute rope can also be done as described below, but with caution.

Option 2) For single ply AND double ply rope, I found this to be a more gentle process than stretching while drying. Using a carabiner, or similar rounded fixed point, to "reset" the rope after it has been boiled and dried, and after the remaining moisture and softening agent has been totally evaporated from the rope in a hot air ventilated oven at 130 degrees Celsius for 4 hour (for 100 meters). More about this "reset" process further down...

1,2 - Double ply rope) I don't boil double ply rope, but machine wash it. I found that washing double ply rope is no problem as the twisted yarn ensures a highly stable and consistent rope, but also a bit more more dense and stiff rope, if not washed 1 or 2 times depending on type. Also, boiling and/or washing the rope alone will not release the softening agent! This can only be done by hot air evaporation. Before washing I daisy chain each rope separately (and very, very loose ), then machine wash it at 70 degrees Celsius. Please note that the rope will get appx 10% thicker (appx 0,5 mm) and also a bit softer by machine washing, if not "reset" as described below, or if not stretched with tension until it's completely dry. ... But, I regard the result of machine washing the double ply rope type as pretty much equal to breaking in new untreated ropes, and I don't like to use very stiff ropes anyway. I've concluded that double ply ropes have a significantly longer life span than single ply ropes, and my double ply ropes really don't need the very regular maintenance like re-twisting as soon as it's broken in and then maybe re-twisting after each use when it gets older... Not to mention mending the high stranding, also very time consuming... Double ply ropes don't suffer from high stranding but keep even and keeps the twist - it's very much more stable. Much time and money is saved on using double ply ropes! Drying and evaporation After machine washing I spin the ropes at highest possible RPM to get most possible water out of the rope. You may want to avoid having long whippings at the rope ends, because the fibres from the loose ends may detach and block the washing machine (the filter and the water pump). Yuck. So I cut the rope right after the knot - no loose whippings in the washing machine--- Then I untie the daisy chained ropes and coil them loosely. Now time to release the remaining softening agent from the rope by evaporation in a ventilated hot air oven (YES, the ropes still smell VERY bad even after machine washing!). I put the ropes in a hot air oven at 130 degrees Celsius for appx 5 hours (for 100 meters rope, or, until it no longer smells of anything else but jute fibers). Very often like each 5-10 minutes I open the oven door to release the steam (and it smells really bad, even after several hours in the oven, so I keep open windows and use a mask!). Finally I set the oven on self clean program at max temperature. Resetting the rope (for single, and double ply ropes) Finally, when the rope is completely dry, I pull it through a carabiner 5-6 pulls each way and by twisting the rope 3 times around itself, which creates a bit of friction to release a vast amount of loose fluff and dust. I add a bit of tension with my body as counterweight as I pull the rope back and fourth like 5-6 times, an arms length, and then another arms length. And voila! The rope is now returning to its original length and twist - well almost - because it will have shrunk appx. 3-5% and gotten appx 10% thicker, also now a bit softer due to the machine wash. But that's how I like my otherwise (for my taste and use) too tightly spun double ply ropes. I like them not too tight, and not too stiff. When tightened around a carabiner the rope should shrink a bit - or it will be too tightly spun for my personal taste. My experience is that single ply ropes don't like machine wash, so use caution and try first with a sample... 2) Burning off the remaining fluffy fibres to get a nice, quick and smooth rope surface with a super low friction is done by running the rope (double laid to save time) through a gas stove flame, or camping gas flame. Using a torch tool, or other very hot flames is really not recommendable. Burning off the fluff should also be done outside. Usually I wear a mask. The rope is burned once on one "side", and then turned 180 and burned once on the other side as you return the rope through the flame.

3) Quick polish Now I polish the rope quickly and gently through a carabiner 2-3 times each way to release the soot and microparticles after the burning process. Dust mask is recommended!

4) Dyeing the jute rope. If you want to dye the rope, then it should be done now, before adding wax and oil. Otherwise the dye cannot penetrate the rope surface. 

5) Applying the tsubaki oil and beeswax paste. More details about the paste and how to make it, see below. For initial rope preparation, usually the first time I add appx. 12 grams of the wax/oil paste per rope by completely soaking in the soft cotton cloth, then running the rope (double laid through the hands to save time) through the 1 times folded cloth (so now it has 4 sides) passing the rope with a tight hand. For every 1/4 of the length (appx arms length) I turn the cloth. A cotton cloth of appx. 15 x 25 cm (like of an old T-shirt) will contain appx 12 grams when completely soaked in. You will notice that the cloth feels quite dry again after preparing just one rope. After each rope is treated, you soak in the cotton cloth completely again by applying another appx 12 grams of wax.

6) Drying the rope after oil/wax appliance. The ropes are left to hang indoors for a couple of days to dry, and to let the oil/beeswax paste penetrate deeper into the rope. As an alternative, or in addition, if you want an even softer rope, it can be dried in the oven at 70 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes. This also applies to ropes that had too much wax/oil added, it will then penetrate deeper into the rope and leave a dry, slick surface.

7) Burn the rope once again (double laid through your hands to save time, and) by passing the flame once on each side to distribute the heated wax evenly all over the rope surface, and to let the tsubaki oil penetrate deeper into the rope to ensure low internal friction. This will soften the rope also on the inside, keeping the fibres from breaking and gives the rope a longer life cycle. Then the rope is finally polished with a dry, soft and clean cotton cloth.

8) Additional pure beeswax - optional. This step can be left out, but, if you want (just as I prefer) a super soft, yet crisp and super quick rope that is slick with ultra low friction and maximum long life span, then you can now add just a few extra grams of pure beeswax to each rope by running the rope between two blocks of wax through your hand and then, place the ropes in the oven again 30 minutes at 70 degrees Celsius to melt and distribute the wax quite evenly on the rope surface and to let it penetrate a bit into the rope also. Pure beeswax has a quite low melting point of appx 66 degrees Celsius. Then, when it's waxed and burned, I polish the rope one last time to get a super smooth, quick and shiny surface by using a clean and soft cotton cloth (like an old T-shirt, etc).

If more than appx. 2 grams of beeswax is applied per 8 meter rope (5,5 mm), it will feel sticky and the surface friction will actually be higher, not lower as intended. If too much beeswax is added, like if the rope now feels sticky on the surface, then place it in the oven at 90 Celsius for like 10 minutes to soak in the wax deeper in the rope than a quick burn will achieve. Then the surface will feel smooth and dry again. As far as I know, too much wax cannot be removed from the rope when first applied, at least not without using really not-nice agents, and boiling the rope will neither help, but if I do like this, the wax will instead penetrate deeper into the rope and the problem is fixed.

And now, finally, happy tying! :D