Does anyone here have good instructions/experience/descriptions of retting plants for cordage?

I’m working with nettle stalks, fireweed stalks and yucca leaves right now.


Ai’ve worked with yucca tons of times. Its pretty easy: cut the leaves from the plant; take one (or more, if youre adventurous, or good) in your left hand (hopefully youre a righty, if not, just reverse) by the spine (like this - <-[ ]L----= where [ ]L is your hand, < is the spine and = is the frayed end); lay the yucca on a flat, hard surface (concrete works fine); take a flat rock or heavy stick and pound the end(s) a few times, or until they start to separate (this is assuming the yucca is green); dip in water and shake or stir around for a few seconds; if the exess material doesnt come off completely, scrape with fingernails or just repeat the steps; take yucca and repeat all steps, until all fibers are separate, or until you separate up to the point. This is, assuming that you have green leaves. If they are dryed, just soak for an hour or so (ai actually like to soak overnight and use it the next morning) and start pounding out the fibers.

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What does retting mean?

Retting is the process of soaking a green or dried plant causing it to rot slightly so the outter bark comes off easily. Basically you soak something in water until it starts to break down. Supposedly it makes the cordage much easier to work with, softer and in some cases stronger.

You can also try “dew-retting” or “field-retting” which is basically harvesting something and letting it sit in a pile in a field, and letting the dew moisture cause bacteria to break it down a little. That the least amount of work I’ve heard.

I haven’t been able to find clear instructions or hear experiences about this so I’m just experimenting myself. :slight_smile:

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I see it spelled “rhetting” sometimes too. I’ve been trying to find this cordage site I stumbled across a couple years ago that talked about rhetting quite a lot, but I can’t seem to find the sucker again.

I don’t have any experience w/ it, having only done boiling and pounding/scraping to separate fibers, but I have heard of leaving a bundle of bark weighed down in a stream or creek for a while.

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Oh. Ai feel kinda stupid now. :stuck_out_tongue: Guess ai din check the dictionary. com entry well enough. Yucca’s easy enough, though. No need to make it easier, imo.

There is abit on retting here:
I’m planning on doing this with some yucca and new zealand flax in the next few days, probably in a five gallon bucket with some water, dirt and the leaves. I have heard nettle doesn’t stand up to retting, at least if you want to preserve it’s strength. For lighter uses it might be great - though getting nettle fibers clean isn’t much of a chore as it is with yucca. Good luck!

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I would simply lat the material I wanted to ret down on a flat serface… lay a round smooth limb (smooth driftwood works best0 and then straddle the driftwood (one knee on each side). Slowly roll it down the length of what you want to ret… it crushes and seperates the fibers… you then just pull it apart… only takes a few seconds once you get the hang of it and if your heavy enuf you can do several at once.

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‘Retting’ is related to ‘rotting’. That’s why it mya smell just as bad. You just try to keep the rotting process in check to make sure that your materials change evenly and not further than needed.

My favorite retting concerns lime (linden) bark; I just loveto see yellow-golden ribbons of inner bark hanging on every tree around to dry, a feast for the eye.
Since I have no flowing water around here, I resort to tubs. When lime trees get cut or trimmed, collect the bark making a lengthwise cut and peeling the bark (you can get strips of several meters). This goes smoothly when the sap rises, which should be around this time of year. Roll the bark (to make it workable) and pack the rolls into a bucket. Fill up with water and keep the water level over the rolls (e.g. by putting stones on them). Refresh the water regularly or it will become a foul stinking mess (but still works). Depending on the tree itself, the weather, the temperature and so on it will take several weeks before the bark layers (up to ten or so) start to separate themselves from each other. Use a dull knife to try and separate the layers satisfactorily. Hang them out to dry and then make some of the best natural cordage, bowstrings and more. Even the stiff, rough outer layers are useful for things like baskets.


I’m seeing instructions by Jon Ridgeon ( that calls for boiling willow bark in a heavy ash solution. I wonder if this is similar to the buckskin/barktan hide debate of using alkaline solutions vs. just rotting the hide to buck it.

I also wonder if boiling in ash is more consistent and stronger, but more energy intensive (just like rotting vs. liming with hides).

I tried making a bow string with nettle cordage (urticia diocia) and it failed quickly. Is it possible I need to rett/rot the fibers first?


It totally is like tanning. Lye/lime just speeds up the process that retting also accomplishes. I have a paper-making friend who does both depending on timing. :slight_smile:

I have friends who claim that using lye/lime ruins hides, and some Native people who buy hides will refuse a hide if it has been “bucked” as Matt Richards called it. They say the hides fall apart faster. I wonder (and assume) the same would be true of plant fibers… Hmmmm.

This same conundrum is coming up in dyeing too. Do I really want to let the plant material rot and use urine? I’m growing japanese indigo and it requires a lime/soda ash/ammonia solution to bring out the color. OR, you can use stale urine in the old style, before ammonia was used ( as urine becomes ammonia.

Stale urine (usually pH of 10) was used for tanning much the same way lime and lye are.

I’ve never heard that about lye/lime ruining hides. I wonder if the quest for softness comes at a price of durability? There’s gotta be a “sweet spot” of breaking stuff down but not “too much”. And since we’re already on a hide rotting tangent: I’ve read up on bacteria cultivated for specific deplliation/bucking enzymes. In India, tanneries don’t use lime/lye any more for leather. They use these proteolytic enzymes from bacteria. The original source of the enzymes comes from hair left outside to grow the bacteria. In other words, wild bacteria that eat hair (lignin, I think) find the deer hair and grow. A potential short cut–then the insane biotech lab stabilizing bacteria and separating out enzymes–is intentional rotting and saving of deer hair for future hides. This means to me rotting one hide in water, rotting it a little, scraping the hair off as usual. Then leaving the hair out to collect bacteria using that hair for future soaks.

Edit: scratch that. It’s not lignin. It’s Keratin that makes hair. The class of enzymes is called Kertinase.