Ropewalking

By Ramona Flightner/ @ramonaflightner

One of the aspects I have most enjoyed about writing is the research I do. I know that, for many, research is often the least enjoyable aspect of the writing process. For me, I often have to limit myself or I will become too engrossed in any one topic. (As an example, I spent four hours one Saturday studying railway time-tables from 1900). As I continue to write my books, I love how much I am learning about topics that I never thought would interest me such as Victorian fashion or manners; old maps of Boston; old photos of Boston; the copper wars of Montana. It’s all fascinating, and I find that my world continues to grow due to my writing.

With that in mind, I returned to the West End Museum (http://thewestendmuseum.org), for a special exhibit they had on ropewalking. I had a vague idea that I would somehow incorporate ropewalking into my novel, but quickly realized that wouldn’t work as most of the rope-makers in Boston went belly up in the late 1890’s due to take-over bids by greedy New Yorkers and their attempt at a monopoly (which also failed). Anyway, by the time 1900 hit, there was only one rope making facility in the Boston area. I am oversimplifying things, but this was the gist of the story from what I read.

Ropewalk in Chatham

However, even though I would not be using ropewalking in my novel, it still intrigued me. Living in the synthetic world of the late 1900’s and 2000’s, I had not given much though to where ropes came from, but I soon began to realize how precious rope must have been. The whole process, from separating hemp fibers from the stem, then cleaning the fibers and straightening them before spinning, to actually spinning the rope, and then tarring the rope so it would be waterproof, seems arduous and time consuming. It was also dangerous as the hemp fibers were extremely flammable and there were numerous fires in the ropewalks. Generally, they liked to have the long, wooden buildings in unpopulated areas or swamps. A ropewalk itself is a long, narrow covered building where long strands of hemp that had been hatchelled, spun into yarn, and tarred was laid out for the final step of being twisted into rope.

There were several objects in the main room of the West End Museum of things that were used in the ropewalking facilities. Among them there was a hatchel which consisted of numerous metal spikes sticking out of a board that would help straighten and clean the hemp. There was a long, beautifully made wooden miniature of what a ropewalk was like.  Inside the miniature, you could envision a man with feet of hemp wrapped around his waist as he slowly walked away from the spinning machine and made yarn and rope. The diagrams explained the process of rope making and the history of rope making in Boston.

I greatly enjoyed my repeat visit to the West End Museum and look forward to future exhibits. This current exhibit will continue through the summer and they will have other events about rope making. If you live in the Boston area, I would recommend a visit.

If you are intrigued by rope walking, or rope making, there are numerous websites on line that you can visit (including you tube videos). One I liked was for a class taught in England. It had good, basic info with neat diagrams. It is at:  http://www.the-ropewalk.co.uk/ks2th2.pdf

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  • Wow, not that is a subject I never would have thought to learn about. lol. Yes research for our novels will take you on an adventure into finding out about new topics. My books are set in the present so the only research I’ve had to do involved the internet and careers. A few clicks, cut, paste, print. LOL. Glad to know you got a chance to get out and do something new. Maybe I’ll find a topic that involves me being ‘out’ of the office for a while to do research!

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