Who would have guessed that we would be making rope? It doesn’t sound particularly St. Martha’s Guild-ish, but cinctures are yet another one of those surprising corners in need of the Restoration of the Sacred. They used to make unusual versions that were truly beautiful. Now you get ugly clothesline rope with a knot at the end. We must bring this craft back, and we are on a mission to rope you into helping us keep it alive.
This adventure started when Father brought us a cincture that needed repair. They tend to wear out at the point where they are folded in half. The cincture that Father brought us was suffering from this problem. The structure of the rope was...interesting. Kind of like a clothesline rope core with a Chinese finger trap around it. There wasn’t much we could do to save it other than an ugly mending job. Father wondered if we could figure out how to make new rope. He told us the Franciscans once had a great tradition of making cinctures so we figured there must be some info somewhere and began rummaging around for it.
That’s when one of our awesome research ladies showed up with this gem:
The Ashley Book of Knots is a sailor’s encyclopedia of all things rope. It was first published in 1944. It can serve as a booster seat if needed. It has instructions for tying 3900 different knots including several pages of rope patterns, called solid sinnets. We’re liking the triangular one which feels deliciously Trinitarian and has us itching to have a go at it. The book has been reprinted and is readily available. It can also be found online here.
We also found some Youtube videos showing the Japanese method of braiding rope. That helped tremendously in figuring out the ‘how to’ of rope making. Once that was sorted out we were well on our way toward cincture production.
Step 1 - Managing all of that Thread
We started this adventure using linen thread which is very unforgiving and downright mean at times. It is very stiff and ‘toothy’ which wreaked havoc on the process of unwinding the skein to measure out the lengths of thread. The skeins were absolutely beautiful though, and the rope they made was lovely in the end. Wrangling all of that linen thread taught us that we needed to invest in a swift which holds the skein on a spinning frame, and a ball winder which pulls from the swift and rolls up a nice tidy manageable spool of thread. You could, in a pinch, use a couple of kitchen chairs backed up to each other to hold the skein, or a nice young man who doesn’t mind demonstrating the ‘touchdown’ pose while you manually wind the thread into a ball. However, a swift and ball winder are faster, more precise and great fun.
We have since ditched the linen and moved on to using silk thread. It is not only much easier to work with, but is stunningly beautiful at every stage of the process. Silk can be difficult to find though, and there are certainly many other options. Cotton is a fine choice. Avoid slippery threads like that shiny rayon embroidery stuff. Fr. P said those cinctures are prone to coming loose. Not cool! They sit in the drawer.
Step 2 - Going to Great Lengths
The next step is to figure out the math and cut a whole bunch of threads to the correct length. Cinctures are usually 10, 12, or 14 feet long, but our priests prefer them to be a bit longer so we aimed for 16-17 feet. In order to accomplish this length we had to first figure out how much thread was needed to make one foot of rope. The only way to really do that is to braid up some test rope. When you get a foot braided, unbraid it and measure how much you used up, then use that information to calculate how long each thread needs to be in order to braid up to your finished length.
We also had to figure out the proper thickness of the cincture rope. This is controlled by the preference of the priest, the chosen sinnet pattern, and the thickness of the thread being used. After some experimenting, we zeroed in on the ideal combination. Our fairly standard solid, round sinnet pattern is made with eight strands. Each strand is made up of 33 silk threads. This meant we needed to measure out 25 1/2 feet of thread (long enough to make the right length of finished rope), times 33 (to get 1/8th of the the right thickness), times 8 (the number of strands needed for our particular sinnet pattern). That’s a lot of thread, 6,732 feet, to be exact. That’s kind of intimidating, actually.
But fear not. There is another handy gizmo designed to ease the trauma of 6,732 feet. A warping board is a nice, compact, handy way to measure out long lengths of thread, without having to string it through your entire house, “Let’s see, from the kitchen doorknob, through the dining room, through the foyer, around the leg of the piano in the living room, back through the foyer to one of the dining room chairs...’
The warping board has a series of pegs inserted into a frame. The threads are zigzagged between the pegs until the desired length is reached.
To start off, make a ‘master measurer’ string. You can reuse this for any additional cinctures that you will be making. Tie a loop at one end. Measure out the string from that end loop to the length that you calculated when you braided up that tester foot of rope. Tie a loose slipknot at that point, but don’t cut it. Hook the beginning looped end on the top peg and zigzag the rest around the other pegs, skipping one or two if necessary until you have it distributed comfortably between them. At the end it probably won’t fit exactly peg-to-peg, just add the extra to make it finish the last span. If you do have an almost exact fit add one more span to give you some extra to length for knotting the finished rope. This initial rope will map out the route to the needed length. You can push this measuring string to the back of the posts. Tie on the end of your cincture thread to the first post and follow your established zigzagging route to the end. Go around this last peg and return to the top by the same route. Keep going until you have the desired number of threads to make a strand. Wrap this strand onto a shuttle or, as the Ashley Book of Knots recommends, “A seven inch wire spike.” Not so sure about that one. They might be making enough rope to rig a sail so...
Step 3 - Tying One On
Once the thread is all measured out and loaded onto the shuttles it is time to make rope. You are going to need a stool. Get a wood bar stool and drill a 1 inch hole through the center. Evenly space thumb tacks around the perimeter - eight in our case for this sinnet pattern. In order to be sure there is a proper amount of even tension on all shuttles tie each strand onto one of the upholstery tacks, collect the ends together and tie an overhand knot. Feed this knotted end into the center hole of the stool.
When the shuttles are all even and knotted together in the center, attach a weighted bag of marbles to the knot. This counterbalances the weight of the shuttles with the strands wrapped around them, as well as adding some gravity to pull the developing rope down through the center of the stool. Using a bag of marbles is ideal because it allows you to adjust the weight as the shuttles become lighter. You’ll have to fiddle with the number of marbles to find the sweet spot.
Finally, let the braiding begin! There are a lot of moving parts and it may look complicated at first. There is a rhythm to how you move the shuttles, and keeping track of where you are in the process is important. It does become second nature pretty quickly and soon you will find that the motion of the strand placement and the sound of the clicking shuttles are beautifully peaceful and meditative.
I will post a video soon so you can see how this particular pattern is braided.
The last piece of the cincture is the tassel. We have tried a number of interesting things in this department, crochet, macrame, bead capped, anything besides that embarrassing overhand knot that keeps showing up in cincture product listings. This is probably the subject for a whole different post. Here are a few versions to get you going.
One last thing; something about making rope seems ideally suited for boy activity. Maybe it’s that badge in Boy Scouts that our brothers had to earn by pilfering shoelaces and knotting the mess out of them. Maybe it is because rope features in the lives of boys quite naturally. In any case, we have thought that this would be a terrific project to teach to the altar servers.