Natural-fibre ropes are often referred to as real ropes or old-fashioned rope. These ropes are usually shades of brown, they are not shiny and plasticky or white or blue - usually! When Nelson was sailing, his ships were rigged with natural-fibre ropes, sometimes Hemp, which had to be tarred to make it last, and in later years the more resilient Manila became the popular choice. This page gives you some information on the common natural fibre ropes to help you make the right choice for your project.
Many of my ropes are made in England from imported fibres (there aren’t that many coconut or wild banana plantations in the UK!) That’s important to me and means I can be confident about the quality of manufacture and the waterproofing agents that have been applied.
I feel that Manila is the natural fibre rope for general outdoor use. It is made from the leaves of the plant Musa Textilis. As a rule of thumb Manila may last up to 10 years though it can be 5 years, it weathers from the initial mid-brown you can see in the picture to a brown/grey.
Sisal is very similar in texture to Manila rope but it is generally much lighter in colour. If you have a cat-scratching post it will almost always be wrapped in Sisal. I stock 8mm diameter Sisal especially for those of you whose cat has scratched away rather too much of their favourite toy. Whilst it can be slightly cheaper than Manila I personally think that Sisal is not quite as good for outdoor use. Its bleached blonde look fairly quickly discolours and somehow seems to look dirty rather than aged or weathered like Manila.
Unsurprisingly, Coir rope is normally the same colour and texture as a Coir door mat! Where it scores over Manila is that it is much lighter in weight, so if you want a 100mm, (4”) diameter rope for an edging round a border or a fender round your boat then this is the rope to use. Just like the coconut, from which it comes, Coir ropes will float. The larger sizes are very stiff, indeed you can pick up a 2m length of 72mm Coir and use it like a magic wand (or a light-sabre if you are more technically minded). The 96mm diameter Coir is so stiff that it is very hard to coil up!
Hemp, or Flax rope
Hemp and Flax rope are virtually identical: very soft rope that is naturally a greyish colour. Unlike Manila or Sisal it is not water-proofed during manufacture, so although it can be dyed it really does not last that well outdoors. I have heard of it giving way after just 2 years in a garden. My feeling is that Hemp or Flax are best used indoors or at least under cover, its soft feel makes it perfect for banister ropes. Hemp and Flax both have quite a strong aroma when they are new and this will be most noticeable when you open your delivery which has spent a couple of days all sealed up. I recommend that you allow time for the rope to “breathe” and freshen up a bit before you install it! Before you ask, I’m told you can’t smoke it and even if you could it would do you no good. I often use a Flax whipping twine to finish my ropes.
Cotton ropes or cords as you would expect, really are soft. They make great dog leads, can be dyed all sorts of colours but lose out to Manila when it comes to being long-lasting, strong and resistant to abrasion. However, I am reliably informed that Cotton cord is the only thing to use to wrap the steering wheel of your gorgeous old Bentley! Also, I'm told that it's the rope to use if you are restoring an older dinghy. I carry small stocks of some sizes of Cotton.
Jute and Hessian are other natural-fibres which are, or were, used to make ropes and cords, many people will remember Hessian sacks. I stock some Jute garden twine which is ideal for securing roses and other climbing plants to a length of Manila.