Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Elephant No. 185: Rope Printing


I was browsing through my shelves of art books when I came across a rope-printing technique in Print Magic by Jocasta Innes and Stewart Walton. I've had this book for years, but never tried most of the techniques it contains. However, rope printing sounded easy, so I thought I'd give it a try today.

Rope, string, cord and twine consist of lengths of fibres that have been twisted and/or braided together. Natural materials commonly used for rope and string include hemp, cotton, linen, jute and sisal. Ropes can also been made from synthetic fibres such as nylon, acrylics, polyesters, and even plastics. Rope can even be made out of metal, although metal rope is generally called "cable".

Demonstration of ropemaking at the Turku Medieval Market,
Turku, Finland, 2005.
Photo: Samuli Lintula

The use of rope for various purposes has been around as long as humankind. The earliest ropes were probably vines, followed by rudimentary attempts to twist, wrap and braid various fibres into a stronger material. The archaeological record shows evidence of string- and rope-making dating back some 28,000 years in Europe, with similar dates likely all over the world.

The Ancient Egyptians were probably the first to develop tools for making rope around 4000 to 3500 B.C. Early Egyptian rope was likely made from the fibres of water reeds. Other ropes of the time were made from grasses, flax, leather, animal hair, papyrus and date palms.

The Chinese began making rope from hemp around 2800 B.C. By the Middle Ages in Europe, ropes were being made in "ropewalks": extremely long buildings where the strands and fibres were laid out, then twisted together to produce rope. The length of the final rope was thus determined by the length of the ropewalk, which could be 300 metres or more.

Ropewalk in the naval port of Karlskrona, Sweden.

Twisted ropes are built up in stages. Fibres are first collected and spun into yarns. The yarns are then formed into strands by twisting. The strands are then twisted again to make—or "lay up"—the rope. To make the rope hold together, the fibres are twisted one way to form the yarn; the strands are twisted in the opposite way; and the final rope is twisted opposite to the strands. A three-strand rope is called "plain-laid" or "hawser-laid"; a four-strand rope is called "shroud-laid"; and a larger rope made by twisting multi-strand ropes together is called "cable-laid". Rope in daily use has a lifespan of about five years—less if not properly stored, coiled or cared-for.

This closeup of hawser-laid rope shows the opposing twists in fibres and strands.

For today's elephant, the instructions in the book said to glue some "soft cotton rope" to a piece of plywood or heavy cardboard, so I used a piece of foamcore, and this soft black cotton rope which is actually cording for upholstery piping. It has a diameter of about 0.6 cm (1/4 inch) and is somewhat loosely twisted.

I glued the rope in an elephant shape to the foamcore, which is not all that easy. This is partly due to the nature of the material: this type of cord is not completely willing to go where you want it to go and doesn't bend precisely. It's also hard to design as you're gluing, and the cord is fat enough that a fine design is not really possible. The ends also need to be carefully trimmed and glued. The ends of my elephant were in the centre of the eye, and where the jaw joined the ear.

 This was my final elephant "printing plate", which I left to dry for an hour or so.

In the book, it suggests rolling paint on with a brayer or paint roller. I poured out a substantial amount of acrylic paint onto some waxed paper, then rolled it over the cord.

To print, I laid a piece of inexpensive sketchbook paper on top of the cord and pressed gently wherever I could feel or see the cord through the paper. The photograph below shows my first print.

I didn't like it much, so I rolled more paint over the cord and tried again. The instructions had suggested that using a rolling pin might work, so I tried that. All it did is smudge the lines of the cord.

I didn't like the second one, either, so I decided to try another one, this time rolling on some purple paint. I pressed again with my fingers, but pressed a little harder this time, hoping to get a better imprint.

Still not happy, I ran the "printing plate" under warm water to remove some of the excess paint. Because the cord absorbed some of the water, I tore off a couple of sheets of paper towels and pressed these into the cord. Surprisingly, this one was my favourite so far.

I decided to try again with paper, but this time I daubed various colours of paint on the cord with a brush, instead of rolling on paint with a brayer.

I liked this one best of the paper prints, but decided that, since the paper towels worked well, maybe fabric would be a good idea. Without adding more paint to the cord, I took a piece of unbleached muslin and pressed it into the cord. I pressed fairly hard, trying to make the paint seep through to the side I could see.

In the end, I didn't really like the way any of these turned out. It's probably just that I don't like clunky designs, and maybe if I'd used thinner cotton string I would have liked it more. This was extremely easy, however, and would probably be an interesting activity for children.

I might try this again with cotton string, a smaller design, and something like paper towels as a printing surface.  Then again, there are media I like a lot more, so we won't hold our breath.


Elephant Lore of the Day
In northwestern India, human-elephant conflict is becoming a way of life, often resulting in fatalities on both sides. One man, however, has come up with a unique and relatively inexpensive way of both alerting farmers and coaxing elephants back into the forest without harming them.

This early warning system, developed by avowed animal-lover Shimanta Kumar Goswami of Assam, is elegantly simple. Poles are set up around the perimeter of a coffee plantation, for example, with nylon ropes tied between them. The ropes are strung at a height of about 1.8 metres (6 feet), with poles placed about 200 metres (650 feet) apart. This assembly is in turn connected to an electric bell in a watchtower.

When an elephant strays into the area and comes into contact with the rope, the hair on its head gets caught in the rope's fibres. This pulls a few hairs out, causing the elephant to instinctively flinch, turn away and head back into the forest. At the same time, the alarm bell goes off, alerting plantation workers and nearby villagers that there is an elephant in the vicinity.

The cost to cover a kilometre (1.2 miles) with the device is about $50 U.S. Devices with electric fencing, on the other hand, cost around $3,000 U.S., and cause much more harm to elephants—and to any other creature that happens to run up against them. 

Elephant in forest near coffee plantation in Assam, India.

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