Nearing the end of her Project Boat fit-out, Ali Wood visits English Braids to discover how to make rope on an industrial scale…
Fortunately, thanks to XP Rigging, we now had newly spliced mooring lines, halyards and sheets. The turquoise, red and white ropes were so vibrant against the off-white decks. I enjoyed handling them; especially after the coarse UV-damaged lines from before.
There was just one more thing I wanted to do: visit English Braids, the company who made them. We’re lucky in the marine industry to have so many British manufacturing businesses. I’d already seen Maximus’s sail cloth being cut at Bainbridge and then stitched by T Sails loft. Now I was keen to find out more about how to make rope.
I called Andrew Wilcock, sales and marketing manager of English Braids, and asked if I could visit the rope making factory. “Yes of course,” he replied, adding that the factory was currently undergoing its latest round of investment. “You’ll be catching us at the start of this journey,” he warned.
I drove to the Victorian spa town of Malvern, whose lofty streets and grand hotels were cloaked in fog. The town’s first literary festival was gamely going ahead in spite of torrential rain, and somewhere beyond the Gurkha curry house and ornamental gardens lurked the famous hills and natural springs.
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How factories make rope
Conjuring up scenes from Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, I was therefore surprised to find English Braids in a modern business park outside town. The headquarters, where I quizzed Andrew and his colleague Deighton about rope and its properties, was much like any other open-plan office, but the factory was absolutely mesmerising.
Wearing ear defenders I stepped inside a vast warehouse that smelled of hot metal and cauterised plastic. There were wall-to-wall machines twisting ribbons of rainbow yarn into thin rope, which in turn was braided into thick rope.
Colourful spools wove in and out of each other like maypole dancers, while weights maintained tension as the strands were spun into a rope which made its way around a series of pulleys, before falling into a bin of snake-like coils.
I was shown around the factory by technical manager Chris Englefield, who explained that historically, this work would have been done by hand in a long, narrow street known as a ropewalk. In fact, you can visit an original one at Chatham Historic Dockyard, or watch our video showing the traditional method for making rope.
The first process is known as twisting, which involves flat yarn (the base material) being twisted into a small diameter rope on a drum. This was done using glass-encased machines from Scandinavia, which sprung open automatically when finished, causing me to leap backwards in surprise.
“The yarn is twisted in different directions – one clockwise, the other anticlockwise, so it opposes itself, creating a balanced rope,” explained Chris.
Next, Chris took me into a larger room to see 12- and 24-strand rope being made from the smaller strands, a process known as braiding.
This thick, strong rope had a breaking load of over 30 tonnes and would be used for towing. “All the little pieces get twisted together,” explained Chris. “It’s not quite like a Spinning Jenny but a similar principal.”
After braiding, the rope was then pre-stretched in a heating room. A popular place for staff to gather in winter, the small room radiated warmth.
The heat is used to pre-set the rope, increasing the strength and removing the stretch, which makes it easier to work with.
In the final machine room, where the majority of rope is made, we had to shout to make ourselves heard over the noise of hundreds of motors, as spools wove yarns into flecked coils of rope. This they did so quickly, it was almost a blur; like looking into a kaleidoscope.
I filmed the process on my phone, slowing it down so I could watch the patterns emerge. For example, two blue yarns amongst 30 white ones, created subtle flecks, on an almost-white rope, whereas an abundance of red yarns created an altogether brighter version.
There was every colour you could imagine – metallic silver and bronze, greens and blues. But it made perfect sense; with so many different ropes on a yacht, each doing something different, it’s useful to have them colour-coded. English Braids can dye the yarn any custom-colour you like, creating infinite combinations of coloured and flecked rope.
Changing the properties
Chris showed me different types of rope, and encouraged me to touch them. Though they looked similar, they varied in texture from soft and fluffy to hard and coarse.
“Some customers want the surface of the rope to be grippy, whereas others may want it to be more slippery,” he said. “There are three ways we achieve this; either by changing the material, the formation, or the twist level of the outer cover.”
Ropes adhere to two main patterns of weave: K Formation, where each strand goes under one, over one; and R formation, where the strand goes under two and over two, to create a smoother surface.
“You might use K formation on a climbing rope, where you need the ability to grip, whereas R formation would suit the swings in a children’s playpark,” added Chris.
For climbing applications such as hauling or abseiling, nylon ropes are best because you need the stretch in order to handle the shock of a fall. Every rope has to pass stringent tests for shock load and strength, and there are a range of technical covers that can be used to achieve this.
“Dyneema is actually eight times stronger than steel by weight – and floats on water,” said Chris. “If you wanted to reduce friction you’d add this to polyester, whereas an aramid such as Kevlar would give a rope more grip. However, you’ll want a good polyester overbraid to protect it from UV.”
Polyester fits the bill for most purposes; it doesn’t shrink and melts at 260°C, but English Braids can custom make rope for just about anyone.
How to make rope: A step-by-step guide
Stage 1: Twisting
Stage 2: Braiding
Rope making Q&A with Andrew Wilcock and Deighton Ridge of English Braids
I was told by the bosun of a tall ship that there’s only one rope on the ship. Which is it?
The bell rope [laughs]. Though, actually the majority of consumers do just call it rope, or yacht rope. Where we become a bit more technical is when we’re discussing breaking strengths or the variation in diameters, so then you might refer to a 12mm halyard, for example.
Interestingly, you’re in Malvern. Why so far from the sea?
English Braids is quite possibly as landlocked as you can get but we’ve become synonymous with sailing and the commercial shipping industry. The company’s owner actually started out working for a firm making cord for blinds in his early 20s.
When the company took a strategic turn he raised funds to buy the machines and in 1968 formed English Braids. In 1980 he diversified into yachting, and leisure marine then became the bigger part of the business.
The industrial side of the business is growing too. We make commercial moorings for subsea and offshore applications, and are starting to make ropes to anchor floating platforms for offshore windfarms. British manufacturing has always been at the heart of the operation, and proposals to move the business have always been rejected.
What have been the major advances in rope making?
In the 1940s and 1950s manmade fibres replaced natural fibres such as hemp or jute. Though natural fibres look nice, they’re not as strong. Some people still prefer the look of old ropes, so we have a rope called Hemtex which mimics the look and feel of natural fibres but is actually spun polypropylene.
A downside to manmade fibres is their environmental impact. Can this be mitigated?
Discarded or lost rope is a problem in our oceans, especially in the fishing industry. There are companies now creating the technology to recycle manmade rope into other products, but it can’t be recycled into rope fibres to make more rope. It has to be a change of use.
Another option is to make rope from waste plastic bottles. Our R5 rope is made this way. It’s not a golden bullet but turning a bottle into fibres uses less energy than creating the fibres from scratch.
You pay a small premium as it’s more expensive to make, but in terms of performance it’s just as good. We’re looking at ways we can reduce packaging and are also implementing new manufacturing methods to reduce our energy consumption.
Do different ropes have different lifespans?
Yes. Nylon, in particular, suffers from UV damage. Polyester is far more resilient to natural degradation. At English Braids we don’t set out to be the cheapest rope manufacturer, but quality is important. If you work out the number of years divided by the cost of our ropes then you see the value.
For example, you can go to a chandlery and buy a bag of prespliced mooring lines from China at a low cost, but customer feedback on these products isn’t good. You need to look at the weight of polyester per metre. We’re towards the higher end of this ratio, giving a better breaking load and more reliable splice.
What’s the relationship between diameter and strength?
Advances in technology mean ropes have got smaller and stronger over the years, especially in dinghy sailing. This does have implications when it comes to replacing running rigging. Smaller lines may slip in old hardware.
The thicker the diameter, the stronger the line, but if you move to Dyneema lines, you can drop down 2mm in size. What can be done with 10mm braid-on-braid can also be done with 8mm Dyneema if weight reduction is important.
What about stretch?
All of a yacht’s running rigging goes through heat-setting to bind the fibres together and pre-stretching to take as much stretch out of the rope as possible for the user. Docklines, however, need stretch so you leave out that element.
There are different kinds of stretch; initial-use stretch, which happens the first time you use the rope, but the rope will then return to its original state. Creep happens over long time use, and is irreversible.
We have one a rigger in particular who only uses a Dyneema fibre with zero stretch and creep. He likes it because he can guarantee to his customers that it won’t stretch.’
Presumably, you need stretch for towing lines?
Yes, somewhere within the towing line assembly you want some stretch, so you might add a nylon snubber. The rope should be attached to a bridle to distribute the weight between two cleats, whether you’re towing or being towed.
Both the tow line and the bridles need to have good stretch properties to absorb the shock load caused by any sudden wave action. Interestingly, there’s a whole load of legality associated with this. If you have your own tow line and you pass it to someone they are assisting you.
But if you’re stranded, and they throw you their line, they can potentially claim salvage rights in international waters. We do quite a lot of work with superyachts, and from an insurance perspective they’re required to have a towing line specifically for this.
Can you wash ropes?
Yes, but remember chemicals can be abrasive. Only use a natural soap solution.
Which is the right rope for my boat?
A classic polyester three-strand construction rope, which is easy to splice. A popular mooring rope option with a classic look and good performance under load.
- Heat set in production
- Torque balanced
- Hard wearing
- Good all round performance
- High tenacity
Polyester rope designed for sheet and halyard use with good durability. Pre-stretched, non-kinking and flexible, it’s easily spliced and works well with deck hardware.
- Double braid construction
- 12-strand core, 24 plait cover
- Easily spliced
- Superior wear resistance and longevity
- Wide range of colours for easy identification
A more advanced sheet and halyard rope for the cruising sailor. This has a Dyneema fibre core with a hard-wearing polyester cover.
- Smaller diameter can replace polyester rope
- Lower stretch than braid-on-braid
- Reduced weight, typically 11% less than polyester
- Excellent strength and grip
- Reduced water pick up
Thanks to our Project Boat Supporters
Dell Quay Marine, Osculati, Raymarine, Shakespeare Marine, TruDesign, Screwfix, Coleman Marine Insurance, MDL Marinas, Premier Marinas, seajet, Marine & Industrial, Clean to Gleam, Dometic, West System, Farécla, Navigators Marine, Lewmar, RYA, Aqua Marine, Ecobat, Victron Energy, Scanstrut, T Sails and XP Rigging.
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