Cordage Fibers from Woody Stalks: Processing Dogbane

Dobgane is perhaps my favorite natural plant fiber. It grows tall and is available in abundance in the northeast and most other parts of North America. It's easy to extract the fibers from, requiring no special processing or equipment, and it makes exceptionally strong cordage! This is the season for gathering dogbane, and those tall red stalks and long, skinny seed pods are easy to spot, usually growing in large colonies. Dogbane grows along roadsides, in fields, at forest edges and in clear-cuts. Many farmers find it to be a terrible nuisance and will gladly let you cut down as much as you like!
This method is based on one traditionally used by the Paiute people, and anyone who has spent time trying to extract their fiber strands from a giant gnarled mess will definitely appreciate just how great it is, because you can store your fibers for later use, tangle-free!

Cordage fibers can be extracted by many other traditional methods, but I prefer this one due to the ease of storing the fibers for later use in a way that they remain tangle free! 

Step-by-step Instructions on How to Process Dogbane:

  1. Harvest the stalks by cutting them off about an inch above the ground. Do NOT pull the whole plant out, as dogbane regrows from it's existing root stalk. Look for plants that are a deep red color and avoid those that have turned gray. Wait to begin harvesting until the plant has gone to seed. If the seed pods have formed but not yet opened, help spread the seeds from any harvested stalks to help propagate the species before leaving the area.
  2. Dogbane Patch New stalk beside old stalk Leave seeds behind

  3. Trim the branches, or the entire branching top off of each stalk then store your stalks in bundles in a dry place until you are ready to begin processing.
  4. Store in a dry place

  5. With a stone flake, shell or the back of your knife, start about three fingers up from the base of the stalk and LIGHTLY scrape off the outer bark. This outer bark is a very thin layer of dark red. You should see a slight color change as the darker outer bark flakes off. When you see the very fine fibers begin to raise up, STOP! Those are your cordage fibers and you want to keep as many of them intact as possible! If you begin to see a lot of "fuzz", you are breaking your fibers. You don't need to get down to the white, just through the very thin dark red layer to the tan-colored layer underneath.
  6. Scrape down stalk Outter bark removed Raised Fibers

  7. Work a small area of just a few inches at a time. Multiple light scrapes while continually turning the stalk is more effective than continued heavy scraping in a single spot. Be thorough but careful and scrape away as much of the outer bark as possible without disturbing the fibers underneath. Pay very close attention to what you are doing and do not allow your mind to wander.
  8. Remove all outer bark

  9. Continue scraping a few inches at a time until the entire stalk is clean, except for the bottom three inches.
  10. Clean off whole stalk Leave bottom of stalk untouched

  11. Once all the outer bark is scraped off, begin at the end that was the top of the plant and press the stalk between your fingers until it crushes in half. The stalk is hollow, and will usually crush with little effort. (Occasionally you will get a very sturdy stalk that you'll need to step on to get that first break.) Continue all the way down the stalk until you are within 3 fingers of the base. Usually the stalk will brake into quarters, but if it only breaks in halves, return to the top of the stalk, rotate it one quarter turn and crush your way down the stalk again to make quarters. Remember to stop before you get to the bottom! Your intent is to have an unbroken section at the base of your stalk.
  12. Crush stalk in two Break down full length Leave bottom unbroken

  13. Arrange the stalk so the inside section of all four quarters face up, with the inner bark showing. Starting at the top of the plant once again, move down one of the quarters an inch or two, snap the inner bark and carefully peel it away from the fibers, using a rocking motion. Repeat this process all the way down the stalk, until you reach the unbroken section, then return to the top. Repeat this process for each quarter. Be careful and meticulous with this process or you can pull the fibers completely off. 
  14. Have the inner bark showing Snap and pull back inner bark Remove all the inner bark

  15. Once all of the inner bark has been removed from all four quarters (except for those last few inches) you will be left with long and silky dogbane fibers that want to curl. Beginning at the top, hold the fibers between your thumb and forefinger of each hand, leaving about an inch of fibers in between your hands. Press your thumbs together and move them up and down so your thumbs and fingers are rubbing together, "buffing" the fibers in between. Buff small sections of the fibers, carefully working your way down the stalk. This buffing process will separate the fibers and help to remove any stubborn bits of outer bark that may remain.
  16. Fibers want to curl up.Lightly buff the fibers

  17. Twist your buffed fibers into a loose spiral, then wrap the spiral around the unbroken portion of the stalk that you left at the bottom. Continue wrapping until only an inch or two of fibers remain unwrapped.
  18. Twist the fibers loosely.Wrap fibers around stalk Leave small fiber tail

  19. Tuck this "tail" section down into one of the groves that remain from where you originally split the stalk. You can now toss your "bobbin" of dogbane aside in a basket or bowl until needed.
  20. Tuck the tail into a split Pull tail down tight Finished Dogbane bobbin


When you are ready to begin your next cordage project your dogbane fibers will be ready and waiting to be unwrapped and spun up — no untangling required!

Until next time, Harvest some Dogbane
and Have Fun!